Chinese soldiers attempted to “unilaterally change the status quo” by transgressing the Line of Actual Control in Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang sector on December 9, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh told Parliament on Tuesday.

This turned into a hand-to-hand clash as the Indian troops retaliated to thwart the Chinese aggression, Singh said.

While there were injuries on both sides, there are no fatalities on the Indian side, the defence minister said.

On Sunday, Indian commanders had held a flag meeting with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the clash in line with existing protocols. Both sides have since disengaged from the area, the defence ministry had said in a statement on Monday.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday said the situation at the disputed border was “generally stable”. But Colonel Long Shaohua, the spokesperson of the western theatre of the People’s Liberation Army claimed that a Chinese “routine patrol was blocked” by the Indian forces “illegally crossing the line”.

The Tawang clash

More than 200 Chinese soldiers, armed with spiked clubs having nails on them, as well as other weapons such as taser guns, clashed with Indian troops in the Yangtse area of Tawang sector, ThePrint reported citing unidentified sources. The area, where the clash happened, is situated around 35 km away from Tawang town in Arunachal Pradesh.

In response, about 70 to 80 Indian soldiers were mobilised at night to compel the Chinese troops to return to their posts, The Indian Express reported citing unidentified sources. Some reports suggest a smaller group of 50 Indian soldiers challenged the Chinese aggression.

The Indian Air Force had scrambled its fighter jets two to three times over the last week to prevent Chinese drones from violating the Indian airspace along the Line of Actual Control in the sector, after the drones flew aggressively towards Indian military positions, news agency ANI reported.

Flaring tensions

This incident in Tawang adds to the series of military clashes between the two Asian giants who were engaged in a full-fledged war in 1962. More recently, in 2020-’21, India and China were locked in a series of skirmishes along the Line of Actual Control. A major face-off between Indian and Chinese soldiers in June 2020 led to casualties on both sides – the first in many decades.

Tensions had flared at multiple friction points along the disputed border in eastern Ladakh as both sides deployed heavy artillery and thousands of soldiers in the Himalayas. The high-altitude deployments remained in place for months, even throughout the harsh winter season. In January 2021, a minor face-off had happened between the two sides at Naku La in Sikkim. Another short face-off had happened near Yangtse in October 2021, when opposing patrols had come face-to-face.

Swathes of land have since turned into so-called buffer zones in the eastern Ladakh sectors after Indian soldiers withdrew from patrolling points along some disputed areas as part of the disengagement process – ceding the space to the Chinese, reports citing locals suggest.

Over six decades, China has illegally held a total of around 38,000 sq km of Indian territory in Ladakh, according to the Indian government.

China is using “salami-slicing” tactics against India amid the long-standing border dispute, experts suggest. “Salami-slicing” refers to the process of gradually cutting into the opponent’s territory through incremental steps.

Importance of Tawang

China has for a long time laid territorial claims over a very large portion of Arunachal Pradesh, calling it “South Tibet”. India has rejected these claims.

Arunachal Pradesh is vital for India’s ability to defend its Northeast region. The Bum La Pass situated north of Tawang town was used by the Chinese Army for invasion during the 1962 war. The Tawang area is particularly important for both sides as having control over it provides a strategic advantage – as it is situated close to one of the Bhutan-India-China trijunctions. The other strategically-vital trijunction between the three countries is near Doklam – where the Indian Army had in 2017, on behalf of Bhutan, engaged in a months-long stand-off against Chinese forces to stop the latter from encroaching upon disputed territory.

Beijing also views Tawang, particularly, as a site of resistance to Chinese rule over Tibet.

After reports of the clash emerged on Monday, the Opposition had castigated the Union government for allegedly trying to suppress the matter.