“The only mistake in life is the lesson not learned.”
– Albert Einstein.
India learned its lesson well vis-à-vis China’s border misadventures. The recent Yangtze clash in the eastern Tawang sector on December 9, 2022, showed the much-awaited shift in India’s response. The Yangtze region has always been a tinderbox, given its strategic location, which gives one commanding it a tactical edge. Sending its troops to this region has been an annual affair for the PLA. The Chinese intrusion should not be a surprise. This is a clear signal from Beijing that the disputed Sino-Indian border has become central to its relationship with New Delhi. However, this time the Indian response came as a shock to the Chinese little wimps. This time they not only failed miserably but also got a thorough thrashing at the hands of the Indian Army.
MAKING SENSE OF THE YANGTZE STANDOFF
The primary Chinese target in the recent clash was a 17,000-foot peak in the Yangtze region. This peak provides excellent views of the terrain on the Indian side, particularly the road connecting Tawang with the Se La Pass, the main supply line from the plains to the Tawang tract. Controlling this peak means having an eagle’s view of every Indian moment and even cutting its supply line in a state of war. Capturing it has thus always been the PLA’s wet dream of dominating India in the region. But as every coin has two sides, these peaks also offer a clear-cut view of the entire Nagdoh bowl of China. The Nagdoh bowl is the fulcrum of all Chinese deployment, opposite Tawang. It is the permanent location of the PLA battalion and the border defence battalion.
The Strategic Significance Of The Yangtze Peak Attacked By The Chinese Troops
To China’s frustration, this area is controlled by Indian forces, which gives a clear view of Chinese posts across the LAC and their maintenance routes. In the north of the Yangtse plateau, there are Chinese posts located in Cona County, and a few KMs away from LAC, opposite the Yangtse, they have their important military base in Xiaokang. Xiaokang is a logistics base en route to Bhutan, Sikkim, and the Dokalam area, serving their needs; hence, China has to dominate it at any cost. Historically, too, this region played a pivotal role in the Chinese border strategy against India. During the 1962 war, Nagdoh was the starting point of the Chinese offensive. So, as long as Indian forces dominate it, the Chinese movement is paralyzed and will be seen by Indian forces beforehand.
The Overall View of The Yangtze Region
The significance of this intrusion can be judged by the fact that if they had succeeded in capturing this area, they would have had an unrestricted view of more than half of Arunachal Pradesh. So it was a do-or-die situation for China to occupy this land. And this desperation was displayed by their attempt to change the status quo in the Tawang sector.
Xiaokang Military Base of People’s Republic of China
Chumi Gyatse Shrine Near The Yangtze
The second reason behind this failed misadventure is a holy hot spring and a small shrine of Tibetan Kham people on the LAC in the foothills of Yangtse named Chumi gyatse, which is considered sacred by Tibetan Buddhists. So, by capturing the sacred site, China wanted to reaffirm its hold on Tibet. China claims that Tawang has historical ties with Tibet, as the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born in Tawang. Therefore, Arunanchal is a part of Tibet, and like Tibet, Arunanchal should be part of China.
The third reason is the domestic protests against Xi Jinping due to his failed “Zero-Covid” strategy. Today, China is witnessing a devastating COVID outbreak with a record of 37 million positive cases in a single day. This is due to the failure of the Chinese Sinovac vaccine. The sheer number of positive cases is so overwhelming that the Chinese healthcare system completely collapsed. This added fuel to the fire of public rage, which was already suffering due to strict COVID lockdowns. To express their anger and helplessness, people took to the streets and protested against Xi Jinping and his policies. So like every other dictatorial regime trying to divert its citizens, China tried to stir trouble on the LAC. It’s a tried-and-tested strategy for avoiding accountability and diverting public attention away from its own failings.
THE CHANGE IN INDIA’S APPROACH POST-GALWAN
1) INFORMATION WARFARE
The first lesson India learned from the Galwan clash was the importance of information warfare. During the Galwan clash, somehow India lagged behind in presenting its case to the world. Despite giving Chinese soldiers a bloody nose on the battlefield, China took the edge in building its narrative. However, like all Chinese products, its narrative couldn’t last long. But this surely rang alarm bells in the quarters of the south block.
So, learning from the past, this time India gave China a taste of its own medicine. India not only thrashed China on the battlefield but also got ahead of it on the narrative front. Despite its entire propaganda machinery, China lost the war of narratives to India. Soon after the clash, India took hold of the narrative, and a video clip began to surface on the net showing Indian soldiers thrashing PLA black and blue and forcing them to retreat.
