Timing of Official Disclosure of India-China Clash at Tawang Raises Questions

An unknown number of Indian and Chinese soldiers were injured in the December 9, 2022 clash.

New Delhi: Reports of last week’s clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh have left several questions unanswered, from the timing of the official revelation  – more than three days after the incident – to the number of military personnel from India and China who reportedly sustained injuries, to the biggest imponderable of them all: Beijing’s motivation in upping the ante.

Military and security analysts say that news of the December 9 early morning clash at Yangtze  – 35km northeast of Tawang adjoining the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) – in which at least six Indian Army (IA) soldiers were seriously injured was ‘deliberately withheld’ and only released when an account of the clash appeared on social media via the acquaintance or relative of an injured jawan, and followed soon thereafter by a story in The Tribune.

Speculation over the motivation for the three-day official silence ranges from government media managers not wanting news of such serious security and headline-grabbing dimensions ‘eclipsing’ the spectacular victory the Bharatiya Janata Party had just registered in the Gujarat state elections, to the government’s traditional tendency to remain mum on border incursions by the Chinese for fear of either appearing weak or being forced by public opinion into reacting more stridently than it might want to.

Policeman’s tweet

Though reporters from at least one national daily had contacted the defence ministry on Sunday itself about the clash only to be issued a flat denial, the first public news of this fracas was tweeted by a trainee police officer in Uttar Pradesh from Jhansi at 1.19 pm on December 12. He tagged, amongst others, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and said that a clash had taken place between Indian and Chinese soldiers, following which there were reports of several soldiers having been killed and injured. The former claim, however, has since been officially denied.

Screenshot of a December 12, 2022 tweet, now deleted, claiming a clash had occurred near Tawang.

The policeman went on to castigate the media for ignoring such a major event, in which he claimed someone close to him too had been injured in the melee in Tawang.

The Wire understands that the soldiers involved in the Friday morning clash did not have network access for more than two days and it is possible one of the injured jawans managed to get word out only on Sunday or Monday .

Just as the policeman’s claim started going viral, he deleted his tweet but not before reporters and politicians began wondering whether indeed something serious had happened near the border. The Tribune‘s Ajay Banerjee broke the story around 6 pm, after which the government appears to have decided an official account needed to be issued. The Indian Army was asked to give defence correspondents a bare bones account of what had happened. Accordingly, at around 8 pm on Monday, MoD sources put out a brief statement.

MoD sources issue statement, defence minister speaks

They declared that in certain portions along the LAC in the Tawang Sector there existed “areas of differing perception, which both sides had patrolled up to their respective claim lines since 2006.” “However, on December 9 PLA troops ‘contacted’ (sic) the LAC in this sector, which  was contested by IA troops in a firm and resolute manner”, the statement said, and the ensuing “face-off led to minor injuries to (a) few personnel from the two armies.”

“Both sides immediately disengaged from the area,” declared the IA statement, adding that as a follow-up to the incident the respective commanders from the area held a flag meeting to ‘discuss the issue in accordance with structured mechanisms to restore peace and tranquillity’.

Elaborating on the Indian Army’s statement, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh later told parliament on Tuesday that the “scuffle (had) led to military personnel from both sides sustaining injuries, but there had been no fatalities or serious casualties to Indian Army soldiers.”

He declined to provide details and went on to add that due to the timely intervention of Indian military commanders, PLA soldiers went back to their locations. Thereafter, as a follow-up to the incident, local commanders held a flag meeting on December 11 to discuss the issue in accordance with established mechanisms. “The Chinese side was asked to refrain from such actions and maintain peace and tranquillity along the border. The issue has also been taken up with the Chinese side through diplomatic channels,” Singh stated.

On its part, the Chinese side has blamed Indian soldiers for the clash: The “PLA was carrying out ‘regular patrol in Dongzhong area’ and was ‘blocked by Indian Army illegally crossing the LAC’, ‘situation stabilised’,” it told reporters in China on Tuesday evening.

China’s moves ‘part of strategy’

“The PLA end game appears to be to extend the points of confrontation and keep the border issue active at a time when the world is engaged in overcoming multiple crisis emanating from the War in Ukraine,” said Brigadier (retd) Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risks consultancy Group in New Delhi.

He said there were at least three areas of differing perceptions in the Tawang sector, where such clashes could well occur. In 1986-87, for instance, there was a major face off in Sumdorung Chu, which was settled after several years of dialogue. Presently, however, the situation was far more difficult to negotiate, especially after the clash had  resulted in injuries to Indian Army soldiers and the issue had featured prominently in parliament, Brig Bhonsle argued.

Furthermore, the PLA’s modus operandi in Tawang appeared to replicate its activities in eastern Ladakh – of increasing its force deployment and infrastructure development and then attempting to stake its ownership claims in disputed areas, Brig Bhonsle stated. But, he warned that the stakes in Arunachal Pradesh were possibly even higher than in Ladakh, as China claimed the entire state of the Indian Union as part of so-called ‘Southern Tibet’.

“The December 9 clash,” the analyst cautioned, “indicates  that the PLAs end-game has shifted its focus to the LACs eastern part”.

A cross-section of veteran and serving Indian Army officers, all of whom had been posted along the LAC, unanimously agreed that China was working to a strategy of violating the LAC at a time and place of its own choosing, both to test the Indian Army’s response and to try and extend its long-stated claim lines into areas India claims as its own.

