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Lessons from Somdurong Chu Incident

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • April 26, 2013

    The 4057 km long Line of Actual Control (LAC) is the largest undemarcated and disputed land border in the world. It has the unique distinction of being the most 'peaceful' border with not a shot being fired over the last 46 years, save a standoff at Nathu La in 1967, when a display of resolve by the Indian Army prevented further escalation. However, there have been some serious incidents of escalation of tension between the two nuclear powered neighbours which were successfully diffused by a combination of adroit diplomacy, ‘show of force’ and political statesmanship. The most notable among these was the Somdurong Chu incident, sometimes called the Wangdung incident, in 1986-87 in the state of Arunachal Pradesh on the LAC.

    On 26 June, 1986, the Government of India (GOI) lodged a formal protest with the Chinese government that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) had intruded in the Thandrong pasture on the banks of the Somdurong Chu (river) under the Zimithang circle of Tawang district. This was days before the seventh round of border talks which was due between the two countries. The area of intrusion, in the vicinity of the Thag La ridge, had seen bloody conflict in 1962. Considered neutral since 1962-63, it was not monitored till 1980. Patrolling resumed in 1981 and by the summer of 1984, India established a post in the area manned by the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a para-military force , which was vacated in winters. On 16 June 1986, a patrol of 12 ASSAM regiment of the Indian Army noticed Chinese presence in the area and construction of a few permanent structures. The Chinese soldiers were initially identified to be 40 and were soon reinforced by 200 more troops. They were being maintained by mules along a seven km mule track. By August, they had constructed a helipad and were being air supplied.1

    The GOI, made an offer to China to withdraw from the area with an understanding that India would not reoccupy the vacated area, the following summer. This was rejected by the Chinese. At the Seventh round of border talks that were held from 21-23 July 1986, despite the standoff, the issue was discussed “intensively” with no solution, resulting in acrimony and tension.2 Meanwhile, the Chinese 'dug in' to prepare to stay through the winter of 1986. The Indian Army then air lifted a Brigade from 5 Mountain Division to Zimithang and occupied the ridges dominating the Somdurong Chu. Deng Xiaoping took a tough stand and said that it was time to "teach India a lesson”, a message conveyed through the visiting US Secretary of Defence, Caspar Weinberger during a stopover at New Delhi from Beijing. Simultaneously, the PLA moved 20,000 troops of the 53 Group Army and 13 Group Army along with guns and helicopters. There were reports that unemployed Tibetan youth were recruited at RMB 300 per month, essentially for administrative duties.3 Tibetans also reported movement and mobilisation of PLA in the areas around Lhasa and parts of the Tibetan plateau. The Indian Army moved up to three divisions into the positions around Wangdung, maintaining them by air. In addition as many as ten divisions were mobilised to the Eastern sector with almost 50,000 troops in Arunachal Pradesh alone with substantial assets from the Indian Air Force. Simultaneously, the Indian Army conducted a massive air- land exercise called 'Chequerboard ' which commenced in October, 1986 and continued till March 1987.4 This was in conjunction with another major military exercise called ‘Brasstacks’ on the western borders. These exercises demonstrated the will and capability of the Indian armed forces to fight a war on both fronts.

    Soon after, hectic diplomatic parleys between the two countries worked towards defusing the situation. In April 1987, defence minister K.C Pant made a scheduled transit halt at Beijing and delivered a message of peace. In May 1987 the external affairs minister N.D Tiwari visited China reaffirming the desire of the GOI to continue border talks and lower tensions. In August, the field commanders met on the ground and agreed to move their posts apart. By November, the eighth round of border talks were held which called for an end to ‘military confrontation’ and laid the ground work for the pull back of the militaries. Subsequently, China extended an invitation to Rajiv Gandhi to visit China in 1988.

    What were the lessons learnt?

    For China, it appears the standoff diverted the focus of attention from Aksai-chin to the Eastern sector, linking the two to any future solution of the border dispute. China also realized the futility of conflict with a determined, well prepared and well-equipped Indian Army. According to Keshav Mishra, "Overt display of military power had effectively neutralised any adventurist step" by China.5 Moreover, it was China that extended the ‘olive branch’ inviting Rajiv Gandhi to visit China in a bid to normalise the relations. In retrospect, the firm will of the GOI may have been instrumental in shaping China’s strategy of ‘a face saving pull out’ from Somdurong Chu.

    For India, it was a wakeup call. The GOI immediately shifted focus on infrastructure development, logistic management, redeployment of additional resources and construction of airfields and advanced landing grounds in the North East, changing its policy of years of neglect of the erstwhile North East Frontier Agency (NEFA).6 As a beginning, India voted for statehood for NEFA and the new state of Arunachal Pradesh was created in December 1986. It would be pertinent to quote Rajiv Gandhi in his speech to Parliament on 3rd March 1987.

    He said:
    "There has been tension on our border with China. We want a peaceful settlement of the border issue. It will need wisdom and statesmanship. It will need vision and firmness. Firmness is included in wisdom….. It is this perspective that should guide our countries in seeking a solution to the problem".7

    The recent Chinese intrusion at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) on 15 April this year and the ongoing standoff with the PLA is in many ways similar to the Somdorung-Chu incident. India could do well to learn from the past while chalking out strategies for an amicable solution to the present.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. V. Natarajan, "The Somdurong-Chu incident" , Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Volume 3, Nov-Dec 2000 available at accessed on 24-25 April 2013.
    • 2. ML Sali, ‘India-China Border Dispute : A Case Study Of Eastern Sector’, APH Publishing Corporation, 1998, pg 109-111.
    • 3. Claude Arpi, ‘Dharamshala and Beijing: The Negotiations that never were’, Lancer Publishers and Distributors, 2009, pp 138-139.
    • 4. Ibid.
    • 5. Keshav Mishra, ‘Rapprochement Across The Himalayas: Emerging India-China Relations In The Post Cold War Period (1947-2003)’, Kalpaz Publications, 2004, pg 64-65.
    • 6. For more details see Arun Sahgal, ‘China's Military Modernization; Responses From India’, Strategic Asia 2012-13, "National Bureau of Asian Research", pp 285.
    • 7. Keshav Mishra, op cit.