January 2023

China’s Achilles heel

In light of the recent clash in Tawang,  Yvonne Gill examines the ongoing tensions over border issues, and the future of Tibet, that inform Sino-Indian relations

Insidious and dubious have been the ways of unending Chinese manoeuvres since the late MaoZedong ordered the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to attack India in 1962. Stung by this Chinese debauchery, as its leaders had till then been singing paeans to India-China brotherhood (Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai), a resilient India quickly overcame the humiliating defeat and has since resolutely stood against its northern neighbour.

The two countries share a sprawling 3,488 km-long de facto border – known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC) – manned and patrolled by Indian and Chinese soldiers on their respective sides. The border has remained unsettled because the Chinese have refused to vacate nearly 38,000 sq. km of Indian territory in Ladakh which they occupied in 1962.

Instead of resolving the issues, China has kept its belligerence alive across the inhospitable stretches of the Indo-China border. The latest such instance is the December 9 Chinese incursion at Yangtse in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector, which resulted in the Chinese actually being pushed back physically by the Indian army. 

Among the worst border incidents since 1967 was the 2020 Galwan Valley clash.Twenty Indian and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers were killed when the PLA attacked an Indian campsite. In view of a 1996 agreement, soldiers on both sides are prohibited from using firearms or explosives on the border. Hence the Chinese used clubs wrapped with barbed wire and metal rods to attack the Indians. Despite being outnumbered, the Indian soldiers gallantly fought back, killing and wounding many of the PLA soldiers.

Ironically, the attack in Yangtse came close on the heels of the disengagement between Indian and Chinese troops in the Gogra Hotspring area of Eastern Ladakh, after over 16 rounds of commander-level talks, which began following the fateful Galwan Valley confrontation.

It happened in the wee hours of December 9. Taking advantage of thick cloud cover, more than 200 PLA soldiers armed with monkey fists, taser guns and spiked clubs crossed a mountainous stream in the heavily forested Tawang heights, near a point called Yangtse in Eastern Tawang. Normally, Indian and Chinese troops remain on either side of the stream and donot cross over.

It is likely the Chinese believed the Indian post had 40 or 50 men, whom they would easily overwhelm. But the Indian soldiers formed a human chain and gave the aggressors a tough fight. Soon after,a second layer of Indian defence came to the rescue of their beleaguered colleagues.  Taken a back, the Chinese reportedly started pelting them with stones, then retreated after a street brawl-like confrontation. Both sides suffered casualties. Later, the local commanders met to disengage and deescalate the situation.

December 9 border clash following Chinese incursion at Yangtse1
CLASH OF THE TITANS: Dec. 9 saw a Chinese incursion at Yangtsein Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector

Yangtse is asore point for the Chinese and one of the 25 contested areas between the two countries. Although India had claims over it, Yangtse was under Chinese control until 1987, when, in response to the PLA’s intrusion in Sumdorong Chu, India captured Yangtse. Indians have a big advantage in this area because they control the heights. The Indian post there is at a height of about 17,000 ft. Tawang as such is a strategically important sector.In fact, the PLA had invaded north-east India in 1962 through the Bum La Pass situated between the Cona Couty of Tibet and the Tawang district of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.

In June 2016, too, some 250 PLA soldiers crossed over to the Indian side, but no clashes took place.‘Intrusions from the Chinese side have been happening all the time,’ says Tibet’s Prime Minister in Exile Penpa Tsering, adding that such intrusions have occurred on many other parts of the border, some of which are reported, some not reported, some consequential, others not so consequential.

India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has made it clear that ‘unless there is peace and tranquillity in the border areas… unless there is an observance of agreements and no unilateral attempt to change the status quo… the situation cannot be, and is not, normal’.

