In response to questions posed at the regular press briefing on the scuffle between Chinese and Indian forces in Tawang on December 9, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman replied that “the situation along the China-India border is currently stable.”
However, media reports, commentary and debates on China’s social and digital media platforms reveal more about China’s attitude towards its “unfriendly neighbor”.
On December 9, Chinese and Indian forces clashed on their disputed Himalayan border. It was the most significant incident between nations since violent clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Galwan in June 2020.
In a statement, India’s Defense Ministry said soldiers from both sides sustained minor injuries in the duel in the Tawang sector in India’s northeastern territory of Arunachal Pradesh, a remote, inhospitable region bordering southwest China. According to reports in the Indian press, at least six Indian soldiers were injured. Some Indian media reported that more Chinese soldiers were injured in the scuffle.
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In sharp contrast, China’s foreign ministry did not provide details on the Tawang brawl, but said the situation on the border with India was generally stable. “As far as we understand, the overall China-India border situation is stable,” spokesman Wang Wenbin said, adding that both sides “maintain unhindered dialogue on the border issue through diplomatic and military channels.” Beijing also called on New Delhi to “seriously implement the important consensus reached by both leaders, strictly abide by the spirit of the agreements and understandings signed by both sides, and jointly promote peace and tranquility in the Chinese.” -Indian border region”.
Interestingly, both Indian and Western media reported that Indian and Chinese forces clashed along the disputed border near the Yangtze River Basin in Arunachal Pradesh, which borders the Tibet Autonomous Region. However, Chinese media claim that the concrete scene of the conflict between China and India was in the Dongzhang area. This is the same area, 25 kilometers east of Xiaocun and Bangshankou, where the two sides clashed in October 2021.
It is important to remember that Bangshankou Pass is the demarcation point of actual control between China and India, and it is also the place where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attack was launched to invade Tawang during the War of 1962 to control. According to the Chinese reports describing the recent duel, the demarcation line between the two sides’ actual control towards Cuona-Tawang is still the Bangshankou Pass.
According to Chinese media, Dongzhang is an extremely important frontline area in the fight against Indian incursion into southern Tibet, or Nan Zang as Arunachal Pradesh is known in China. The Dongzhang area refers to the jungle valley area in the south of Langpo Township, or Langpo Xiang in Chinese (also Lampu Township) in Cuona County. The Cuona River – also known as the Langbo or Dongzhang – flows from north to south in Cuona County. It lies on the Alpine Plateau, a windy, cold and dry semi-arid monsoon climate zone at the northern foot of the Himalayas. Along the river valley and winding mountain road down to Langpo township, it enters the humid, warm and rainy subtropical, mountainous, semi-humid and humid climate zone at the southern foot of the Himalayas.
In addition, the Dongzhang Waterfall is a highly reputed sacred site and is believed to be the place where the Tibetan Buddhist master Padmasambhava practiced. Dongzhang is at the narrowest part of the river; you can actually cross it on foot during the dry season.
India occupies land near Dongzhang Waterfall
Chinese reports claim that in the past there was a wooden bridge over the river and Chinese and Tibetans could cross the river to receive holy water under the waterfall. In 2001, however, the wooden bridge was lost. Indian troops then established a sentry post south of the Dongzhang Waterfall. According to a long article by Tang Banhu on a Chinese online news website, the Indian Army there consists of a platoon of the 19th Battalion of Jammu and Kashmir Rifles under the 40th Mountain Brigade.
After the Indian post was established, Chinese troops’ movements were restricted at the foot of the Dongzhang Waterfall Viewpoint, which is at an altitude of about 3,550 meters. Further up the mountain, at an elevation of about 15,000 feet (4,300 meters), is the 1.3 square kilometer Dogoer Grassland, currently occupied by Native Americans. Originally a summer pasture for the local Tibetan herdsmen, the grassland has a gentle slope and grazing is plentiful.
