The South Asia Channel

Meet the Tiny Himalayan Town at the Center of Global Politics

The journey to Tawang is harrowing. Travel to the Himalayan border town, located at the western extreme of India’s Arunachal Pradesh, involves a jarring, 18-hour road journey from Guwahati, Assam. "Why are there no guardrails?" I ask, as our jeep climbs a narrow gravel zigzag road up 10,000 ft. of Himalayan mountain. "The landslides wash ...

Jeff Smith/Author Photo
Jeff Smith/Author Photo

The journey to Tawang is harrowing. Travel to the Himalayan border town, located at the western extreme of India’s Arunachal Pradesh, involves a jarring, 18-hour road journey from Guwahati, Assam. "Why are there no guardrails?" I ask, as our jeep climbs a narrow gravel zigzag road up 10,000 ft. of Himalayan mountain. "The landslides wash them away so often we stopped using them," the driver replies.

The brutality of the drive is matched by the beauty of the surroundings, a scenic tour of quaint Monpa villages, frozen lakes, and roads that ascend into the clouds. Indian military bases are ubiquitous, scattered among green valleys and forests of snow-covered pines. The town of Tawang itself is sluggish, with most activity halting at sunset. The Tawang Monastery and the memorial for the 1962 China-India border war frame the landscape.

In searching for the next possible flashpoint in the China-India relationship, this sleepy Buddhist enclave would seem an unlikely candidate. But Tawang may well represent the greatest obstacle to a settlement for the world’s longest disputed border, and a recurring source of friction in China-India relations in coming years. For Tawang’s rustic charm belies a town with outsized religious and geopolitical value.

The great irony of the China-India border dispute is the vast majority of the over 100,000 square kilometers under dispute is desolate terrain lacking in resources, population, infrastructure, or much strategic value. Not so with the Tawang district, whose 50,000 people are positioned astride an old trade route that represents one of the shortest and least hazardous paths from the Tibetan plateau to India’s northeast. This quickly became evident during the 1962 border war, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) seized Tawang in less than four days, providing China an ideal staging ground to push further south.

Many Indian strategists believe that if China and India are drawn to conflict in the 21st century, it is likely to take the form of another limited war at the border, with the PLA possibly opting for a swift campaign to seize Tawang. For India, Tawang thus represents a firewall between the PLA and the foothills to the south. For China, however, the town’s tactical value may be overshadowed by its significance to Tibetan Buddhism.

The Tawang Monastery is the largest Buddhist monastery in India and, outside of Tibet, one of the largest in the world. According to legend, in 1681 the fifth Dalai Lama dispatched an emissary to locate a site for a new monastery. Sidetracked from his journey, the emissary was tracking the hoofmarks of his stray horse when he stumbled upon the site of an ancient palace. The grounds were selected for the new Tawang (literally "chosen by horse") Monastery. The fifth Dalai Lama died the following year, but in 1697 his reincarnation was found in Tawang, in what remains only the second time a Dalai Lama was born outside the confines of Tibet proper.

Over two centuries later, Tawang became the first Indian town in which the current Dalai Lama took refuge on his 15-day journey into permanent exile from China in 1959. Though he later went on to establish the Tibetan Government in Exile some 1,500 kilometers away in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama has returned to Tawang a half-dozen times to great fanfare, and the town retains an influential place in the Buddhist religious establishment and the minds of Tibetan Buddhists.  

Whose Tawang is it?

When the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of India were conceived in the late 1940s, they inherited a 3,488-kilometer Himalayan border that had never been defined in large stretches. Tawang was positioned in one of these nebulous buffer zones, largely autonomous in governance but paying tribute to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Tibet had declared independence from China several decades earlier, in 1911, when the last great Chinese dynasty, the Qing, collapsed on itself. Officials from the British Raj seized that opportunity to negotiate a new Indo-Tibetan border north of Tawang that would incorporate the town into India. They achieved their goal with the 1914 Simla Accord, but China immediately deemed the new border, the McMahon Line, invalid, and in practice the British Raj made no effort to extend its administration to Tawang.

