Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
Commodore Vijesh Kumar Garg, VSM (Retd.) deciphers China’s opposition to Vice President Venkaiah Naidu’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in a conversation with C. Balasubramanian Senior Research Officer, C3S.
Recently nearly 200 Chinese soldiers crossed into Indian Territory in Tawang, the north-western district of Arunachal Pradesh, which shares a boundary with Bhutan to its west and Tibet in the north. The incident marks the latest escalation by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. The two sides have increased deployment of troops and heavy equipment all along the Himalayan frontier since the standoff in eastern Ladakh began in May 2020, and which continues even now at some friction points, despite of 13 rounds of talks at different levels. The incursion in Tawang last week was not the first time when a large number of Chinese troops transgressed into Indian Territory in this part of Arunachal Pradesh. China regularly has been attempting incursion bids in this area. In 2016, for instance, about 250 Chinese troops had crossed into the Indian side in the district and had to be pushed back by the Indian Army.
In late August 2021, over 100 Chinese soldiers had transgressed at least 5 km into the Indian Territory in Uttarakhand’s Barahoti and damaged infrastructure, including a bridge, before retreating.
While China claims almost the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of “South Tibet”, it is most interested in Tawang. Now China is even opposing the Indian Vice President’s visits to Tawang.
Apart from tactical reasons, it is Tawang’s strong link to Tibetan Buddhism that drives China’s claims on this part of Arunachal. Tawang hosts Galden Namgey Lhatse (also called Tawang Monastery), the second-largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in the world. The largest monastery is the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The 350-year-old monastery was built to honour the wishes of the fifth Dalai Lama. This monastery was founded by a monk named Merag Lodre Gyatso in 1680-81 after the 4th Dalai Lama gave him a painting of goddess Palden Lhamo to be kept in the monastery. More importantly, Tawang is also the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama who, it is believed, was born in the modest Urgelling Gompa.
China fears that the current Dalai Lama, with his seat in Dharamshala (Himachal Pradesh), may ordain his successor outside the present-day Tibet, which is under Chinese occupation. If this were to happen, Tawang, with its historical links to Tibetan Buddhism, and the presence of a large number of Tibetan refugees in India, would be the ideal place. This belief is reinforced by the fact that till 2003, the Dalai Lama always said, “Tawang was Tibetan”. His position on the issue has changed since then, and he now says the Tawang town is part of India’s Arunachal Pradesh.
For China, control over Tawang is linked to the legitimacy of its hold over Tibet. If the Dalai Lama finds a successor outside Tibet, the successor that the CCP may appoint (as it did in the case of the Panchen Lama) will not enjoy legitimacy and the spiritual authority, which is required to exercise effective influence in Tibet. Controlling the selection of the next Dalai Lama is critical for the CCP’s long-term project of ‘sinicising’ Tibetan Buddhism.
With growing convergence between India and the United States, China is also concerned about a possible alignment between the two on Tibet. The Tibetan Policy and Support Act, passed by the US Congress in December 2020, say that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation process should be left solely to the “Tibetan Buddhist faith community” and seeks to “oppose any effort by China to select, educate, and venerate Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders”.
It is because of these likely fears that China opposes the visits of Indian senior leaders and even the visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang.
(Commodore Vijesh Kumar Garg, VSM is Executive Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are personal.)