According to Tang Banhu’s article, the Indian Army first entered the area in 1968. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army began regular patrols in 1988, bringing local herdsmen to the area to graze—their purpose was to declare Chinese sovereignty through joint grazing and patrols. As of July 6, 1999, the joint Chinese grazing team consisted of 33 people, including 13 herdsmen and 20 patrolling border guards. They brought 60 animals to the Dogo meadow to graze. However, the following day they were intercepted by the Indian Army as they entered the eastern end of the Maila Pass.
Blockaded by the Indian Army and unable to advance any further, the shepherds from Langbo County had only to graze along with the PLA soldiers at the Maila Pass. The next day, the Chinese group was surrounded by 46 Indian soldiers, who searched the Chinese tents. The Indian side also set up five tents and built fortifications. Meanwhile, more PLA border guards arrived at the scene and suddenly the situation became very serious. The situation eventually took an ugly turn and both sides got into a confrontation. This led to a duel that lasted 82 days.
Why the December 9 conflict in Dongzhang?
According to Chinese media reports, the clash between the PLA and the Indian Army in the Dongzhang region on December 9, 2022 is just a resumption of what happened in September/October last year. Just like in 2021, this time the PLA team consisted of about 250-300 soldiers – a larger number compared to 200 people in 2021 – who went to the front line of the Dogoer Grassland Mountain Pass to demolish illegal buildings. Unexpectedly, this time the PLA was confronted by a large Indian patrol team of 400 soldiers. Both sides got into a scuffle in which six Indian soldiers were seriously injured and taken to a hospital in Guwahati.
A quick look at the various Chinese media reports reveals three specific but mutually exclusive explanations for the Dongzhang conflict on December 9th. First, some Chinese strategic affairs analysts have been attempting to piece together various neighborhood conflicts or controversies involving China in the Western Pacific, Southeast Asia, and South Asia with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected visit to China sometime early next year. These experts say that the recent joint Indian-US military exercise near the LAC, the joint Philippine-US military exercise and the Tawang border clash with India aim to create an atmosphere in which China and the USA besieged from all sides will have the upper hand during the Blinken visit. As tensions between China and India escalate along the LAC, Chinese analysts predict there will be more friction between China and Australia, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan.
Second, Chinese analysts say that with India’s increasing expansion of infrastructure construction along the border with China, Beijing is being forced to take the initiative to dismantle Indian fortifications. For example, the main reason why China lost the Dongzhang Waterfall to India in 2001 was the lack of roads. China did not have a single outpost or base in the region. Now China has not only established an impressive border defense system, but also built a vast network of highways and transport networks.
Third, India’s expansion of logistics and transportation capacity along the LAC in recent years, particularly at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, is perceived in Beijing as a growing threat. For example, at the Xishankou Pass, which the Chinese refer to as the “throat” of Indian-occupied Tawang, is the two-lane Sela Tunnel being built at 3,000 meters by the Indian Army Border Roads Organization (BRO), which has been labeled in Beijing as a “threat.” ‘ for the newly built border villages in the Dongzhang area. Chinese media reports make it absolutely clear that Beijing is determined to carry out more such “initiatives” aimed at dismantling and even destroying Indian infrastructure and logistics in the region.
Although the various Chinese media reports sometimes contradict each other, they should leave no one in India in doubt: Despite China blaming the Indian side for warfare and provocation, Beijing is determined to accelerate the frequency of border disputes, including conflicts and skirmishes, in particular along the LAC in the eastern sector. In addition, as demonstrated in December’s Tawang clashes, China will continue to seek larger and more sustained “attacks.” For example, part of the Chinese media highlighted the recent clashes in Tawang involving in excess of 1,000 soldiers from both sides, stating that the number of Indian troops involved in the clash was as many as 600.
By blaming India for initiating the border conflict around this time of year – a historically rare occurrence in winter – China has once again demonstrated “deceptive diplomacy” as it launched one of the biggest attacks along the LAC in recent years. No wonder the Chinese side made no attempt to hide that they were not surprised by the Tawang incident. Consider, for example, the observation of a well-known Chinese specialist on relations with India, Professor Lin Minwang, who said in a statement on Monday: “In a way, it was not surprising that both sides clashed in the eastern part of the border.”