“At 14,000 feet above the sea, the presence of a certain mystery can be felt, like having stepped into heaven…” is how a “In Search of Greener Pastures” – a touristy blog run by two enterprising Indians, describes Sela, the pass that eventually leads the traveller to the Tawang Monastery.
Sitting atop a 10,000 foot mountain, the Galden Namgey Lhatse Monastery (Celestial Paradise in a Clear Night) is exactly that – serene and sublime. According to another legend Tawang also means Chosen by Horse.
But there is a rude reality to this Shangri-La, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and coveted by China might be destroyed one day. This is how this might happen.
Two countries with the largest populations, two of the largest armies, armed with nuclear weapons and missiles and having two of the fastest growing economies in the world, face each other across an undemarcated border that extends 4,057 km across the Himalayas.
Burgeoning trade and tranquility on the border without a political settlement will prevent the full realisation of a relationship. This has something that has bedeviled the China-India relationship for the past 50 years.
At the heart of the problem lies the issue of Tibet or Xi Zang, which is the Chinese name for Tibet meaning “Western Treasure House”, literally and figuratively.
It is estimated that Tibet holds 40 percent of China’s mineral resources that include coal, iron, cobalt, copper, gold, lithium and probably one of world’s largest deposits of uranium.
Added to this is the fact that ten of Asia’s largest rivers including the Brahmaputra, Ganga, Indus, Yellow, Yangtze, Irrawaddy, Salween and the Mekong.
Eleven countries in South Asia and South East Asia including China and India are dependent on the river water flows from these rivers. The Tibetan Plateau thus becomes a vital source not only for water for China, but also gives that country a potential leverage of controlling or diverting the water from these rivers.
There have been reports of Chinese studies to divert waters from the south to the arid north and of harnessing the Brahmaputra. Water thus becomes a threat multiplier and assumes geo-strategic dimensions. There being no international law to ensure rights of downstream riparians, diversion of the Tibetan origin waters would directly impinge on all downstream nations, including India. This becomes all the more relevant in the India-China situation where the boundary is disputed, and China now claims Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet as part of its unfinished agenda of liberation of Tibet.
The other issue in the India-China relations is the status of Tibet and the role of the Dalai Lama. Over the years, the Indian position on the status of Tibet has altered.
Till the take over of China by Mao’s CCP in 1949, India considered Tibet to be “an independent country.”
Chinese regimes were too involved saving themselves and Imperial Britain too strong to allow a serious Chinese protest against this definition.
We accepted Chinese “suzerainty” till 1954, and then, till 1988 we accepted Chinese “sovereignty” over Tibet. During Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in 1988, we described “Tibet as an autonomous region of China.”
The final definition came during Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpeyee’s visit in 2003 when we recognised “Tibet as part of China.”
Despite this dilution of the Tibet card that India might have had, the Chinese paranoia about the Dalai Lama has not abated. His Holiness is routinely described as an Indian puppet, and the Chinese have frequently demanded that India shut down “the Dalai shop.”
Increasingly, China sees the continued Western support for Dalai Lama and India’s closer relationship with the U.S. as a possible threat to it in Tibet. The Chinese have consistently seen duplicity in the Indian stand of stating their position on Tibet and continuing to give shelter to the “splittist” clique of the Dalai Lama.
Chinese belligerence in and about Arunachal Pradesh and even on Kashmir in recent years is partially explained by this fear. Beijing is convinced that the March 2008 uprising in Tibet when there was a worldwide campaign was the result of a conspiracy between the Dalai Lama, India and some Western countries. There were several ‘admonitions’ delivered to India in 2008 , urging India “not be evil” and several Chinese think-tanks carried assessments that were in reality a reflection of Beijing’s anger at the events in Tibet.
In October 2009, there were statements from the Chinese Communist Pay that India was colluding with the Dalai Lama to split China. There have been increasing references in Chinese writings, including those of the PLA, of the need to recover the resource rich lands of “Southern Tibet” from the illegal possession of India and that the magnanimity of 1962 should be rectified and mistakes of the past should not be repeated.
