Even after five rounds of commander level talks between India and China, the hostilities between the two countries in the Himalayan region have far from dissipated. The Indian side has reiterated its policy of disengagement and return to the status quo and the Chinese side seems more inclined to remain stationed in Pangong Tso and Depsang sector. India has reacted to the Chinese incursion by banning 59 Chinese apps in the country, including top apps like TikTok. India refuted Chinese claims to disengagement at the border in Ladakh and has made it clear that for the situation to normalize China must commit to a full and immediate de-escalation completely and return troops to their permanent locations. Keeping in mind the fast approaching winters and the harsh terrain of Ladakh, failed talks can lead both India and China towards a long haul of high-altitude conflict in the extreme cold.
In order to understand the standoff, it is important to also understand the geostrategic significance of its location and socio-cultural aspirations of the region in question, Ladakh. Often referred to as a “cold desert” and known for its international tourism, Ladakh’s history provides fertile ground for exploring the roots of the current standoff.
History of LadakhIn order to understand the standoff, it is important to understand the geostrategic significance of its location and socio-cultural aspirations of the region in question, Ladakh. Often referred to as a “cold desert” and known for its international tourism, Ladakh’s history provides fertile ground for exploring the roots of the current standoff.
Ladakh, also known as “the Land of Passes‟ (La means passes, dakh means land), has been located at the crossroads of important trade routes since ancient times. Perhaps stemming from this, Ladakh has also always held great geostrategic importance. Janet Rizvi, in Ladakh: Crossroads of High Asia aptly refers to Ladakh as the “Himalayan region where many roads meet.”
Historically, Ladakh was an important part of the ancient silk route connecting India with Central Asia and beyond and was the center point for the intermingling of cultures, ideologies, and ideas. In the nineteenth century, however, the Dogra Kingdom began a conquest to overtake Ladakh and in 1834, General Zorawar Singh, a general of Raja Gulab Singh, extended the boundaries of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom to Ladakh. Later, and with the partition of the Indian Subcontinent in 1947 and the tribal raiders attack from the Pakistani side, the Dogra King Raja Hari Singh asked for help from the Indian government who in turn asked the king to sign a treaty of accession. Henceforth the erstwhile J&K became part of India.
With the scarping of Article 370 from Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two union territories (UTs), Ladakh finally gained a separate identity from J&K. India has long viewed the erstwhile J&K through the prism of the Kashmir conflict, hence most of its policies were Kashmir-centric. The basic issues (socio-cultural, political, and economic) of the people of Ladakh, on the other hand, never received the same attention. After decades of concerns about “step-motherly” treatment from Kashmir, Leh received an autonomous hill development council in 1995 and Kargil in 2003. These hill councils are autonomous district councils that administer the two districts of Ladakh. Eight months before the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) of both Leh and Kargil had unanimously passed a resolution, demanding “complete autonomy from Kashmir’s administrative setup.” The decision to divide the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories finally separated the destiny of the Ladakh region out from that of the Kashmir valley in granting it an independent status.
The Historical Geostrategic Significance of Ladakh
In Ladakh, India shares borders with two of its most important neighbors, China and Pakistan. Its border with China is in the Leh district, and its border with Pakistan crosses through Kargil and the Nubra Valley. The 1950s marked the beginning of Chinese expansionist designs in Ladakh. Although India has always considered Aksai Chin to be part of Jammu and Kashmir, China built a highway, called the western highway or NH219, connecting Tibet with Xinjiang through this region. China today claims Aksai Chin to be part of Hotan County of its Xinjiang province. On March 2, 1963, Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley—part of the Baltistan region north of the Karakoram—to China following the Sino-Pakistani agreement.
In the early 1960s, China annexed a substantial area of eastern Ladakh. India views Kashmir as a flashpoint in its conflict with Pakistan and has always responded seriously to Chinese incursions. The most recent Galwan clash has accentuated the significant regional import of Ladakh in particular. The Chinese side has never shown this degree of belligerence and offensive positioning in the past, instead conducting its intrusion on small scale, leaving behind little proof. This current standoff has stretched over more than two months and has elucidated Chinese intentions in Ladakh. India has in turn paid greater attention to the particular strategic significance of the region.This current standoff has stretched over more than two months and has elucidated Chinese intentions in Ladakh. India has in turn paid greater attention to the particular strategic significance of the region.
The presence of resources is what marks India, China and Pakistan’s struggle over Ladakh. Pakistan and China are in conflict with India over Siachen and Aksai Chin in this region. The Kargil War renewed the strategic importance of the region multi-fold as India urgently felt pressure to revamp security and intelligence in the region, owing to its perceived vulnerability to Pakistan.
In the future, the oil and gas pipeline from Iran to China may pass through this mountainous corridor of Ladakh, reviving its historical strategic significance as a transit point to Central Asia. India’s energy needs may also be met by constructing a pipeline from Central Asia via this region.
