This is perhaps the most militarised Buddhist enclave in the world.
Perched above 10,000 feet in the icy reaches of the eastern Himalayas, Tawang in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is not only home to one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most sacred monasteries, but is also the site of a huge Indian military buildup.
A road sign on the northern edge of town explains the reason: the border with China is just 23 miles away; Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, 316 miles; and Beijing, 2,676 miles.
“The Chinese Army has a big deployment at the border, at Bumla,” said Madan Singh, a junior commissioned officer who sat with a half-dozen soldiers one afternoon sipping tea beside a fog-cloaked road. “That’s why we’re here.”
Tawang is the biggest tinderbox in relations between the world’s two most populous nations. It is the focus of a conflict rooted in Chinese claims of sovereignty over all of historical Tibet.
In recent months, both nations have stepped up efforts to secure their rights over this patch of land. China tried to block a $2.9 billion loan to India from the Asian Development Bank on the grounds that part of the loan was destined for water projects in Arunachal Pradesh. Then the governor of Arunachal Pradesh announced that the military was deploying extra troops in the area.
The growing belligerence has soured relations between the two Asian giants. Economic progress might bring the countries closer— China and India did $52 billion worth of trade last year, a 34 per cent increase over 2007—but businesspeople say border tensions have infused business deals with official interference.
“Officials start taking more time, scrutinising things more carefully, and all that means more delays and ultimately more denials, “ said Ravi Bhoothalingam, former president of the Oberoi Group, the luxury hotel chain, and a member of the Institute of Chinese Studies in New Delhi.
The roots of the conflict go back to China’s territorial claims to Tibet. China insists Tawang has historically been part of Tibet, and should be part of China. Tawang is a thickly forested area of white stupas and steep, terraced hillsides that is home to the Monpa people, who practise Tibetan Buddhism, speak a language similar to Tibetan and once paid tribute to rulers in Lhasa. The Sixth Dalai Lama was born here in the 17th century.
The Chinese Army occupied Tawang briefly in 1962, during a war with India fought over this and other territories along the 2,521-mile border. More than 3,100 Indian soldiers and 700 Chinese soldiers were killed.
“The entire border is disputed,” said Ma Jiali, an India scholar at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a government-supported research group in Beijing. “It’s a huge barrier to China-India relations.”
In some ways, Tawang has become a proxy battleground, too, between China and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of the Tibetans, who passed through this valley when he fled into exile in 1959. From his home in the Indian hill town of Dharamsala, he wields enormous influence over Tawang.
Last year, the Dalai Lama announced for the first time that Tawang is part of India, bolstering the India’s territorial claims and infuriating China.
Traditional Tibetan culture runs strong in Tawang. At the monastery, monks express rage over Chinese rule in Tibet, which the Chinese Army seized in 1951. “I hate the Chinese government,” said Gombu Tsering, 70, a monk who watches over the monastery’s museum.
Few expect China to try to annex Tawang by force, but military skirmishes are a real danger, analysts say. The Indian military recorded 270 border violations and nearly 2,300 instances of border patrolling by Chinese soldiers last year.
Two years ago, Chinese soldiers demolished a Buddhist statue that Indians had erected at Bumla, the main border pass above Tawang, a member of the Indian Parliament, Nabam Rebia, said in a Parliament session.
Tawang became part of modern India when Tibetan leaders signed a treaty with British officials in 1914 that established a border called the McMahon Line. Tawang fell south of the line. The treaty, the Simla Convention, is not recognised by China.
“We recognise it because we agreed to it,” said Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. “If China agreed to it now, it would be a recognition of the power of the Tibet government at that time.”
China has grown increasingly hostile to the Dalai Lama after severe ethnic unrest in Tibet in 2008. This year, it turned its diplomatic ire on India over Tawang with the Asian Development Bank loan issue. But, the loan was approved in mid-June over China’s heated objections.
Since 2005, when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China visited India, the two countries have gone through 13 rounds of bilateral negotiations. A round was held just last month, with no results.
Xiyun Yang contributed research from Beijing.