When the United Nations Security Council held a discussion on Kashmir on 16 August last year — the first since 1965 — many in the security establishment in Jammu and Kashmir began to speculate over the swift Chinese backing to Pakistan. Islamabad had gone to the UN over the Narendra Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370 and bifurcate the erstwhile state into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh.
The murmurs amplified when China unsuccessfully attempted to call for another UNSC meeting on Kashmir in December 2019. Security officials began to discuss how the diplomatic tussle would translate or manifest on the ground.
The speculations ended on 15 June when, following a month-long stand-off in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and several clashes with sticks and stones, a physical combat resulted in the death of 20 Indian soldiers, including a Colonel. The unprecedented developments in the mostly uninhabited snowy deserts is why Ladakh is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
Why Ladakh matters
Domain experts, journalists and former Army officials have analysed the strategic importance of Ladakh to India and China.
For China, it is not limited to territorial dominance over the Galwan Valley alone. The barren landscape of Ladakh is yet to be fully explored for natural resources and the region is crucial to both India and China’s plans to boost their respective economies.
The location itself offers strategic advantage throughout the Himalayan region. Aksai Chin, formerly part of Ladakh before the Chinese occupation following the 1962 war, connects the Xinjiang Province of China to Tibet, which China annexed in 1950 and remains a site of political contestation.
It is not surprising that India’s activities near the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the past decade have been a source of concern for China. The decision to make Ladakh a separate Union Territory and bring it under direct control of New Delhi aligns with the Modi government’s ambitions to develop the region and get vindication for its stand on how previous central and J&K governments had neglected the region and how the BJP rescued it.
India reactivating its airfields in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO), Fukche, and Nyoma to reduce reliance on Leh as the main air support hub for Ladakh, needs to be seen in this context. India has invested heavily in the 255-km Darbuk-Shayok-DBO road construction, which allows it to access Aksai Chin with ease.
Aksai Chin is also crucial to China’s access to the Central Asia regions — specifically, the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (part of its Eurasian Belt and Road Initiative), which spans Aksai Chin-Gilgit Baltistan (PoK)-Balochistan. Any change in the status quo in the volatile Himalayan region of Jammu, Kashmir or Ladakh threatens the plausibility of BRI, an initiative that President Xi Jinping has himself been pushing.
Xi’s ambitious business project is also seen as an effort to replicate the historic silk trade routes, of which Ladakh was an important part.
Is local economy a factor?
If it wasn’t for the current skirmishes in the Galwan Valley, Ladakh would continue to be discussed for its scenic beauty and be populated by tourists from all over India. The economy of the region depends heavily on tourism and construction contracts provided by the security forces. The tourism industry received a shot in the arm after the climax of a famous Bollywood movie, 3 Idiots, was shot at the serene Pangong Lake, turning it into a popular tourism hub overnight.
But heavy presence of defence forces means contractual work all year round. Not only are the local people provided with contracts to build infrastructure, labourers, both local and non-local, are provided with employment opportunities. As recently as on Monday, more than 1,500 labourers from Jharkhand, who had reached home after bracing the coronavirus lockdown, were brought back to Ladakh in a special train for road construction-related works along the LAC.
Another major source of income is the world famous Pashmina shawls, which come from the Pashmina goats that Ladakh farmers rear in areas such as Zanskar, Nubra and Changthang. In Changthang alone, where the Changpa tribe live, there are more than 2.5 lakh Pashmina goats and are the only source of income for about 1,200 families.
So, when contextualising the current Chinese fortification of the Galwan Valley, it is important to locate it in the game for dominance over the Himalayan region.
Mao Zedong, the founder of People’s Republic of China, had famously described Tibet as China’s “right hand’s palm” and Ladakh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh as the “five fingers”, which he wanted to “liberate”.
China’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ and salami-slicing policies to expand into contested territories are just a manifestation of Mao’s thoughts, and security officials responsible for the upkeep of the LAC know this very well.
The capturing of Aksai Chin, Pakistan’s decision to cede territory to China in 1963, and now the claim over Galwan Valley, as one senior security official said, are all part of China’s grand strategy to fulfil Mao’s quest by 2048.
China’s vocal stand
So, does the Chinese plan point towards a turbulent time in Ladakh, a region that has remained largely peaceful even when Jammu and Kashmir was hit by an insurgency that refuses to die down after 30 years?
Ladakh, with a population of over 2.7 lakh, of which Muslims comprise nearly 46 per cent and Buddhists about 40 per cent, has not witnessed major conflicts other than the main fault line, which was over the demands of making it a Union Territory.
The demand was overwhelmingly supported by the Buddhist population, which, coupled with the abrogation of Article 370 and the subsequent release of the new map of Ladakh, might just have finally irked China.
The Chinese have made themselves a more vocal “stakeholder” in the Kashmir conflict, which wasn’t the case in the past.
There is, however, a section of intellectuals and political experts, who, like many in the J&K security establishment, believe that the Chinese did not need the abrogation of Article 370 to further its agenda. For them, China is doing what it does — expand.
On possible reasons behind the Chinese aggression in Ladakh, a prominent political commentator based in Kashmir, during an informal chat, quoted English mountaineer George Mallory’s famous response to why he wanted to climb the Mount Everest. Mallory, back in the 1920s, had responded, “Because it is there”.
So why did the Chinese advance into Ladakh? Because it is there.
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