The ongoing conflict at the Indo-China border at Ladakh and Aksai-Chin has been tenser owing to the two recent developments; one from India and the other from China.
The first being the fastening of the construction work on a bridge in Galwan Valley by India after China’s objections amid stand-off. The bridge, which is about 7 to 7.5 kilometres from the LAC, and has been a reason for the uprising of border skirmishes between both countries as claimed by China. It is being built over the Galwan ‘nallah’ by India between Durbuk and Daulat Beg Oldi in eastern Ladakh.
However, as per Indian official’s statements, there are no transgressions in Galwan Valley, but Finger area of Pangong Lake is a trouble spot and could take longer to resolve. Indian officials have said that work on the bridge had started much earlier but the Chinese came to know of the construction and objected to it around 10th May. The bridge is part of a network of feeder roads that India is building to connect the strategically important Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi road.
The second major development is that China has linked the escalation of border tensions with India to Modi Government’s commitment to end the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, it is not the first time China raised its voice against the Indian illegal act, but this is the fresh impetus amid current Indo-China tension when China directly linked it to India’s notorious move. Lately, China not only supported Pakistan on the Kashmir issue in last year’s closed-door informal session of the UN Security Council but also raked up the status of Aksai Chin. The Chinese Permanent Representative in the UN claimed that the government’s decision to abrogate Article 370 challenged China’s sovereign interests and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area.
Nonetheless, even Indian officials are of the opinion that one of the reasons why China objected to the bridge is that it is doubtful of India’s intent after it bifurcated the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, one of which is Ladakh, and subsequently started raising its voice about Aksai Chin.
Chinese have crossed the Indian claim line in the larger Hot Spring area of Ladakh by about 3 km as stated by Indian Officials. However, there are other sources who claim that the Chinese army has captured a much larger area. Eventually, Indian and Chinese soldiers are facing off at these locations.
Keeping the current situation in mind, the questions of importance here are: what is the history of India-China conflict over the very region? And what are the strategic importance of Kashmir for India and China?
Currently, Kashmir has three separately governed territories; Pakistan’s side of Kashmir, Indian occupied Kashmir and Chinese governed adjacent areas. But historically, the state of Kashmir comprised of all these three regions under a single governing Prince. Due to the geopolitical significance of Kashmir, China, India, and Pakistan all have vital strategic interests in the region.
China and India clash mainly over the border region at Aksai chin, near Kashmir. Aksai chin is mainly in Hotan country in the southwestern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region with a small area on the southeast and south sides lying within the extreme west of the Tibet autonomous region.
India claims Aksai Chin as a part of the Ladakh region of the Jammu and Kashmir state; but in fact, Aksai Chin had remained a remote, inhospitable region where mainly nomadic tribes used to roam.
However, the area was ignored until the 1950s when China built a military road through it to connect Tibet with Xinjiang. The Indian government was outraged upon discovery of the road and it ended up becoming a major factor in the China-Indian border conflict of 1962. In the end, China retained control of about 14,700 square miles of territory in Aksai Chin.
In 1993 and 1996, the two countries signed agreements to respect the line of actual control, the demarcation line that separates Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory in Jammu and Kashmir. However, China’s controlled Aksai Chin still stays crucial for maintaining a direct route between Tibet and Xinjiang and is a vital territory for its strategic position.
Aksai Chin is mostly high ground with an average elevation of around 17,000 feet and it gives an edge to China if it ever goes to war with its neighbour India; as the Aksai Chin region will enable it to take a commanding high position.
Geostrategically, Kashmir is vital for China as well, as it shares borders with Afghanistan, a landlocked country where South Asia meets natural resource-rich Central Asia. Furthermore, Central Asia is a geographic bridge between Europe and other parts of Asia. Additionally, Kashmir is a vital geographic component of China’s OBOR (One Belt One Road) initiative and the CPEC (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor). The route of CPEC flows all the way from China into Pakistan through Gilgit Baltistan and other adjacent areas of Kashmir. Hence, China’s access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean via CPEC ensures Chinese naval presence close to Indian waters thus countering the Indian hegemonic designs and influence in the Indian Ocean.
Moreover, economically and in terms of natural resources, Kashmir is home to huge natural resources of hydrocarbons and minerals for which both China and India are craving because of rapid demand as a result of the massive industrialization in their respective countries. The landlocked region of Kashmir, if seen separately, is also a huge consumer market; as a population of 70 million is open for exploitation for the emerging economies of China and India.
Apart from that, India also wants to create a trade route linking Afghanistan, Central Asia, Russia and Europe. Threatening statements by Indian civil-military officials regarding capturing Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan’s side Kashmir corroborates the fact and divulges Indian intentions of machination and demonization. Currently, to access the markets of Central Asia, India has to sail through the Arabian Sea to reach Iranian ports from which freight then proceeds over land.
Finally, as India already is helping Iran for making a port in Iran for bypassing this trade route to Central Asia and thence to Europe as well; yet India’s regional connectivity plans known as the “International North-South Corridor”, which is a 7,200-km-long multi-mode network of ship, rail, and road route for moving freight between India, Iran, Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Central Asia and Europe, are time-consuming and costly. Hence India sees with evil eyes towards annexing the whole of Kashmir for the expansion of Modi’s ‘Hindutva’ vision all the way from South-Asia to Central-Asia and then to Europe.