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Karakoram and other factors in India-China standoff

opinionKarakoram and other factors in India-China standoff

We ignore Dogra maps showing their control over areas beyond Aksai Chin, in the Tarim basin and villages near Mansarovar. The latter is far more important in the religious sense for India than Tawang is even for the Tibetans.


The ongoing dispute at Galwan and Pangon Tso has highlighted the fragility of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the Indian Army and the Chinese PLA. Even areas that were considered stable, like the western side of the Depsang Plains of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), the extreme north to Demchok and the Chumar area in the extreme south, had been challenged by the PLA’s aggressive actions in 2013 and 2014, respectively. In fact, the Chinese slipped into Indian territory in Chumar in May 2013, even as the DBO crisis was being solved, and managed to link the two areas together in the settlement of mutual withdrawal and dismantling of bunkers and posts.

The obvious questions that arise are whether the Chinese actions are merely tactical, or do they have any deep strategic objectives. If so, how should India react?

Not all analysts have caught on to the point that India’s ambitious, though belated, build-up of infrastructure to support effective border management is seen as provocative by the Chinese. It is not that India’s actions are meant to be a provocation, but India’s ability to robustly defend its territory changes the Chinese calculus. This change has so upset the Chinese that they now say that they would do “whatever it takes to put an end to Indian provocations along the western border”. Over the years, China has been changing the facts on the ground, little by little, to India’s disadvantage. Each time the PLA withdraws from its encroachment along the LAC, it ensures that India’s defensive build-up receives a slight set-back—for example, agree to move from the bunkers or observation posts close to the LAC, etc. The PLA has, in the past, successfully offset Indian Army’s efforts to strengthen its defensive capabilities in Ladakh.

But what does China actually hope to achieve by this “salami-slicing” approach that would increasingly yield lesser and lesser returns as India responds with greater firmness and preparedness? China’s Ladakh policy has both offensive and defensive objectives, which must be addressed separately.

China in the late 1950s and once more in the 1983-84 period, offered a swap deal. In return for India’s recognition of Aksai Chin being Chinese, they would accept Arunachal Pradesh (then NEFA) as a part of India. Despite Nehru’s statement that not a “blade of grass” grew in Aksai Chin, he could not move forward on any reasonable boundary deal as he was seen to have compromised himself on the China question. Unfortunately, the military had also been sufficiently weakened and demoralised to be unable to evict the Chinese occupation of Indian territory. And Indira Gandhi was domestically distracted by the rising violence in Punjab that was soon to take her life. Now, not only is this swap deal off the table, but the Chinese have also resiled from their agreement on the broad principle of boundary settlement with India—that settled areas are not to be touched. As the strategic thinker and former diplomat P. Stobdan has persuasively argued, China has succeeded in splitting the Arunachal boundary dispute from the Ladakh-Aksai Chin one. This needs to be understood.

Practically all Prime Ministers and Presidents have visited NEFA/Arunachal Pradesh, but it was only since the UPA days that China has started objecting to such visits. Though it claims all of Arunachal Pradesh, and refers to it as “South Tibet”, China’s real objective is Tawang. The Kameng area of Arunachal, of which Tawang is the headquarters, had deep ecclesiastical relations with Lhasa until the Chinese occupation of Tibet. These relations cannot be ground for sovereignty as Lhasa had similar relations with Mongolia and with many surrounding Chinese provinces like Qinghai and Yunnan. Tawang’s importance for the Chinese lies in the fact that it is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. Despite the considerable economic progress that Tibet has seen under Chinese rule and the absence of any insurgency or active “Free Tibet” movement, the Chinese behave as if they are not confident of their control over Tibet. The problem of any credible selection of the next Dalai Lama, which is bound to arise over the next decade or so, would seriously challenge the legitimacy of Chinese rule over Tibet. As the present Dalai Lama has indicated, his reincarnation may be born outside of Tibet, in a free land. He has also talked about doing away with the institution or at different times, of choosing his own successor in his lifetime. Clearly, the Chinese are unnerved by this. The irony of an avowed atheist organisation, which the Communist Party of China is, choosing the reincarnation of a Lama seems lost on the Chinese. The cruel way in which the Panchen Lama, certified by the Dalai Lama, was made invisible and a new person imposed, has not gone down well. Both the Dalai Lama and the Chinese agreed on the choice of the Karmapa, but he secretly left Tibet for India and now lives in the West. Therefore, the Chinese want to pre-empt a situation where a person born in India is appointed as the next Dalai Lama, and accepted as such by the Tibetan community. After all a person born outside of Tibet, in Tawang (India) was the 6th Dalai Lama—while Tawang, as Chinese controlled territory, would deny such a precedence.



China has another strategic objective in thwarting India’s attempts at strengthening its defensive positions along the Line of Actual Control across Ladakh-Aksai Chin. The Depsang Plains in the north, with its head at DBO, is not just another location but an important one because of the nearby Karakoram Pass. For India, it does represent an eastern access to the Glaciers, though over high mountains of the Karakorum Range. For China, it is even more important but not for the reasons often cited i.e. that it sits astride the Kashgar-Hasan Abdal Highway, on which runs the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). That highway crosses over the Karakoram using the Khunjerab Pass, quite far west from the Karakoram Pass. But that does not lessen the importance of DBO and this region. The whole genesis of the India-China dispute over Aksai Chin began in 1954-55, when China starting building the highway linking East Turkestan (now Xinjiang) with Tibet, now numbered as China National Highway 219. Earlier, Xinjiang’s road link with the Chinese heartland (Gansu province) was problematic, and rail link was absent. Hence the need for this highway.

