On December 9, a conflict broke out between Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces and Indian soldiers in the Yangtze Mountains in India’s Tawang district. Approximately 300 PLA soldiers attempted to cross the McMahon Line, the de-facto border, into India and dismantle sentry posts on the ridge. However, Indian soldiers repulsed the Chinese intrusion. The confrontation became public three days later and reignited tensions between the two nations.
Both China and India have been engaged in negotiations to resolve the ongoing border standoff that began in April 2020. These efforts have led to partial disengagements and the establishment of a belt of buffer zones in eastern Ladakh. However, the recent conflict in the eastern sector highlights the unstable and unpredictable situation on the Sino-Indian border. The clash in Yangtze further reveals China’s limited options to prevent India’s slide toward the Western camp in the growing Sino-American strategic competition.
The Yangtze Mountains in the eastern sector of the Sino-Indian border are a mutually recognized disputed area. The McMahon Line, accepted as the boundary in the 1960 China-Myanmar border agreement, separates India and Tibet through the ridgeline. The mountain range is home to grazing grounds where locals have traditionally brought their livestock. Its 17,000-foot-high peaks offer a direct line of sight to survey military developments in both the Chinese and Indian directions. Consequently, control over these peaks confers a natural military advantage.
On the mountain’s western side, there is a series of 108 waterfall streams known as Chumi Gyatse Waterfall, which the local people consider sacred. Until 2001, Tibetans could come to visit the waterfall to worship and collect its holy waters. However, repeated Chinese intrusions and face-offs led to Indian troops destroying a bridge on the river and cutting off China’s access to the waterfall.
As expected, both armies have heavily guarded their territories in the region. During the Sumdurong Chu Standoff in 1986, the Indian Army deployed multiple divisions on the Tawang frontier in an effort to prevent further Chinese intrusions. The Indian Army also deployed troops on the Yangtze ridge, including at Thang La and Mera La passes, and constructed stone walls to block potential incursions. Since this deployment, Indian and Chinese troops have undergone a series of annual face-offs in the region, typically occurring before and after the winter. In the summer of 1999, when Indian troops were preoccupied with the Kargil War with Pakistan, a major standoff took place for eighty-three days in Yangtze. Even in 2021, around 250 PLA troops intruded into the same area, but Indian soldiers repelled them.
Over the years, China has substantially developed the area on its side of the border, building blacktopped roads and military outposts in the valley leading up to Bum La and Thang La. In addition, Beijing has constructed multiple XiaoKang (well-off) villages in the area, with one village located at the Yangtze Mountain’s base. These dual-use military-civilian villages serve as support bases to instigate intrusions.
The December 9 Incident and Its Aftermath
The Indian Army had noticed increased activity on the Chinese side of the border since the last week of November and deployed quick reaction teams (QRTs) nearby. On December 9, PLA soldiers, armed with melee weapons, took advantage of the thick fog to sneak up on the ridge at 3 am. According to Chinese intelligence estimates, these forces expected to find only fifty Indian soldiers on sentry duty. However, when the altercation began, the Indian QRTs arrived, and the outnumbered PLA soldiers were forced to retreat to their base. Chinese officers at a base at lower altitudes had to fire into the air to prevent Indian soldiers from pursuing the PLA soldiers. Tensions remained high for two days; on December 11, local commanding officers from both sides met to discuss the incident, which helped reduce tensions.
Initially, the incident did not receive media coverage in either country. A relative of an injured and hospitalized Indian soldier tweeted about the incident and tagged Indian politicians, resulting in Indian media investigations into the incident. As expected, the issue quickly became a major news story, leading to a statement in Parliament by the Indian defense minister and official responses from China.
Further, as Chinese president Xi Jinping was on a state visit to Saudi Arabia from December 7–9 and returned to China on December 10, it remains questionable whether he gave his prior approval for this incident. Moreover, the Tibet Military District Command, which is responsible for this section of the border, is under the PLA’s jurisdiction during peacetime. The Western Theater Command can only exercise command over the military district during times of war. Therefore, based on previous incidents, it is probable that a local commander sought to capitalize on an opportunity to intrude, likely with tacit approval from PLA Headquarters. The way the Chinese media and government have trivialized the December 9 incident gives further weight to this opinion.
