The Clash at Tawang: Tensions Rise on the China-India Border
Publication: China Brief Volume: 23 Issue: 1
On December 9, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Indian army clashed at Yangtse along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tawang Sector in Arunachal Pradesh resulting in injuries on both sides. Following the incident, the local Indian commander held a flag meeting with his Chinese counterpart on December 11 in order to restore peace. The clash at Tawang marked the first major skirmish between the two armies in the eastern sector since the Galwan Valley clash in the western sector in Eastern Ladakh on June 15, 2020 (China Brief, July 15, 2020).
In reviewing the situation on December 13, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament that “PLA troops tried to transgress the LAC in Yangtse area of Tawang Sector and unilaterally change the status quo. The Chinese attempt was contested by our troops in a firm and resolute manner (Press Information Bureau [PIB], December 13). China responded in two ways. First, PLA Western Theater Command spokesperson Colonel Long Shaohua categorically stated that the PLA was conducting a “routine patrol” on the Chinese side of LAC in the Dongzhang area” and “encountered obstruction from the Indian troops who illegally crossed the LAC.” He stressed that the “Chinese troops made a professional, normative and resolute response, bringing on-site situation under control. Up to now, the Chinese and Indian troops have disengaged” (Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, December 13). Second, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin stated in a press briefing that “[…] China-India border areas are generally stable” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China [FMPRC], December 13).
The PLA’s transgression across the LAC can be understood against the backdrop of two key developments that have occurred in the context of the ongoing border standoff in Eastern Ladakh. The first is the conduct of the 18th iteration of Indo-U.S. joint training exercise “Yudh Abhyas 22” near the LAC at Auli in Uttarakhand (middle sector), which was held from 15 November -December 3 (PIB, December 15). China opposed the joint military exercise claiming that it “violated the spirit of relevant agreements signed by China and India in 1993 and 1996, and does not help build bilateral trust” (FMPRC, November 30, 2022). The second incident in question was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh on November 19 to inaugurate the Donyi Polo Airport in Itanagar (PIB, November 19).
More importantly, the clash happened while the Eastern Ladakh standoff has yet to be resolved. Thus far, the 16 rounds of India-China Corps Commander Level Talks have resulted in disengagements that have led to the creation of “buffer zones” in five areas: PP-14 in Galwan Valley in July 2020; the north and south banks of Pangong Tso in February 2021; PP-17 A in Gogra in August 2021; and PP-15 in Gogra-Hot Springs area in September 2022. A few days after the Yangtse incident, the 17th round of Corps Commander Talks was held On December 20 with the two sides exchanging views “on the resolution of the relevant issues along the LAC in the Western Sector” (China Military Online, December 22). There was notably, however, no mention of Tawang. Hence, it is reasonable to ask: was the clash at Tawang a sign of another “standoff” in the making’ in the eastern sector?
The “McMahon Line”: A Sticking Point?
In the eastern sector, the LAC is disputed in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. With regard to Arunachal Pradesh, Beijing disagrees with New Delhi’s position on acknowledging the “McMahon Line” as the boundary between China and India. The Sumdorong Chu standoff in 1986 was the first military confrontation along the disputed McMahon Line after the 1962 War. In Beijing’s view, the Sino-Indian boundary has never been adequately demarcated; no treaty or agreement has been made between the Chinese Central Government and the government of India. As a result, China rejects the McMahon Line as an “imperialist legacy” that is “illegal” and “unacceptable.” This view was outlined by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in his letter to Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on September 8, 1959:
“The so-called McMahon Line was a product of the British policy of aggression against the Tibet region of China and has never been recognized by any Chinese Central Government and is therefore decidedly illegal. As to the Simla Treaty, it was not formally signed by the representative of the then Chinese Central Government […] Regarding the eastern section of the Sino-Indian boundary, […] the Chinese Government absolutely does not recognize the so-called McMahon Line.” 
However, in 1960, Beijing accepted the McMahon Line as the basis for settling its border dispute with Myanmar. Thus, a discrepancy exists in China’s attitude to the matter. Why then does China refuse to accept the validity of the McMahon Line as the basis of its boundary with India? Here, the watchword is ‘Tawang’. As historian and Tibetologist Claude Arpi argues, should India return Tawang to China (including the monastery), it would be a denial by Delhi that the 1914 Indo-Tibet border agreement and the McMahon Line ever existed (The Diplomat, November 15). Moreover, Tawang also matters as the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso and as an important pilgrimage center for Tibetan Buddhists. Thereby, China’s claim to Arunachal Pradesh is an extension of its claim to Tibet.
What China’s claims as ‘South Tibet’, India administers as ‘Arunachal Pradesh’
In China’s perception “Arunachal Pradesh” is “Zangnan” or “South Tibet.” China’s first claims to “South Tibet” can be traced in Zhou’s letter to Nehru in 1959, wherein in the context of the Simla Treaty, he wrote:
“The Tibet local authorities themselves later also expressed their dissatisfaction with this line [McMahon Line], and, following the independence of India in 1947, cabled Your Excellency [Nehru] asking India to return the territory of the Tibet region of China south of this illegal line. This piece of territory corresponds in size to Chekiang Province of China and is as big as 90,000 square kilometers.” 
