Explained: Why China Wants Tawang
For China, control over Tawang is linked to the legitimacy of its hold over Tibet. It fears that the Dalai Lama may ordain his successor in Tawang.
Last week, 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 last year, and which continues at some friction points.
In late August this year, over 100 Chinese soldiers transgressed at least 5 km into Indian territory in Uttarakhand's Barahoti and damaged infrastructure, including a bridge, before retreating.
The incursion in Tawang last week was not the first time a large number of Chinese troops transgressed into Indian territory in this part of Arunachal Pradesh. China regularly makes incursion bids in the 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.
While China claims almost the entire state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of "south Tibet", it is most interested in 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, largest being the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The 350-year-old monastery was built to honour the wishes of the fifth Dalai Lama.
It is believed that the 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 Himachal's Dharamshala, 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 said Tawang was Tibetan. His position on the issue has changed since then, and he now says the 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 Chinese Communist Party may appoint (as it did in the case of the Panchen Lama) will not enjoy legitimacy and the spiritual authority required to exercise effective influence in Tibet.
Controlling the selection of the next Dalai Lama is critical for the Chinese Communist Party's long-term project of sinicising Tibetan Buddhism.
It is because of this fear that China opposes the Dalai Lama's visits to Tawang and hammers its claim to the town. Not to mention that it has gone back on its offer of concessions in the east, where it lays claims to almost all of Arunachal, in exchange for India dropping its claim on Aksai Chin and parts of eastern Ladakh in the west.
Of late, Beijing has been demanding territorial concessions in Arunachal. Dai Bingguo, who served as China’s special representative on the boundary issue between 2003 and 2013, has suggested that the border dispute could be resolved if New Delhi accepts Beijing’s claim over Tawang.
"If the Indian side takes care of China's concerns in the eastern sector of their border," Dai said in 2017, adding, "the Chinese side will respond accordingly and address India's concerns elsewhere."
Although India has not been involved in the issue of the Dalai Lama's reincarnation — not publicly at least, reports say there have been some discussions in the national security bodies and the Prime Minister's Office.
"Senior security officials in India, including in the Prime Minister’s Office, have been involved in discussions about how New Delhi can influence the choice of the next Dalai Lama," journalist Sudhi Ranjan Sen said in a report in Bloomberg earlier this year, citing unnamed sources within India's defence establishment.
"From January through March", despite tensions in Ladakh, "India convened five separate assemblies of monks from various sects in the region the first time such gatherings have taken place in more than 2,000 years. The government hopes that this group will grant international legitimacy to the current Dalai Lama's successor and help fill a power vacuum, as it could take two decades or longer for a reincarnation to be identified and to come of age."
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, says that the Dalai Lama's reincarnation process should be left solely to the "Tibetan Buddhist faith community" and seeks to "oppose any effort by the Government of the People's Republic of China to select, educate, and venerate Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders".
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's public acknowledgement of his phone call to the Dalai Lama on his birthday this year — a significant departure from the past — has also sparked speculation about India's plans on the issue of reincarnation of the Tibetan spiritual leader.
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