Presently, though alternate routes exist, and despite China’s brutal treatment of the Uyghurs and the physical and psychological violence over the Tibetans, China’s actions indicate its nervousness over its hold over these two provinces and their people. The Karakoram Pass was the natural trade link connecting Yarkhand in the Tarim Basin (East Turkestan) with Ladakh and Kashmir, and on to the North Indian plains. Yarkhandi traders were a regular feature of Leh bazaar, and post the troubles in East Turkestan, a few Uyghur families managed to run away and settle in Srinagar. Though situated at a height of over 18,000 feet above sea level, the Karakoram Pass is easily accessible from both north and south, the former access controlled by China. It is so windy there that the Pass is free of snow despite its altitude. Though the Chinese Highway 219—linking East Turkestan, now Xinjiang, with Tibet—has veered away from the Karakoram mountains by the time it exits Aksai Chin, the natural slope towards the Tarim makes the highway vulnerable from the South. Unsettling India at DBO and preventing its build-up here is in China’s interest. And the best way to do so is by not just exerting pressure on the Depsang Plains directly confronting DBO, but by simultaneously challenging the Darbuk-Shyok-DBO Chewang Rinchen road at Galwan. This road has made DBO really accessible to the Indian Army—a situation that the Chinese seem determined to prevent. Galwan is relatively early on the road from Darbuk, and is in a vulnerable position.

Therefore, how should India understand the situation and proceed from there? It should be clear that this contest is not just over Galwan or Pangong Tso. DBO (2013), Chumar (2013), Demchok (2014) and Dokalam (2017) have shown that agreements to disengage and withdraw have limited shelf-life. The Chinese have no wish to settle the boundary dispute, even to finalise what the Line of Actual Control is. Ambiguity allows them flexibility and deniability. Also, the present Chinese aggression has nothing to do with the changed legal status of Ladakh or Home Minister Amit Shah’s call to take back Aksai Chin. Chinese aggression in Ladakh dates back to the early 1950s. Whether it was the building of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway 219, the Hot Springs ambush of 1959, the 1962 war, down to the recent intrusions in Depsang, Chumar or Demchok—all pre-date the legal changes of 5 August 2019 or Amit Shah’s call. Some have even suggested that showing Aksai Chin as part of Ladakh was an act of provocation and that the Chinese reaction should have been expected. In any case, it is not clear why showing Aksai Chin as part of the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir had been acceptable, but showing the region as part of Ladakh is not. Similarly, one may wonder why have earlier statements of past leaders, including by various Prime Ministers, emphasising that Aksai Chin was Indian and would someday come back to India were not seen as provocative. Indian Parliament’s unequivocal resolution in 1994 on the inviolability of India’s sovereignty over the entire state of Jammu & Kashmir is far stronger than Amit Shah’s statement, but that apparently did not ruffle the Chinese!



Going forward, India’s boilerplate must be on an agreement on the primacy of fixing the LAC, beginning with an exchange of maps. Special Representatives’ meetings on finding ways to settle the boundary dispute must first agree on what is the present position. China’s refusal to even exchange maps is because it finds that the best way to put off settling the boundary dispute is by creating a dispute on where the Line of Actual Control is.

Two, it is not for us to justify Chinese behaviour by explaining that they have a different concept of where the LAC is. Let the Chinese clearly, and upfront, indicate what their position on the LAC is. Similarly, it is not for us to tell the world that both countries do not need mediation and that there are structures in place that allow the resolution of disputes. Our touching belief in these mechanisms is amazing, considering the regularity of Chinese intrusions and attempts to disturb the status quo forcibly. These mechanisms have failed India. India should be clear that it believes that diplomacy and bilateral dialogue are the best way forward but that the other side clearly has a different view. Government of India was smart enough to duck commenting on Donald Trump’s offer to mediate, but the media and analysts went to town, quoting unnamed officials saying that India and China (emphasis added) rejected this offer and were mature enough to sort out our bilateral disputes. A month later we seem to be no closer to a resolution. It is also unclear who authorised these self-appointed spokespersons to speak on behalf of either country.

Three, we should learn from the Chinese and abandon historical positions, where necessary. For example, this reliance on lines drawn by the British does not strengthen our case, as for every line in support of India, there is another line that contradicts India’s position. We ignore Dogra maps showing their control over areas beyond Aksai Chin, in the Tarim basin and villages near Mansarovar. The latter is far more important in the religious sense for India than Tawang is even for the Tibetans. Similarly, the Mir of Hunza’s territory extended well into the trans-Karakoram range, controlling parts of Southern Xinjiang. India must also note that the Chinese have been clear for decades that they would go to any extent to back Pakistan’s perfidies, block India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers’ group (NSG), indulge in mutual nuclear and missile technology proliferation, prevent the naming of terrorists being prosecuted by Pakistan itself on the UN’s sanctions list and keep on salami slicing Indian territory. The economic and military power asymmetry between the two countries cannot be wished away. Consequently, India must look for alternatives. And if India wants other countries to politically align with it, then we have to shed our ambiguity about China’s hostility. Quad and the emerging alignment of middle powers including France, Vietnam, and Singapore etc., should be about managing China’s rise in order to protect the sovereign interests of others. The time for free rides is over, and as Krishan Verma wrote last week, it is time for Strategic Alignment.

Four, and final, the best “battles” are fought at a time and place of your choice. While no one should advocate a war, one has to be prepared for it. It would be even better if India were to create other “virtual” battlefields politically, offsetting China by moving away from stated positions on “One China Principle” (not “One China Policy”), on challenging attempts to monopolise sea lanes of communication, on expressing concerns about bridging universal human rights including the right to practice religion, and to expand India’s capabilities in the maritime domain by using its logistical sharing agreements with the US, France, Japan and Australia even as it strengthens its military’s ability to defend India adequately.

Shakti Sinha is Honorary Director, Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, MS University, Vadodara.


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