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Zooming into the Tawang border skirmishes

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Tawang Sector

On 9 December 2022, Indian and Chinese troops clashed at the Yangtse Plateau along the India-China border in the strategically important Tawang district. The confrontation was the most serious skirmish between Indian and Chinese troops since Galwan in 2020. The clashes took place on a ridgeline that has visibility over key Indian supply lines.

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.
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This new ASPI work builds on satellite imagery analysis that ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre carried out in September 2021, focused on the Doklam region (‘A 3D deep dive into the India-China border’).

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.
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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).
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China's slow-motion occupation of Bhutan in recent decades, and its 2020 claim over Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary make the region important territory for India.

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.
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Within Tawang, the Yangtse plateau is strategically important for both the Indian and Chinese militaries. With its peak at over 5,700m above sea level, the plateau enables visibility of much of the region. Crucially, India’s control of the ridgeline that makes up the LAC allows it to prevent PLA overwatch of roads leading to the Sela Pass - a critical mountain pass through which the only access in and out of Tawang.

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.
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Tawang has long been a focal point of tensions between India and China over their border dispute and the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Tawang is a district of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, the whole of which is claimed by China as ‘South Tibet’.

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.


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In the 1962 India-China war, Tawang was captured and occupied by Chinese forces for two months before the war ended in a ceasefire and Chinese troops retreated. A significant military standoff near Tawang in 1986-87 prompted India to make Yangtse a stronghold. In the India-Pakistan 1999 war in Kargil, Chinese troops occupied tactical positions in Yangtse before withdrawing.

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.
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The current situation

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India's defences along the plateau consist of a network of six frontline outposts along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

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.
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The six frontline outposts are relatively small, consisting of only a few buildings and often several layers of stone walls blocking off access from the Chinese side of the LAC. These outposts are not designed to be well-defended positions, but to act as border posts marking the extent of Indian control.
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In the past year, the Indian army has resurfaced many roads on the Indian-controlled side of the plateau and has also constructed new dirt tracks.












See these new and resurfaced roads highlighted by scrolling down.
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Although Indian forces occupy a commanding position along the ridgeline, their position is not impregnable, especially in a scenario of open conflict where these current positions may not hold up to a concerted assault.

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.
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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.
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It was the construction of this new road that enabled Chinese troops to surge upwards to Indian positions during the 9 December skirmish.

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.
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Close
Before/after view

Start before/after view
Click in the bottom left to compare the imagery.
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Terrain profile
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.
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Current Clashes

The skirmish that took place between Chinese and Indian troops on 9 December 2022 on the Yangtse plateau stems from this new infrastructure development in the region.

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.
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This intrusion, and subsequent clashes - which the Indian Government claims the Chinese troops provoked - likely served to further normalise the presence of Chinese troops immediately adjacent to the LAC. This is a goal that the PLA appears to be working towards across the border and is part of China’s long-term strategy.

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.
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The Yangtse Plateau has been the site of several previous clashes over the past few years, making it one of the most active hotspots on the LAC. One clash reportedly took place in October 2021, near Outpost #6, where a patrol of Chinese troops approached the outpost’s stone-wall border and were filmed being beaten back with clubs and stones.


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).
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Outlook

Recent developments around Galwan and Pangong-Tso have shown that, where there is the political will, tense situations along the LAC can be de-escalated and disengaged with the involvement of both sides. In these areas, successful redeployment to positions back from the LAC has greatly reduced the risk of conflict.

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.
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Given the volatile history of the plateau, it is difficult for India to respond to this new reality without being seen as escalating the situation. It is also difficult for it to unilaterally de-escalate without strategic concessions that would endanger its positions.

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.
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Credits

Thank you to Danielle Cave for her contributions and work on this project. Thank you to external reviewers Sushant Singh, Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and Arzan Tarapore, Research Scholar at Stanford University's Asia-Pacific Research Center who provided very valuable feedback, and in an incredibly tight timeline, which made this work stronger. Thank you to the many ASPI staff including Justin Bassi, John Coyne, Fergus Hanson, Bec Shrimpton, and David Wroe who provided feedback on all, or parts, of this project prior to publication.

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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