In 1950, communist China occupied Tibet, ostensibly bringing Tawang back under Chinese administration. However, the following year the governor of the Indian state of Assam organized an unauthorized, though ultimately successful, mission to seize Tawang and revalidate the McMahon Line. The operation went largely unnoticed by Beijing, whose reach at the time barely extended beyond the Tibetan capital. Tawang again swung back in China’s orbit during the month-long 1962 China-India border war, but after advancing over 150 kilometers into India, China voluntarily withdrew its forces behind the McMahon Line and called a unilateral ceasefire.

In the decades to follow, Tawang repeatedly emerged as an obstacle to resolving the border dispute. Beginning in 1960, Beijing began proposing (though informally and through private channels) a status quo territorial swap to resolve the dispute: China would drop its claims in the Eastern Sector if India reciprocated in the Western Sector. In 1960, and again as many as three times after the border war, Delhi passed on these informal "package proposals."

Then, in 1985, something peculiar happened. China "began to signal the so-called ‘package proposal’ for resolving the border issue… was no longer on offer," Shyam Saran, a former Indian Foreign Secretary, said in a speech in August 2012. "It was conveyed to us that at a minimum, Tawang would have to be transferred to the Chinese side." This new emphasis on Tawang ultimately raised the stakes and poisoned the original package deal.

In the mid-2000s, history seemed to repeat itself. A border protocol signed in 2005 committed China and India to safeguard the interests of the "settled populations" along the border in any final settlement. Indian officials assumed this language meant Tawang, the most prominent location along the border with a "settled population," was off the table. Yet by 2006, Chinese officials made clear Delhi had "read too much" into the settled populations language, and that they had not abandoned their claims on Tawang in the least. The border negotiations have been largely deadlocked ever since.

Tawang today

Today it is difficult to envision a resolution of the border dispute without concessions from one or both sides on Tawang. Yet positions have only hardened since the turn of the century, and China has continued emphasizing its claim on Tawang in recent rounds of border negotiations.

Only if India returns Tawang to China, argues Ma Jiali of the China Reform Forum, can China be "magnanimous" in settling the other sectors of the border dispute. During a discussion in his office in April 2013, Ma suggested (in a personal capacity) that perhaps China could drop its claims to "big Tawang" (i.e. the Tawang district), if India would concede "small Tawang" (i.e. the town of Tawang).

Such a proposal is unlikely to find many takers in Delhi. For India, Tawang is a question sovereignty, territorial integrity, providing adequate defense of its northeast, and preventing a repeat of the humiliating 1962 border war. In 2009 and 2010, with China-India relations in a downward spiral, Delhi dispatched the defense minister, home minister, and prime minister to Tawang in a span of 15 months. Visiting the town in April 2010, Home Minister P. Chidambaram declared: "Tawang and all of Arunachal Pradesh are part of India and will always remain a part of India." In an interview in November 2011, Indian analyst Mohan Guruswamy added: "China occupied Lhasa in 1951, and we occupied Tawang in 1951. If [they] want to discuss Tawang, fine. We want to discuss Lhasa."

With Tawang firmly in Indian possession for the past six-plus decades, what does Beijing hope to gain with its claim? In part, Tawang is a matter of historical injustice for China; of righting the wrongs it believes were inflicted by the British Raj in 1914 and again by India in 1951.

Yet more important, Tawang matters to China because of Tibet. For China, Tibet has always been the most sensitive issue in Sino-Indian relations: Chinese perceptions of Indian interference in Tibet helped spark the 1962 border war, and India’s hosting of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile remains China’s principal grievance toward Delhi today. At a time when Tibet’s restive population is making its opposition to Chinese rule visible, control of Tawang would give the Communist Party control over another important center of Tibetan Buddhist authority.

Control of Tawang may become a great deal more valuable in the years to come. Tawang could play a central role in a looming, high-stakes battle for the future of a global religion. China and the Dalai Lama have begun firing the opening shots in a struggle to decide who will succeed the 78-year-old Buddhist spiritual leader. If early rumors that the 14th Dalai Lama may identify his successor in Tawang ring true, Tawang will likely return to center stage in the Sino-Indian rivalry.

Jeff Smith is director of the South Asia program and Kraemer strategy fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. This article is excerpted from his new book, Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century (Lexington Books 2014). Follow him on Twitter: @Cold_Peace_.

R. Jeffrey Smith is the Managing Editor for National Security at the Center for Public Integrity.

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