14 November 2018
A file picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A border standoff has led to increased tensions between Asia's biggest powers in recent weeks. Photo: Reuters
A file picture of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping. A border standoff has led to increased tensions between Asia's biggest powers in recent weeks. Photo: Reuters

Tawang crisis just a sideshow amid China-India rivalry

If the lukewarm response from New Delhi to Beijing’s Belt and Road summit in May was a sign that the two countries still have quite a lot of differences, the ongoing military standoff between China and India across their border at the Tawang Tract since June was definitely an indication of the growing rivalry between the two great Asian powers.

“Bad blood” between China and India is, in fact, nothing new. It dates back to the early 1950s when the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and sought asylum in India after an abortive uprising led by him against Beijing. And over the years the Dalai Lama has remained a major bone of contention between the two countries.

What agitates Beijing most is the fact that New Delhi has been harboring the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government-in-exile despite strong and continued protests from China.

While China bears a grudge against India, the perspective is indeed kind of mutual, since India is deeply bothered by a de facto military alliance between China and Pakistan, and remains highly suspicious about China’s strategic intentions.

The current military standoff between the two nations across their border has raised widespread concerns among the international community over whether the situation could eventually escalate into a full-blown military conflict between two nuclear powers. The worries are understandable given that the two nations fought an all-out and bloody border war back in 1962.

The ongoing Sino-Indian military confrontation stemmed from China’s plan to build a railway across the Tawang Tract, an almost uninhabited area lying in the southern tip of Tibet which occupies an area of roughly 100 square kilometers.

The initiative to build a rail line in Tawang has met with strong opposition from Bhutan, as the two countries have territorial dispute over the area. And since the tiny Himalayan kingdom has remained India’s vassal state since 1949, the escalating territorial dispute between Thimphu and Beijing has automatically led to the intervention of India.

Apart from trying to protect its little neighboring protectorate from Beijing’s perceived bullying, India has more profound strategic motives behind its recent military maneuvers in support of Bhutan. Given its unique location, the Tawang Tract has a very high strategic value and India simply can’t afford to allow it to fall into China’s hands.

If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is able to gain foothold in Tawang and take control of the whole area, it would give China the ability to seize the Siliguri Corridor in wartime and cut India’s seven northeastern states from the rest of the country.

However, in the eyes of Beijing, India’s deployment of troops to Tawang represents nothing more than its latest attempt on Chinese territory in the name of mediating territorial dispute between China and Bhutan.

Moreover, China simply regards the Tawang issue as purely a bilateral diplomatic dispute between Thimphu and Beijing, and refuses to recognize any role of New Delhi in the matter. Hence, its outright rejection of holding talks with the Indian government to settle the crisis.

Recently, several PLA generals have vowed that they wouldn’t hesitate for a second to “purge the Tawang Tract of Indian military personnel” once all diplomatic efforts to seek the peaceful resolution of the crisis have failed, which is by far the strongest and most hawkish warning from Beijing regarding the Tawang conflict.

Yet while China has refused to budge an inch over the Tawang dispute, India seems to have softened its stance a little bit. According to the latest Pakistani media reports, the bulk of the Indian troops have already pulled out of Tawang, leaving behind just a small force of some 50 soldiers on a patrolling mission.

The retreat of the Indian army from Tawang is widely interpreted as an olive branch extended by New Delhi to Beijing to seek peaceful resolution of the crisis. After all, what India really wants is not to seize Tawang, but rather, to preserve the status quo of the area so as to maintain the overall strategic balance in the region.

While it remains to be seen how the saga would play out, the Tawang conflict does indicate a harsh fact: as China and India are both trying to gain greater political and economic clout on the global stage, it is inevitable that they will come into increasingly frequent and intense conflict with each other in the days ahead.

Given that, despite being a seemingly touch-and-go situation, the ongoing confrontation in Tawang might actually turn out to be nothing more than a sideshow compared with what could be in store between Beijing and New Delhi in the coming days.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 8

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版

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