“The standoff along the LAC is China dominated in a syndrome that has prevailed between the neighbours for decades,” said a former two-star Indian Army officer. He also conceded that in periodic ongoing negotiations between respective military commanders over the ensuing military standoff in Ladakh, India had limited military, economic or technological leverage with Beijing that dominated all these determining parameters.

This was also true of the five LAC-related confidence building measures (CBMs) and assorted rules of engagement (RoEs) which the two sides had earlier agreed between 1993 and 2013. These included the Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) of 2013 and numerous other hyperbolic sounding protocols, like the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement (BPTA), whose collective distillation was largely to keep the LAC tranquil – but essentially at China’s directions.

Agreements ‘worked in China’s favour’

The October 2013 agreement, for instance, in which the BDCA was agreed, reiterated the content of earlier pacts that ‘neither side shall use force against the other side’. Referring to the four previous agreements of 1993, 1996, 2005 and 2012, it went on to reaffirm that neither side shall seek ‘ unilateral superiority’ – which in today’s content would be laughable, if the situation was not so militarily serious.

Paradoxically, the pacts also laid out drills in minutiae to maintain this tranquillity, but left much ambiguity in their wording. In brief, all agreements flaunted customary Chinese bellicosity, to which successive Indian governments acquiesced, a former Indian Army officer said.

In its endeavour to pursue the path of least resistance, a militarily-weak India agreed to the formal declaration of the LAC via the Agreement to Maintain Peace and Tranquility, or BPTA, in 1993. It was firm in the belief that this option augured peace along its northern and eastern borders, which over nearly three decades, has largely been vindicated, till it all but evaporated in May 2020.

Acquiescing to the LAC also foreclosed for India the expensive option – that is being presently executed in Ladakh  – of infrastructurally developing and militarily equipping the inhospitable Himalayan border at heights above 13,000 feet. It also freed up India’s military, particularly its army, to concentrate its resources on the multiple security threats Pakistan presented.

For China, on the other hand, the LAC was little more than a devious, but abiding tactical measure, aimed at lulling India into a false sense of security. Through the LAC it persuaded India, including its military, into concentrating on all aspects of bilateralism like trade, commerce, diplomacy and even defence collaboration, other than on resolving the complex border imbroglio. It also ensured decades of peace for Beijing on its south western borders, a hiatus it gainfully employed to further tighten its hold over Tibet and the Xinjiang region, and to pursue its economic security, technological, commercial and military might and global strategic muscle.

The intervening years between these five aforementioned agreements, resulted in army patrols from either side of the LAC enacting elaborate and farcical pantomimes with flags, fog horns, video cameras and cloth posters, amongst other props. With their weapons sheathed, but on full display, the Indian army and PLA patrols would almost daily exaggerate their respective spectacles, by either shouting, mouthing or even miming warnings to each other against straying onto the wrong side of the un-demarcated boundary. Much additional buffoonery was unquestioningly enacted, said officers involved in such horseplay along the LAC for years, in the illusionary belief that the border would eventually be peacefully delineated.

Physical contact between rival patrolling parties was prohibited, as was their ‘tailing’ one another. Like children playing hide and seek, both armies would frequently resort to cheekily transgressing areas claimed by the other side, absurdly leaving behind empty cigarette packs, biscuit wrappers, soft drink bottles or other gewgaws to indicate their defiance. The underlying axiom in Delhi was that this was a small price to pay for the fact that not a shot had been fired on the LAC for decades.

Progressively, however, such PLA transgressions across the LAC increased in number and intensity from 428 in 2015 to 663 in 2019, with some calculatedly escalating into extended faceoffs with the Indian army. These included standoffs of limited duration at Chumar in south-eastern Ladakh in 2014, Burtse to its north a year later, and the longest 73-day impasse at the Doklam/Dong Lang tri-junction area on the Bhutanese border, in 2017.

India’s recurring response for decades including that of successive army chiefs to most such transgressions, was to inexplicably provide the PLA an alibi for its lapses, by declaring that the infringements were due to the indeterminately defined LAC. And though all three extended impasses mentioned earlier were resolved through diplomatic or local army commander talks or both, military planners in Delhi finally conceded around late 2017 that the steadily proliferating PLA advances across the LAC were merely ‘dress rehearsals’ for something bigger.

Some analysts in Delhi even believed that these were aimed at China effecting its territorial goal that remained incomplete in 1962 in view of the Beijing-backed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This strategically envisages Chinese occupation of the Gilgit-Baltistan region and eventually the Siachen Glacier to fortify Beijing’s hold over the Karakoram region as part of its wider Belt and Road Initiative and New Silk Route to economically dominate the Eurasian region.

The PLA’s final punch in its LAC gambit was delivered in May 2020, which India’s army, security, intelligence and monitoring agencies watched gradually unfold before them on the ground and in imagery provided by satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. Bafflingly, the army did nothing to counter the PLA’s occupation of Indian territory and the prime minister too declared there had been no intrusion – a policy which effectively put paid to the sanctity of the LAC guaranteed by five bilaterally agreed pacts by Beijing and Delhi.

Note: The story was updated at 17:25 to December 13, 2022 to add more details to the timeline