China has grown increasingly wary of the U.S.-India strategic partnership in recent years. This issue has been a dominant topic in China’s discourse on India and gained further prominence in the wake of the U.S.-India military exercise held from November 19 to December 2.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, claimed that the exercise violated Sino-Indian border agreements. Zhao cited two agreements signed in 1993 and 1996, which he argued are crucial for maintaining peace along the China-India Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, India countered that Chinese troops have violated multiple bilateral agreements on the LAC for years.
The Chinese press widely described the U.S.-India exercise as an anti-China move. Additionally, a statement by Gen. Charles Flynn, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, on China’s activities on the Indian border, including its accelerated infrastructure construction, further angered China. China termed Flynn’s statement as an attempt to further inflame relations between Beijing and New Delhi.
China believes that the United States is promoting India as the Indo-Pacific region’s western anchor in an effort to jointly contain China. Moreover, China sees India as a key player poised to influence strategic competition between China and the United States. Due to India’s unique geographical position, comprehensive national strength, and development potential, its stance in this great power struggle is crucial to the outcome.
Additionally, Chinese scholars argue that the current level of science and technology development, the Earth’s resource capacity, and the global market cannot support the simultaneous rise of two nations with populations over 1 billion. For instance, Western efforts to turn countries like India and Vietnam into global manufacturing powers may hold China back in the middle-income trap. Therefore, the development competition between China and India is seen as a long-term, zero-sum game.
Bilateral and Border Disputes
There are several factors currently influencing the situation on the China-India border. First, both sides have ramped up infrastructure development and introduced their latest weapon platforms to the region. This has brought both armies closer to each other, substantially increasing the chances for face-offs on the border.
Second, China-India border dispute negotiations, ongoing since 2020, have reached a dead end, with both armies establishing buffer zones in five disputed zones. The remaining disputed zones at Depsang and Demchok require high-level political intervention to move forward.
Third, China’s frustration with U.S.-India collaboration and India’s growing role in the Indo-Pacific are fueling tensions. Despite strong trade ties between Beijing and New Delhi, China’s economic struggles amid the Covid-19 pandemic and Western efforts to shift manufacturing away from China have increased China’s anxieties. China cannot use trade to gain leverage because the Indian market’s size and strong reliance on domestic consumption cushions it from any external coercion. In addition, an annual foreign direct investment inflow of up to $80 billion gives India the ability to achieve fast growth consistently, reducing China’s leverage even further.
Finally, China has traditionally stayed behind the curtain and used Pakistan to increase India’s security concerns. However, Pakistan is in a precarious financial and security situation. Pakistan’s Frankenstein monster, the Taliban, has begun biting back, and the Taliban’s affiliate terrorist groups are creating mayhem in the border areas. Indeed, Chinese officials and workers are not safe, having faced a growing number of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan in recent years. As a result, Pakistan has become a depreciating asset for China to apply leverage against India.
Both India and China are led by seasoned and tough politicians who wield enormous power in their nations. However, they see the border dispute differently. Prior to Xi’s rise to power, Sino-Indian border face-offs were less intense and didn’t need high-level political interventions to be resolved.
Xi, however, has used border provocations as a political and diplomatic instrument. During Xi’s rule, major border flare-ups have occurred regularly. Despite a stream of bilateral negotiations, Xi refused to discard this useful instrument. Moreover, with China lacking other means to influence India’s security and foreign policies, border disputes became an ever more important way to get India’s attention.
However, this is gradually becoming a less valuable tool. As India expands its border infrastructure and strengthens its military, it will become increasingly difficult for China to achieve any significant military gains against India. The Yangtze clash is just one example of the changing dynamics on the Sino-Indian border.