China has kept its belligerence alive across the inhospitable stretches of the Indo-China border

Over the years, China has built up a strong infrastructure and now has reliable supply lines to the forward areas where the troops face extreme weather conditions. In the last decade or so, India has been catching up, building a network of all-weather roads, bridges and tunnels. India has also taken steps to modernise and strengthen its armed forces by inducting state-of-the-artweapon systems and bolstering its defence industry in order to achieve self-reliance in high-tech areas. An important milestone was the commissioning of indigenously-built aircraft carrier INS Vikrantby Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September last year. In October, the Light Combat Helicopter,Prachand, designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), was inducted into the Indian Air Force. Earlier, in May, the Indian Naval Air Squadron (INAS) 325 began operating the indigenously-built Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) Mk-III. The induction ceremony was presided over by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, who also launched two warships of the Indian Navy – Surat and Udaygiri – at Mazagon Docks in Mumbai.Surat is a next generation stealth guided missile destroyer, while Udaygiri is a Shivalik Class stealth frigate.

The country’s first private sector aircraft manufacturing facility is coming up at Vadodara in Gujarat. Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone of the unit, which will manufacture C-295 aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Tata Advanced Systems Limited will be manufacturing the plane in collaboration withAirbus Defence and Space S.A., Spain.

Meanwhile, Indian defence exports have shown a growth of 334 per cent in the last five years, touching a high of $1.63 billion. The nation exports defence equipment to over 75 countries, and it also has orders for BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles. The Indo-US strategic partnership got another boost when the US Navy Ship Charles Drew visited L&T’s Shipyard at Kattupalli, Chennai, for repairs and maintenance services last August. India also conducts annual military exercises with the US on land and sea. A fortnight-long Indo-US Army exercise Yudh Abhyas-22 was held on the heights of Auli in Uttarakhand from November 17 to December 2.

‘Intrusions from the Chinese side have been happening all the time,’ says Tibet's Prime Minister in Exile Penpa Tsering

Softpower is another area in which India excels. A whole range of newly-developed Artificial Intelligence (AI) products/technologies were showcased during the first ever ‘AI in Defence’ symposium and exhibition organised by the Ministry of Defence in New Delhi on July 11. These include AI Platform Automation; Autonomous/Unmanned/Robotics systems; Block Chain-based Automation; Command, Control, Communication, Computer & Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance; Cyber Security; Human Behavioural Analysis; Intelligent Monitoring Systems; Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems; Logistics and Supply Chain Management, Operational Data Analytics; Manufacturing and Maintenance; Simulators/Test Equipment and speech/voice analysis using Natural Language Processing.

Both India and China, Asian giants who are also nuclear powers, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. China knows well that any attempt to invade India would be a big misadventure. India has no interest in the inhospitable Chinese terrain that forms the India-Tibet border. Why, then, has China been playing its dubious border games, knowing well that one of these might escalate out of control?

Beijing’s problem is not India but Tibet. Long years of occupation has only hardened the Tibetan attitude towards the Chinese, who continue to treat them as subjects and second-class citizens. Unlike India, Tibet is sparsely populated, with most of its population living in the central areas. This makes it difficult for the Chinese to maintain their supply lines on the far-off borders. India, on the other hand, has a vast population, often close to the borders.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh launching two warships of the Indian Navy, Surat and Udaygiri
Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh launched two warships of the Indian Navy, Surat and Udaygiri, at Mumbai’s Mazagon Docks in May 2022

Leaders of the Communist Party of China, from Mao to Xi Jinping, have always wanted to build a Great Wall, literally, on the Indo-China border to ensure that India does not come to Tibet’s aid in the event of an uprising. They want to insulate Tibet from the rest of the world, and India is the only potential conduit to send help to any rebellion against CPC rule that might build up in future. The Chinese are not worried about India, but they are concerned about something going seriously wrong in Tibet.

Additionally, they want to drain India economically by forcing it to continue heavy deployment on a border running into thousands of kilometres. But by doing so,they have only helped India to become much stronger and more self-reliant, as well as steering it to develop powerful alliances with world powers in the Indo-Pacific. A wiser move for Beijing would surely have been to look after the Tibetans, giving them autonomy to run their affairs and respecting their traditions. All three, India, Tibet and China, could then have lived in peace.

Yvonne Gill is a freelance journalist based in London