Though no one knew where it came from or how old it was, one thing that was clear was that undoubtedly it was released through sources within the army. And this was done to get an edge over China from the start in the information domain. This move hit the bullseye; China was on the back foot and had nothing to counter it, and soon the world saw the valour of the Indian armed forces. The impact of this went far beyond the borders. Soon the clip became the buzz of all news outlets throughout the world, and people began reacting to it. Even the Chinese citizens started making fun of the PLA, sparing no corners to hide their faces for the CCP. Nonetheless, this move conveyed the message loud and clear that you don’t need big numbers to fight China; you just need a big heart.
2) BORDER INFRASTRUCTURE
One of the primary reasons behind China’s Galwan misadventure was to deter India from building its border infrastructure. It came as a shock to China to see India ramping up its roads and bridges along the LAC. So, it tried to deter India through aggression in Galwan. But its action proved to be counterproductive as India doubled down on its infrastructure push post-Galway. Today, India is much better prepared to meet any contingency along the LAC than it was during the pre-Galwan period. In the last five years, India has spent Rs 15,477 crore to build 2,088 kilometers of roads in areas bordering China. Even in the 2022–23 budget, the government increased the capital outlay for the Border Roads Organization (BRO) by 40 percent. After the Galwan incident, the Indian government sanctioned 32 roads and helipads along the China border.
Indian Military Outpost Along The LAC In The Yangtze Region
The same can be said for the military outposts along the LAC. The number of Indian military outposts along the LAC is one of the most noticeable differences between the Pre-Galwan and Pre-Galwan clashes. This was also stated in a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). Satellite images accessed and analysed by the think tank show that India dominates key heights in the Tawang sector. Even the numbers of forward outposts have increased, which helps India push reinforcements more effectively in less time. The report also stated that Indian forces have restored many key roads on its side of the Yangtze plateau in addition to constructing new desert roads. Such a push in infrastructure development was never witnessed by the Chinese, as India has now restricted the PLA’s movement in this area where they had a free pass earlier.
Schematic Map Showing a Hypothetical Push For Frontline Reinforcements
The border infrastructure development, coupled with enhanced vigilance along the LAC, is what made China nervous. This desperation drove China to make a futile attempt to occupy the heights, which were controlled by Indian forces. To further its nefarious intentions, China sent a battalion-size force of approximately 300 soldiers to occupy this area, as opposed to the less than 50 Indian soldiers who were stationed there. Like Galwan, this time too they were armed with clubs, sticks wrapped in barbed wire, monkey gloves, and a mace.
This cowardly act was done in the dead of the night to catch Indian forces by surprise. But, given the vigilance on the Indian side, they got detected at around 3:30 a.m. on December 9, 2022, by the thermal imagers located on the border posts of the Indian Army. The Indian troops were alarmed in time, and reinforcements reached them immediately. Much to the PLA’s surprise, Indian forces caught them off guard and thwarted another Galwan-like incident.
3) ABANDONING THE DEFENSIVE APPROACH
One good thing that came out of the Galwan incident is that it elucidated to our policymakers that one can’t deal with China with a defensive approach. China only respects strength and can only be dealt with with an iron fist. Therefore, India adopted a more aggressive posture in dealing with China. Firstly, India enhanced its military engagement with the west, primarily the US, from participating in Malabar exercises alongside QUAD members to conducting joint military exercises near the Chinese border. Recently, India and the US conducted a joint military exercise, Yudh Abhyas 2022, in Uttarakhand’s Auli. This exercise literally put China on its toes, as it was conducted less than 100 km from the LAC.
Customized weapons for Indian troops
Moreover, India also equipped its troops along the LAC with modern defence hardware. This includes drones, thermal imagery cameras, and newly inducted SIG 716 assault rifles. Also in honour of the 1996 Sino-India agreement not to use guns during a confrontation on the border, India inducted some special weapons. These include electric rods, protective gear, steel clubs with metal thorns on them, etc. These weapons are completely designed and developed by Indian defence companies, which also gives a push to the “Make in India” initiative. India left no stone unturned to send a clear message to Beijing that India can’t be rolled over easily. After decades of appeasing China, we finally stood up to them and told them to back off. But it’s a long road ahead, and we need to buckle up as there are going to be more such incidents in the future.