China’s initial claims were relegated to the Tawang region, however, since the 1980s, Beijing has claimed all of Arunachal Pradesh as part of its “South Tibet” territory. Such claims can be considered a response by China to Arunachal Pradesh becoming a ‘state of India’ in 1987. Until 1972, the area was known as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) before becoming a Union Territory on January 20, 1972 and being renamed Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2006, the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Yuxi, stated that “in our position, the whole of what you call the state of Arunachal Pradesh is Chinese territory and Tawang (district) is only one place in it and we are claiming all of that – that’s our position” (China Daily, November 14, 2006). At present, China’s official claims over “Arunachal Pradesh” are based on the pretext that “Zangnan” is located in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. Furthermore, Chinese officials have stated repeatedly that the area “has been China’s territory since the ancient times. China’s ethnic minorities such as the Moinba and Tibetan ethnic groups have lived and worked in this area for a long time” (FMPRC, December 31, 2021).
Apart from transgressions by the PLA in the eastern sector, China also asserts its claims by lodging routine protests over Indian leaders and the Dalai Lama’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh. However, New Delhi rejects such rebukes and reiterates that “Arunachal Pradesh is an integral and inalienable part of India” (Hindustan Times, October 13, 2021).
China’s Actions to Reinforce its Claims
In 2017, on the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, Xi Jinping categorically stated: “we [China] will never allow any people, organization or political party to split any part of Chinese territory from the country at any time, in any form” (Xinhuanet, August 1, 2017). Due to this uncompromising attitude, the recent clash at Tawang can also be seen in the context of China’s increasing attempts to revive, legitimize and reinforce its sovereignty claims in general and over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, in particular.
For instance, in 2021, the Chinese Ministry of Aviation standardized the names of 15 locations in Arunachal Pradesh, comprising eight residential settlements, four mountains, two rivers, and one mountain pass (Global Times, December 30, 2021).  This followed China’s first standardization of the names of six Arunachal Pradesh localities in 2017. The 2021 standardization can also be seen as a development precipitated by China’s adoption of its new “Land Border Law.” Article 2 of the law entails taking the requisite measures to ensure the “delimitation and determination of the land boundaries of the People’s Republic of China, the defense, management, and construction of land borders” (The National People’s Congress of the PRC, October 23, 2021).
China is also building “Xiaokang” model villages in Arunachal Pradesh’s Upper Subansiri district- conforming to the Chinese plan of “developing border areas” by “Construction of Villages of Moderate Prosperity”, as mentioned in the 2021 White Paper on Tibet (Xinhuanet, May 21, 2021). According to the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual China Military Power Report, “within disputed territory between the Tibet Autonomous Region and India’s Arunachal Pradesh state in the eastern sector of the LAC,” China has built a 100-home civilian hamlet (located on the banks of the River Tsari Chu, along the disputed border in Upper Subansiri district in Arunachal Pradesh) (U.S. Department of Defense, November 3, 2021). Such practices align with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call to the Tibetan herdsmen to “put down roots in the border area” in order to protect “Chinese territory” (The State Council Information Office, October 30, 2017).
In addition, China has also ramped up the construction of infrastructure capabilities along the LAC’s eastern sector. One of the most impactful projects is the Sichuan-Tibet Railway (STR) connecting Chengdu to Lhasa, which is still under construction (China Daily, March 9, 2022). This is the second railway in the Tibetan autonomous region after the Qinghai-Tibet Railway. According to some Chinese scholars, with STR, “[s]trategically, China’s Tibetan region will have much stronger capabilities in material transportation and logistical supplies”, and that “[i]f a scenario of a crisis happens at China-India border, the railway will provide great convenience for China’s delivery of strategic materials” (Global Times, October 31, 2020). Thereby, by its actions, China has upped the ante against India in Arunachal Pradesh.
The clash at Tawang further indicates that Sino-Indian relations are far from normal. On the contrary, confrontational coexistence is becoming the new reality at the border. Recent efforts by Beijing to legitimize its claims over “Arunachal Pradesh” have only added to tensions. As a result, the risks of another flare-up between China and India at the border, which had been relatively peaceful for a long time despite the lack of resolution, are high.
Amrita Jash is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), India. She was a Pavate Fellow at the Department of POLIS, University of Cambridge. Dr. Jash is the author of The Concept of Active Defence in China’s Military Strategy (2021).
 See “Premier Chou En-lai’s [Zhou En-lai’s] Letter to Prime Minister Nehru”, September 8, 1959, Wilson Center, Digital Archive, pp. 5-8.
 Ibid., pp. 6-7.
 The eight residential places in the second batch are Sêngkêzong and Daglungzong in Cona County of Shannan Prefecture, Mani’gang, Duding and Migpain in Medog County of Nyingchi, Goling, Damba in Zayu County of Nyingchi, and Mêjag in Lhunze County of Shannan Prefecture. The four mountains are Wamo Ri, Dêu Ri, Lhünzhub Ri and Kunmingxingzê Feng. The two rivers are Xênyogmo He and Dulain He, and the mountain pass is named Sê La, in Cona County.