The latest flashpoint on the India-China borderZooming into the Tawang border skirmishesby Nathan Ruser and Baani Grewal
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s latest visual project provides satellite imagery analysis of the key areas (including 3D models) and geolocates military, infrastructure and transport positions to show new developments over the last 12 months.
Our analysis reveals that rapid infrastructure development along the border in this region means the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) can now access key locations on the Yangtse Plateau more easily than it could have just one year ago. While India maintains control of the commanding position on the plateau's high ground, China has compensated for this disadvantage by building new military and transport infrastructure that allows it to get troops quickly into the area.
The latest analysis aims to contextualise India-China border tensions by examining the terrain in which this clash took place, and provides analysis of developments that threaten the status quo along the border - a major flashpoint in the region.
The India-China border continues to become more crowded as infrastructure is built and large numbers of Indian and Chinese outposts compete for strategic, operational and tactical advantage. This increases the risk of escalation and potential military conflict stemming from incidental or deliberate encounters between Indian and Chinese troops. These ongoing tensions, and clashes, deserve more attention from regional governments, global policymakers and international organisations.
Tawang is strategically important Indian territory wedged between China and Bhutan. The region’s border with China is a part of the de-facto but unsettled India-China border, known as the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Tawang sits roughly between the disputed areas of Pasamlung and Sakteng. The Tawang district is an important point for India's ongoing efforts to monitor China's evolving occupation of Bhutanese territory, and sits as a historically significant site that both India and China consider important.
The Yangtse Plateau
India is also constructing an all-weather tunnel through the pass, due to be completed in 2023. However, all traffic in and out of the region along the road will still be visible from the Yangtse plateau.
History of the region
Tawang is a key point connecting Tibet with northeast India. It was through north Tawang that the Dalai Lama entered India and was subsequently granted asylum in 1959. Tawang houses many Tibetan refugees who fled Tibet following Chinese occupation. The region has strong importance to Buddhism; it is home to the Tawang Monastery, the largest in India and one of the largest in the world, and the Gyatse ‘Holy’ Waterfalls, a Buddhist sacred site.
From 1988, both sides sought to manage the border dispute and avoid escalation through a series of border agreements and confidence-building measures.
The breakdown of these mechanisms since 2020 and an infrastructure race has heightened risks in and potential for conflict at the India-China border.
The current situation
Indian positions on the plateau
These outposts are supplied by a forward base which is about 1.5km from the LAC and which appears to be approximately battalion-sized. In addition to this forward base, there are more significant basings of the Indian Armed Forces (IAF) in valleys below the plateau which are connected to the plateau by steep, dirt tracks.
See these new and resurfaced roads highlighted by scrolling down.
The access roads leading from the larger Indian bases are extremely steep dirt tracks.
Satellite imagery shows that these roads are already suffering from erosion and landslides due to their steep grade, environmental conditions and relatively poor construction, and in open conflict, attacks on these dirt tracks would easily leave frontline positions cut off from resupply.
Chinese positions on the plateau
While China’s positions are lower on the plateau, it has invested more heavily than the Indian military in infrastructure and building new roads over the past year.
Over that period, China has upgraded several key access roads and constructed a sealed road leading from Tangwu New Village to within 150m of the LAC ridgeline, enhancing their ability to send troops directly to the LAC. There is also currently a small PLA camp at the end of this road.
Strategically, China has compensated for its tactical disadvantage with the ability to deploy land forces rapidly into the area. In small skirmishes such as the recent clashes on 9 December, the PLA remains at a disadvantage because more Indian troops are situated on the commanding ridgeline that makes up the LAC. But in a more significant conflict, the durable transport infrastructure and the associated surge capability that the PLA has developed could prove decisive, especially in contrast to the less reliable access roads that Indian troops would be required to use.
Continue scrolling to see the new and upgraded roads highlighted.
Autumn 2021 vs Autumn 2022.
China's investment in supply infrastructure means it is able to base more troops than India on the Yangtse plateau at Tangwu New Village - where significant construction has taken place over the past year. In comparison, India has only one forward base on the plateau, with its larger bases in the valley below.
However, it is important to note that India currently has a more comprehensive network of outposts along the LAC.
The Recent Skirmish
A large number of Chinese troops (some reports suggest over 300) surged up the newly constructed road from Tangwu new village towards the LAC and to India's #1 and #2 frontline outposts.
Satellite imagery from 14 December - five days after the skirmishes - still shows trodden tracks leading from the road terminus towards Outposts #1 and #2.
By engaging in such an intrusion, the PLA is able to strategically position any 'retreat' to a higher location on the plateau. For example, part of the retreat after the 9 December skirmishes was to a small camp at the road terminus roughly 150m from the LAC, which enables China to message such a retreat as a concession or de-escalation rather than an escalatory step or one that changes the status quo.
There is no evidence to support the claims that this intrusion aimed to capture Indian outposts and territory, despite some media reports.
Footage of this incident provides a useful snapshot to understand the circumstances surrounding the recent skirmish, and insight into how escalation is presently managed along the LAC (for example frontline troops in this situation were not armed with firearms). This incident was reportedly similar to what occurred on 9 December, but involved a larger number of troops, and it occurred on less steep terrain (which was the fatal element in the 2020 Galwan clashes).
Unfortunately, on the Yangtse plateau, the opposite trend is taking place. The recent provocative moves by Chinese troops to test the readiness of border outposts and erode the status quo have set a dangerous precedent.
The deaths of Indian and Chinese soldiers in a violent clash in 2020 led to a breakdown of trust in the India-China relationship and the end of over 30 years of border agreements and confidence-building measures. The December 9th clash is a reminder of the threat of escalation still present at the India-China border.
China's rapid infrastructure development along the border has created an escalation trap for India. India's response has been to increase its vigilance and readiness along the border, including surveillance. However, it is important to pursue non-military and multilateral measures in parallel to reduce the risk of accidental escalation and to position these incidents as a significant threat to peace and order in the Indo-Pacific. As part of this, India should seek and receive international community support to call out China's provocative behaviour on the border - like what occurred on 9 December at the Yangtse Plateau.
Regional governments must pay greater attention to clashes on the India-China border. Continued escalation, including the potential of more serious clashes along the LAC, could become a major driver for broader tensions.
We also want to acknowledge Planet Labs for providing invaluable satellite imagery for this project. Other imagery is from Maxar/Airbus via Google Earth and Copernicus/ESA.
No specific funding was received for this project.
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