By Syed Ali Mujtaba
As news reports are coming that China is disengaging its forces from the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the words of former National Security Advisor Shivsankar Menon comes as a handy quote. The former Ambassador to China says; China moves two steps forward and then takes one step backward, having a net gain of one step, each time it withdraws after an ingression on the LAC.
The current disengagement process which is underway on the LAC is part of the same mindset that India’s former foreign secretary was talking about.
In order to understand the Chinese withdrawal, we have to know about differing perceptions of India and China about Ladak. There are conflicting objectives of both the countries in this region both have different game plans to checkmate each other. So in order to draw any conclusion, we have to know how India and China look at Ladak and what they want to achieve by keeping the tension alive.
There was a treaty of Amritsar after the Anglo Sikh war of 1843 and the victorious British side gave the territory of Ladak to the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir. The Princely rulers though held the sovereignty of Ladak but gave its suzerainty to China that controlled most of Ladak.
After the merger of the Princely State to Indian Union, Ladak became part of the Indian Territory. But there was conflicting claims between India and Pakistan over the territories held by the erstwhile princely state and as result Ladak remains a disputed territory even though most of it is controlled by India.
Meanwhile, as the acrimony between India and Pakistan was going on over Kashmir, China that still held sway over eastern portion of Ladak, started building a road from its Xingjian province through the Aksai Chin region of Ladak to connect it to Tibet. This was because China had occupied in 1949 and there was resistance against Chinese occupation and China wanted to ferry its troops to Tibet to quell the uprising there.
India protested the construction of the road claiming that Aksai Chin is Indian Territory. India’s protest was also due to the fact of its loss of a gateway to Central Asia to Pakistan after the Partition of India, in 1947, and Aksai Chin was the only way India could get there.
Equally, Aksai Chin region was important to China because it connected its Xinjiang province with its Tibet autonomous region. The road joining Tibet with Xinjiang through the Aksai Chin served it as a lifeline to control Tibet.
China ultimately went ahead and completed the road in 1957 much to the chagrin of India. This led to open confrontation between India and China and the situation deteriorated so much so that it led to the Sino-Indian War of 1962.
At the war, China took control of about 38,000 square km of territory of Aksai Chin that India claimed to be its own. China declared a unilateral ceasefire and the boundary which emerged between India and China came to be known as Line of Actual Control (LAC). The LAC is a military held line which remains un-demarked, with both India and China having different perceptions about it.
As per the ceasefire agreement, India and China moved back its troops to some 20 kilometers behind from the LAC. However, since then both have moved forward from those agreed positions. Both are building permanent infrastructure to feed their forward positions. As a result, both India and China feel vulnerable and both transgress each other’s boundary and tension keeps on spiking on the LAC at regular intervals.
Since the beginning, China has not recognized India’s claim over Ladak. It views Ladak as a disputed territory between India and Pakistan. It wants an early resolution of the Kashmir problem for settlement of its border with Ladak.
China that held suzerainty over Ladak before India’s independence wants India and Pakistan to involve it in the settlement of its territorial dispute. China debunks India’s claims of having a 1597 km border in Ladak. It claims that it shares only 2000 km border with India minus Ladak, contrary to India’s claim that it has 3,488 km border with China.
China also has objections to India’s unilaterally carving out the Union territory of Ladak on August 5, 2019. China says its violation of its 1962 ceasefire agreement as it has changed the character of Ladak. It has taken the matter to the United Nations.
India’s objective in Ladak is to maintain its military supply line to its Sub-Sector North in Eastern Ladak, comprising Depsang Plains and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) air field.
In order to achieve this objective, India has constructed 220 km long Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road that connects Leh with the Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) post. The road built by India traverses close to the Line of Actual Control with China.
The 220-km long road reduces the Indian military convoy travel time from 2 days to 6 hours to reach DOB from Leh. The DBO air field is used to further maintain supply lines to the Siachin and the Kargil outpost, where Indian troops are deployed to watch and ward the country’s borders.
Further, the DBO air field is some eight kilometers from Karakoram Range, across which China- Pakistan Economic Corridor is under construction. India has claim over those areas under Pakistan and Chinese occupation. India’s claim is based on the premise that those areas belonged to the erstwhile Princely state of J&K and has become Indian Territory after its merger.
India’s construction of Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road has made the CPEC project vulnerable for China. India can use Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) air field to launch air strikes on the CPEC.
Further, the Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road passes through Galwan valley and a link road from it can take India’s military convoy to Aksai Chin in the shortest possible time.
In order to accomplish all these objectives, India has made Ladak its Union territory on August 5, 2019. India has started massive construction work to protect its positions on the LAC.
These Indian developments on LAC have not been liked by China. The Chinese objective is to block India from achieving any of its objectives.
The Chinese game plan is to get into the Indian side of the LAC making forcible intrusion at different points taking advantage of the un-demarcated LAC. It’s with these objectives China is pushing the LAC boundary to its own advantage.
China has intruded at different border locations of Ladakh; Depsang Plains, Lukung Lake and Shyok & Chang- Chenmo River, Hot Springs Durbuk etc. It has constructed permanent military structures to these places to maintain its military supply line to these forward locations.
Further, China has gone to dominate the peaks from Dulat Beg Oldie to Pangong Lake heights, a distance of about 157 kilometers. These heights run parallel to India’s Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road and now remain in shadow of Chinese guns.
The famous Pangong Lake is one of the flash points between India and China. The lake itself does not have any strategic significance, but it lies in the path of the ‘Chushul’ which is one of the five officially agreed Border Meeting points between two countries. Chushul has an airfield that India can use for any offensive against China.
In order to neutralize any such Indian designs, China has taken control of the heights overlooking the Pangong Lake. It controls mountain spurs called fingers from 8 to 4. This control of vantage positions has given China to strike at the Chushul airfield at its will.
Similarly, China has now occupied Galwan valley and has positioned at striking distance to Darbuk–Shyok-DBO Road and can anytime block the Indian military convoy going to sub-sector north. The Chinese by occupying the Galwan valley has further blocked the Indian troops moving to Aksai Chin region in eastern Ladak.
Further, in case of India – China flare-up, if India launches and air operations from DBO air-field China can use its electro-magnetic spectrum capabilities and neutralize these aircrafts. Further by dominating the heights in Ladak, China can use anti- aircraft guns or missiles placed at vantage points to neutralize the Indian air power.
In addition to all this, China has kept its nuke warheads positioned in Tibet overlooking Ladak. It has kept two lakh soldiers in Tibet and has created a habitat and ecosystem for them. The PLA is made war ready and can be deployed at the LAC within hours.
The recent clashes that broke out in May and June was Chinese game plan to use its military coercion to make India understand that it has achieved its military objectives in Ladak without firing a single bullet.
The bottom line of the skirmishes with India is that China has deftly nipped in the bud any Indian ambition for using its military might to take over Aksai Chin or adventure across the Karakoram Range.
China has established it’s redlines that India will find hard to transgress. The de-escalation process which is currently underway is all about cooling down the temperatures even as this story has played itself out.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org