China News

Tawang Is the India-China Battleground for Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetans prefer democracy to autocracy, Buddhism to communism and the Dalai Lama to Emperor Xi. That is why China seeks to take over Tawang, home to Asia’s oldest monastery and a place where, as per the Tibetan tradition, the next Dalai Lama could be reborn.

December 16, 2022 12:45 EDT

Indian and Chinese troops have clashed again. CNN-News18 reported that 300 Chinese soldiers crossed over into Indian territory at 3.00 am on December 9. Within minutes, 100-150 Indian troops rushed over and repelled them. Thanks to an agreement not to use firearms, the fighting involved clubs, sticks and machetes. Six Indians were grievously injured. The numbers are much higher for the Chinese. Unlike the clash in June 2020, no one has died. Like the 2020 clash, Indian troops have given Chinese soldiers a beating.

Chinese newspaper Global Times claims that rising Indian nationalism and closer US-India cooperation are responsible for border tensions. A joint US-India military exercise in the border state of Uttarakhand has ruffled Chinese feathers. So has the building of roads and strengthening of Indian positions in border areas. Furthermore, Beijing sees New Delhi increasingly aligning with Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. It views the Quad, comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US, as an anti-China alliance.

Retired CIA officer Glenn Carle, one of Fair Observer’s regular authors and commentators, takes the view that Chinese transgressions are a part of a long term policy. Beijing pushes on all international issues where they have differences until they meet opposition. On Deutsche Welle, an Indian professor opined that Chinese transgression aims to keep India distracted and gain leverage in negotiations. Like many, he thinks that Beijing is signaling to New Delhi that Washington is far away. India should make peace with its more powerful northern neighbor, which is the top dog in Asia.

All these explanations are true but there is something more going on.

Chinese Communism v Tibetan Buddhism

It is important to note that the Chinese carried out this operation in the wee hours of a chilly winter morning at high altitude. This required detailed planning and effective execution, and was clearly not an accidental cross-border patrol, as some analysts have speculated. The aim was to occupy strategic heights near Tawang, one of the most sacred places in Tibetan Buddhism in India’s northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Nestled between China-occupied Tibet and Bhutan, Tawang is a district of about 2000 square kilometers (800 square miles) that is also home to the oldest and second biggest monastery in Asia. Tawang is one of the very few areas where there are thousands of Tibetan families in their traditional homeland outside China. The Sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born in this area in March 1683. 

Tibetan Activist and Writer Tenzin Tsundue Talks to Fair Observer


The current Dalai Lama is now 87 and the question of succession looms. Already, the Tibetans and the CCP are clashing over this question. Note though that no Dalai Lama has emerged outside the traditional Tibetan homeland. Tawang is the only important center of this homeland outside Chinese control. For many Tibetans, it is desirable that this tradition continues. As many lamas have mentioned to the authors, the next Dalai Lama could well emerge from the Tawang area. Beijing wants to avoid such a possibility. Control over Tawang would help. Hence, China claims this area along with other bits of Arunachal Pradesh as a part of South Tibet.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) finally triumphed in its civil war and took over Mainland China. Within a year, the CCP sent the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. This imperial army of occupation posed as an army of liberation and has still not left.

In the early days, Beijing sought to avoid Tibetan unrest. Therefore, China signed a Seventeen Point Agreement with Tibet. It promised not to “alter the existing political system in Tibet” and “the established status, functions and powers of the Dalai Lama.” China did not make these promises in good faith. Under Chairman Mao Zedong, the CCP began shaping a deeply spiritual and Buddhist Tibet into its vision of an atheistic communist utopia. For most Tibetans, this utopia was a nightmare. In 1959, they rose up in revolt. The PLA brutally crushed the revolt and the Dalai Lama fled to India.

Just as the Pope is the spiritual leader of the Catholics, the Dalai Lama is a similar figure for the Tibetans. His presence in India angers China and, as long as the Dalai Lama lives, he remains a focal point of Tibetan resistance to Chinese colonization. Once the Dalai Lama dies, Beijing aims to pick his successor. Control over the historic Tawang monastery would snuff out a key center of future resistance.

China has been following this playbook for a while. In 1995, Beijing rejected the Panchen Lama chosen by the Dalai Lama. Instead, the CCP appointed a Manchurian candidate in his place. Today, a puppet Panchen Lama signs from Beijing’s hymn sheet, warning Tibetans to stay away from separatist forces. This Beijing-appointed leader argues that Tibetan Buddhism must adapt to “socialism and Chinese conditions.” No wonder, the CCP’s wet dream is to install a puppet Dalai Lama who pledges fealty to Beijing.

