India China Stand-off in Ladakh
Aneela Shahzad summarises and contexualises different military adventures carried by the two countries along Line of Actual Control in the recent past and the objectives of China behind incursions in Galwan Valley.
Kashmir is a potential geopolitical pivot that engages two aspirant regional powers China and India and a third nuclear power, Pakistan. The volatility of the Kashmir Conflict is not an untroublesome matter, experts around the world realize its sensitivity; the International Crisis Group 2020 Report highlighted Kashmir as one of the ten conflicts to watch.
The recent and ongoing Ladakh Stand-off, where China has made incursions into Indian held territories, has come as a shocker for world audience but is not without precedence. Skirmishes and standoff along the 4,056 km border shared between China and India, where the enormous Tibetan Plateau punches at the towering Himalayas, have been often since the independence of the two states. The same Kashmir that Pakistan contends with India in the United Nations, is also occupied by China in the Aksai Chin, Demchok, and Chumar Valley.
In the recent stand-off, there are reports of incidents and Chinese encampment at several places, making it a multi-nodal incursion. Within a couple of days, the Chinese made their presence at the Pangong Tso Lake through which the LAC passes; the Despang Plains; the Galwan Valley further north; at the Hot Springs area; at Demchok; and at Sikkim.
Entering Ladakh at the Galwan Valley has enabled the Chinese to cross and obstruct the strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DSDBO) highway, cutting off the Indian army’s lone road to Daulat Beg, isolating Sub-Sector North (SSN).
As it has happened, the Indian side has constructed over 2316.62 km to its network of the road inside Ladakh, since 2015. This net of roads leads all the way to Daulet Beg Oldi, the last station at the northern end of Ladakh, that open into Chinese territories. DBO is only 8 km short of the Karakoram Pass, the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Road was completed in October last year and shortly after the Indian Army upgraded the DBO base to brigade level – all this was seen by the Chinese as a threat and India’s preparedness for war under the current ambitious Modi government.
Apparently, the Chinese see India’s enhanced infrastructure and their developments right up to the Karakoram Pass as India’s possible impulsion over Aksai Chin and the adjacent Shaksgam Valley. An impulsion that is proven by the Ministry of External Affair’s recent assertion on Gilgit Baltistan, where it made clear ‘…that the entire Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, including the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, are an integral part of India…’. Indeed, if India considers Gilgit Baltistan a part of India then Aksai Chin and the rest disputed area must be its too. Interestingly, this statement came on May 4th, just one day before the Chinese incursions.
But beyond this China also fears for its highway from Kashghar all the way to Lasha, passing through Aksai Chin. This highway is vital to China as its road to the far-flung city centers of Tibet, separated from the mainland by the daunting Gobi Desert. The same highway from Kashghar splits towards the Khunjrab Pass that enters the Gilgit Baltistan region, wherefrom it goes all the way down to Gwadar at the Arabian Sea, the CPEC route. This means that any Indian advance can obstruct China’s two vital veins, one to its vulnerable Tibet, whose dissenting Dalai Lama is in Indian protection, and the CPEC route that is a flagship project of the BRI.
If the Chinese obstruct the DSDB road at Galwan, where they have reportedly landed with 5,000 troops, they would practically be besieging the whole SSN, and the only access remaining would be through air. This does not only put the Chinese in a position to defend their territory across the Karakoram Pass but also in a position to occupy the whole of SSN, also securing the contentious Siachen Glacier, accessible only from SSN.
The degree of escalation in the standoff can be measured by the fact that Chinese aircrafts have been flying more frequently from their bases in Hotan and Gargunsa, where the number of J-11 and J-7 aircraft has been increased. On the other side, the Indian defense forces and intelligence agencies are carrying out extensive reconnaissance missions via unmanned aerial vehicles.
India’s apprehensions about the stand-off are also not without precedence, as Pakistan has been holding aerial exercise with the PLA Air Force in Hotan and Gargunsa airfields previously. According to reports from the Indian side, “Last year also, we had closely monitored a movement of six Pakistani JF-17s that flew from the Skardu airfield opposite the western side of Ladakh in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir to Hotan where they took part in an exercise named Shaheen-8”.
An escalation from the Chinese side, especially when the world is literally locked down in the fear of COVID-19, and is facing an impending economic recession, was not at all expected. Global and regional players fear that any escalation between the three nuclear powers may easily lead to a nuclear confrontation, the devastation of which will be unbearable by the whole of humanity. Yet China felt compelled to act, why?
Perhaps China is feeling more and more threatened by a series of events that may lead to damage to its economic prowess and sovereign power. The US and Japan’s pressure in the South China Sea; the Trade War; the Hong Kong protests; and India’s disfavour of the CPEC Project, all seem like collectively pushing China to the wall, urging it to react.
Peace in the region could be achieved by inclusiveness and trust-building, but unfortunately, the two states have ended up in confrontation – a confrontation in which China seems to have the upper hand as yet – and in which China may attempt to teach India a decisive lesson.
The author is a columnist and author of the books ‘Understanding Geopolitics’, ‘Geopolitics from the Other Side’ and ‘Palestine and Israel – a Collection of Essays’.
She tweets at @aneelashahzad.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are exclusively personal and do not reflect the stand or policy of Oracle Opinions.