The ideal solution would be recovery of the entire area, Chinese authoritative journals like Wen Wei Po argued, but a compromise was possible except that China must have Tawang.
It is in two contexts that the Tawang Monastery in the western most district of Arunachal Pradesh becomes most important. The monastery lies South of the McMahon Line that China does not accept and is in not willing to concede this to India, claiming that the monastery has historical and traditional significance to Tibetans as the sixth Dalai Lama was born there.
For India there is a strategic relevance also. Tawang has another symbolic significance to the Chinese because this is where the Dalai Lama paused for ten days when he fled from Lhasa in March 1959.
The Se La (Pass) in the south of the district leads to Bomdi La further south and then unimpeded to the Assam Plains. Both the passes have to be defended for the safety of North East India. Extending this further, as any military strategist might want to, access to this could also threaten the Siliguri Corridor. India’s defence preparedness would be the result of any war-gaming that would have been done in South Block starting from the worst case scenario.
It is well known that over the years China has strengthened its logistic and military capability in Tibet which puts it at a much better advantage over India considering that it enjoys terrain advantage to begin with.
PLA forces can reach the border in much less time and much less effort that ours can because they are already on a plateau whereas Indian forces have to work uphill. The Qinghai-Lhasa rail network is a quantum jump in China’s capability to deploy troops and equipment.
There are all weather roads parallel to the Himalayas in Tibet with laterals leading to the border. In all it has a 58,000 km network in the region. There are five functioning air bases in the Tibetan plateau at Gongar, Hoping, Pangta, Linchi and Gar Gunsa and a missile base in Qinghai with most North Indian cities within range.
The PLA has conducted Rapid Deployment exercises into Tibet, day and night air force exercises with its Sukhoi 27UKB and Sukhoi 30MKK aircraft. China now has the capability of moving 30 PLA divisions to the LAC within a month which could heavily outnumber Indian deployments.
There has been an Indian response to this upgradation, but it has just begun and some of it is still in the planning/implementation stage. Two squadrons of Sukhoi 30MKI have been located at Tezpur. We plan to deploy six C-130J Super Hercules for a strategic airlift in the eastern sector as also plans to deploy Akash and Brahmos missiles. There are plans to raise a mountain strike corps in the eastern sector after raising two mountain divisions. There are plans to build 72 tactical roads in the north east and have operationalised three air bases in the Ladakh region.
The point is that all this is still mainly on the anvil, or at the drawing board stage. Even the IRBM Agni-V will take a couple of years at least before it becomes operational. The IAF would have the advantage of being able to carry heavy payloads from lower altitudes as compared to PLA Air Force, but our ground troops will be at a disadvantage compared to the PLA ground forces who will have fewer terrain problems like our troops would.
What might actually happen on the border will be dependent on a number of factors. The Chinese perception of Indian intentions, internal situation in China and the very real possibility at a future date of a power struggle with the PLA, Chinese perceptions about the external situation.
Should China see that India is not willing to yield and assume that in the time ahead, India will gain strength militarily and economically and that the relationship with the US continues to grow, the Tibetan issue gets worse, it may wish to try a limited border war sooner than later.
Any worst case scenario would also have to take into account of Pakistan and China acting in tandem and leaving India in a two front situation simultaneously.
India will have to keep in mind the growing Chinese military capabilities and assess closely its intentions.
Considering that in recent years coercive diplomacy with India has centred around Arunachal Pradesh, and that their war rhetoric in some of their journals and think tanks has escalated, Indian strategists would need to watch the Chinese leadership’s pronouncements and actions and that country’s internal compulsions closely.
It is possible that China may want to plan a short and swift action of the Kargil type, except that the world would largely sit back in frozen horror, unable to intercede.
This makes Tawang the most vulnerable spot in the North East. Its capture by the PLA in a short bloody conflict with no intention of reverting to original positions would have a dramatic impact on India, damaging India’s image as a prospective alternative to China, send the other neighbouring countries scurrying to Beijing for favours and establishing what China wants to convey – that India is no match, no rival, no alternative to China.
In this context, the recent findings of the Defence Standing Committee on India’s manpower and defence equipment shortages are not very comforting.