The Current India-China Border Dispute in Ladakh
The India-China standoff in Ladakh began at the banks of the Pangong Tso lake: 30 percent of the lake belongs to India, and 70 percent to China. China has taken on a project to massively develop infrastructure and troop presence in and around the Pangong Tso. Chinese incursions in this region are aimed at shifting the Line of Actual Control (LAC) westward, enabling them to occupy strategic heights both on the north and the south of the lake and granting them advantage over the Chushul Bowl.
So far, the modus operandi of the PLA has been to patrol the Indian side of the LAC. If they come face-to-face with Indian troops, a standoff ensues. The current situation has a few historical antecedents. Nonetheless, this is the first time that the PLA and the Indian soldiers used pointed wood and iron metals in a fist fight that resulted in the death of soldiers on both sides—earlier faceoffs had ended in fist fights and push offs. This is also the first time analysts have consistently spoken of the possibility of India facing a two-front war—one from Chinese side of the border and another from Pakistan, China’s “all weather friend.”
There are two principal causes of the developing conflict and the Chinese aggressive stance. The first is India’s construction of a 255 km-long strategic Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road including eight bridges. The highway passes the villages near the LAC—Darbuk and Syok at southern Shyok Valley— and runs parallel to the Chinese border. From posts along a completed DSDBO road, troops on the Indian side can oversee Pakistan-occupied areas of Gilgit Baltistan—west of the DSDBO and an entry point for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The second is India’s decision to grant Union Territory Status to Ladakh in the aftermath of the scrapping of Article 370 on August 5, 2019. China considers Ladakh part of the Kashmir dispute and does not recognize the Indian decision to separate it and make it an official part of the country. In occupying the Galwan valley, the Chinese aim to counter the tactical advantage India gained in constructing its all-weather DSDBO.
Impact on the frontline villages near LACThe villages in Ladakh are the frontline of the Chinese incursion and bear witness to the changing dynamic of borders between India and China. These villages are so close to the Tibetan villages on the Chinese side that it is said that they share more in common with them than the Ladakhis in other part of the region.
The villages in Ladakh are the frontline of the Chinese incursion and bear witness to the changing dynamic of borders between India and China. These villages are so close to the Tibetan villages on the Chinese side that it is said that they share more in common with them than the Ladakhis in other part of the region.
Most notably, the Changpa are the nomadic community that lives in eastern Ladakh. They are generally the first to encounter soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the event of a face-off. Heavy snowfall in the winters, force the Changpas to leave valley floors and climb the mountains in search of winter grazing lands. Since there is no formal demarcation of the LAC between India and China in these remote areas, the Changpa often unknowingly move very close to the LAC, where they may encounter PLA patrol parties. There is no clear demarcation of border between India and China near the LAC, especially when it comes to grazing areas the nomads on both sides of the region easily cross to each other sides depending on the availability of grass for their herd.
A total lack of clarity on border line, and its porosity, has become a major challenge for the Changpa and other communities living in villages close to the LAC. These communities face a two-pronged problem: first, they are excluded from the benefits of development schemes due to the remoteness of the region wherein the local administration and others make little effort to reach them. Second, their proximity to the LAC has become a curse for them, especially in winters when the Chinese soldiers refuse to allow them access to traditional winter grazing grounds and keep a tight check on their movement.
Chinese incursions in Ladakh are typically discussed as threats to national security given the strategic importance of the region—the negative effects on locals living in border areas, instead, rarely enter the national limelight. The Changpa who graze their livestock near the LAC are the eyes and ears of the region, but international policymakers have yet to heed their complaints about the Chinese PLA.
Policy Implications for New Delhi
The failure to contain the intrusions by China in the border villages of Ladakh indicates to the importance of infrastructure development in these regions to counter China. There are clearly no special developmental schemes for border villages that are at the frontline of such conflicts.The Indian government could revamp development in these border regions and bridge the gap between the government and locals that are the ear and eyes near the LAC.
In doing so, Indian policymakers will have to consider Ladakh’s geographic location, fragile environment, resource potentials and its people’s aspirations. India might consider the benefits of investing locals in the defense of the Ladakhi border. The Ladakh Scouts consist entirely of Ladkahis trained in climbing and defending mountainous terrain—there are reports that Indian troops suffered from breathlessness and exhaustion. In such a scenario, new local recruitment and proper training increases manifold.
The intense standoff at Pangong-Tso in May 2020 has highlighted how significant negotiation between India and Beijing is required to resolve the many issues endemic to the disputed regions in Ladakh. Neither state can handle the costs of a protracted two-front war—including over the border in the Himalayan region. A human-centric approach that considers the needs and perspectives of local Ladakhis may be a step in the right direction.
Image 1: Wikimedia Commons
Image 2: PxSphere