Why Tawang Matters

Many Chinese nationalists regret the loss of Tawang. This area could very well have been a part of China. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister  was wedded to the idea of India-China unity. He wanted the two Asian giants to stand up to Western imperialism. Against the wishes of his statesmanly home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Nehru acquiesced to the 1950 Chinese takeover of Tibet.

As explained in a magnum opus on Fair Observer about India-China tensions, Nehru later realized that he had been duped by Mao. He kicked off the so-called “forward policy” as per which Indian troops took positions in territory that both India and China claimed as their own. In 1962, the PLA dealt India a devastating defeat. Chinese troops took over Tawang and advanced as far south as Bomdila. Although they later withdrew, India lost valuable territory and invaluable prestige.

Han and Hindu Nationalism Come Face to Face


The fact that Tawang was in Indian hands is a historical accident. Nehru was a socialist and so were his top officials. They valued an anti-Western alliance with China. Major Ralengnao “Bob” Khathing did not have such Nehruvian delusions. He took matters in his own hands and marched to Tawang with merely two platoons. In 1951, this area, formerly under the control of the independent Tibetan government, was now in Indian hands. Except for a brief interlude in 1962, it has remained Indian territory since. The Chinese still lay claim to Tawang though.

The recent Chinese operation would have captured heights from where both the town and monastery in Tawang are clearly visible. They would have secured area domination and made a future move to capture Tawang easier. Artillery from the captured heights could have pummeled the monastery and the town. Also, once snow would have set in and weather turned inclement, Chinese troops would have dug into their new positions. Indian generals would have found it hard to move large numbers of troops to recapture these positions.

Note that the Chinese have tried to capture these heights before. They attempted in 2016 and, more recently, in October 2021. The Chinese have settled veterans in xiaokang (well-off) border defense villages. One such village is in the vicinity of the point of the latest clash. Intelligence officials tell officials that 600-700 such xiaokang encampments now exist along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the de facto India-China border. They form part of the aggressive defense policy that President Xi Jinping has unleashed on nearly all of China’s neighbors.

If the PLA got hold of Tawang, the CCP would control a historic Tibetan monastery. Its choice of the Dalai Lama would be rubber stamped by this venerable institution.

Buddhist Dalai Lama v Communist Emperor Xi

Tibet is run per Mao’s dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Neighboring Arunachal Pradesh, which the CCP claims as South Tibet, is a rambunctious multiparty democracy. The state’s chief minister won 41 out of 60 seats in the 2019 elections. On December 16, he blamed Nehru for appeasing China and thanked Patel for taking over Tawang. Such a statement about recent history is impossible across the border. Unsurprisingly, Arunachal Pradesh has emerged as an imperfect but viable democratic model for China-occupied Tibet. This makes the CCP nervous.

China-India Clash Wakes Up Tibet’s Ghost of Independence


This nervousness has worsened because of recent protests. Only in October, the 20th Central Committee of the CCP crowned Xi as de facto emperor. Despite his disastrous zero-COVID policy, Xi’s vice-like grip on power looked more secure than ever. The last few weeks have turned out to be a rather long time in Chinese politics. Xi’s zero-COVID policy has fallen apart and he has quietly made a U-turn. As per Nature, scientists worry Xi’s abrupt reversal could lead to a rise in infections and overwhelm hospitals. 

Winter is peak influenza season. Also, many people will be traveling across China for the Lunar New Year and spring festival, further increasing viral spread. Now that Xi is omnipotent, all blame would fall on him. The CCP is anxious that protests could even spread to Tibet, making the party and Xi lose face.

The CCP is also worried about recent developments in India. Earlier this year, the Indian prime minister called the Dalai Lama to wish him a happy birthday. Chinese irritation further increased when New Delhi released photos of the Dalai Lama visiting “a remote Himalayan village in the disputed border region of eastern Ladakh.” The fact that he had been flown there by a military helicopter particularly aggravated Beijing.

The Chinese have not forgotten that the previous Dalai Lama fled to Darjeeling when Qing troops marched into Lhasa. The 1911 revolution gave the 13th Dalai Lama the opportunity to return from exile, and expel Chinese troops and officials from Lhasa in 1912. He declared complete self-rule and Tibet achieved de facto independence that lasted nearly four decades. The CCP is terrified of Tibetans achieving independence again. As long as the Dalai Lama lives in India, they fear that what happened in 1912 could recur.

For the CCP, Tibet is a tributary of China and the Dalai Lama should kowtow to Emperor Xi. For Indians, Tibet is home to Kailash and Mansarovar, the abode of Lord Shiva. They respect Tibetans for preserving Buddhism and many of India’s most revered tantric traditions. For Tibetans themselves, India is the land of the Buddha and now home to the Dalai Lama. They prefer democracy to autocracy, Buddhism to communism and the Dalai Lama to Emperor Xi.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Only Fair Observer members can comment. Please login to comment.

Leave a comment

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member