China started making a subtle move to question India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh somewhere in the late 1990s. After Dalai Lama’s 2009 Tawang visit, China began to issue stapled visas on a separate leaf to the people from Arunachal Pradesh and J&K, implying they didn’t belong to India.
Being a resident of Ladakh, the author faced a number of difficulties during his visits to China.
Other symbolic steps included the practice of a Chinese diplomat in Delhi to avoid visits to J&K. Similarly, People Liberation Army’s (PLA) China Lanzhou Military Region’s Commander refused to travel to Leh for Confidence Building Measures (CBM), ostensibly to avoid upsetting the Pakistani Army.
Chinese academics suggested China has no dispute in the "so-called Western Sector" (meaning Ladakh is not Indian Territory) and that for China, J&K only means the Kashmir Valley.
While India made some internal cartographic modifications on November 2, 2019, China had sought to question the former’s territorial limits some 10 years ago. In 2010, China started preparing ground for claiming around 1,600 kms of Indian Territory by shortening the length of India-China border when it purged the line separating J&K from Aksai Chin.
In December 2010, on the eve of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's visit to India, the Chinese state-owned media Xinhua and Global Times for the first time carried reports describing the Sino-Indian border as nearly 2,000 km long.
This, for the first time, contradicted Indian official figure of 3,488 km as operational border between India and China. Indian map covered the entire Aksai Chin (37,000 sq km) and 5,400 sq km of Shaksgam that was illegally ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963.
In May 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China, the state-owned television CCTV showed India's map without J&K and Arunachal Pradesh.
In 2017, weeks after the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang, China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs made strategic renaming move. It unilaterally renamed at least six places in Arunachal to reaffirm its territorial sovereignty.
In March 2019, Chinese customs officials destroyed 30,000 world maps printed in the country for not showing Arunachal Pradesh and Taiwan as part of its territory.
In April this year, China’s latest Sky Map or digital maps showed parts of Arunachal Pradesh within its international borders. Sky Map is operated by Beijing's National Surveying and Mapping Geographic Information Bureau.
China’s earlier Sky Map was based on the 1989 edition. Since then China’s external boundaries changed following the border settlements with Russia and Central Asian countries. The last border settlement was with Tajikistan in 2011 when China got 1,158 square kilometers east of the Sarekole Mountains. The area was added into Tashkurgan County in the Kashgar Prefecture of Xinjiang Province. (Tashkurgan was formally an Indian territory – a part of Shakgam Valley).
Strategic focus on Aksai Chin Plateau
The current intrusion in Ladakh appears to reaffirm China’s claim over the entire Aksai Chin Plateau (37,000 sq km).
This came against the backdrop of India’s cartographic changes made on November 2, 2019, following the bifurcation of J&K into two separate administrative units of Union Territories, J&K and Ladakh.
New Focus on Ladakh
Beijing had made a sudden outburst over Ladakh’s changed status—a move China described as ‘unacceptable’ undermining its ‘sovereignty’—even raised the issue at the UNSC. While India termed Ladakh’s new status an “internal matter” having "no impact” for the LAC status, China’s response was strategic.
Since then, China is using Article 370 abrogation as a Trojan horse to forward its own stakes in Ladakh for the following reasons: a) it would impact the CPEC project, b) Home Minister Amit Shah referred to Aksai Chin as part of India in the Parliament, c) Ladakh will go the Arunachal way in terms of integrating fully into the Indian Union, d) it stymied the use of Ladakh’s vast territory room for negotiating with India on the boundary question, d) prolonged resentment amongst people against Delhi for keeping them under the Kashmiri rule was seen benefiting China in the longer term, and e) any move to change the demography of Ladakh after the Article 370 removal is probably seen as problematic for China.
Meanwhile, India’s strategic intent has also become firmer since last year. It reclaimed the entire PoK in accordance with the February 1994 Parliament resolution, even considering options to regain physical position of 74,000 sqkm Gilgit-Baltistan.
Importantly, India’s renewed assertion comes against the need to thwart any advancement of radicals (Taliban) from across the Wakhan Corridor through Irshad pass into India. Ladakh now has a direct declared 106 km long border with Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province through (Gilgit-Baltistan).
The Survey of India’s new map depicts Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai China within the UT Ladakh boundary.
Again in a subtle move, India Meteorological Department (IMD) included areas in PoK and Gilgit- Baltistan in its daily weather forecasts, startingMay 6.
The change came days after Pakistan Supreme Court permitted the federal government to hold elections in Gilgit-Baltistan.
These material changes brought out by China, India and Pakistan in their respective claims over territory of J&K would certainly set the stage for changing the regional geopolitical dynamics involving these three countries and Afghanistan – all culminating at the Pamir-Knot axis.
Avoiding Diplomatic Statement
No wonder China is abstaining from making official statement on the Ladakh stand-off, for it doesn’t probably want to legitimize India’s control over the area. Whereas, China’s foreign ministry did issue a statement on the Naku-La pass (Sikkim) standoff.
In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in his annual press conference on May 24, chose not to touch the LAC stand-off with India, but instead opted to make statement on Hong Kong situation.
Even the Chinese media this time is avoiding hyping of the incident on the scale as they did during the Doklam standoff.
No adequate explanation is forthcoming, except that they possibly want to provoke India into making its first military move.
While the Indian officials are describing the issue as ‘temporary duration face-offs’, China’s move in Ladakh appears surreptitious, smacking of its unfolding an unscrupulous game plan against India. Therefore, tension at LAC this time is unlikely to move pass like other issues such asDepsang in 2013, Chumur in 2014, and Doklam in 2017that momentarily impacted India-China ties.
CBMs not working
Clearly, de-escalatory measures like the 2013 BDCA along the 857sq km long border in Ladakh is not working. I had doubted whether BDCA’s “not to tail each others' patrols” would work, for it didn’t cover the risk arising from infrastructure upgradation process, particularly due to India’s (belated) zest to boost border infrastructure to match that of China.
Having been used to browbeat the Indian army in the past, the PLA is perhaps surprised by India's swift counter build-up and firmness at the commander’s flag meetings.
Implications for India
Clearly, China wants to create a ‘new normal’situation in Ladakh. PLA troops seem sitting 3km inside the Galwan Valley. At Sirijab (Pangong), PLA is setting a new area denial for patrolling by Indian troops.
If the PLA manages to enter the Shayok Valley either through the Galwan or through Pangong-Tangtse axis, India’s access to Karakoram Pass would be completely cut off.
Path Ahead for India
The way ahead for India is to follow; a) the authentic J&K revenue map (Sambhat 1958) available in LehMafizKhana for all functional purposes, b) it should distribute the entire starch of land in eastern Ladakh from Chumur to Karakoram) among the population of Leh district for agriculture, horticulture and other economic activities, c) the government must build infrastructure airport/road network in the entire eastern Ladakh, d) it must habitat the area with legal ownership to the people, e) the government must provide incentives for Changpa nomadic farmer settled in Leh to return to the borderland areas and encourage them reactivate their nomadic Rebo herding, f) Security forces should be directed not prevent the movement of local Rebos along the border areas, g) the government must undertake massive aforestation and grass-sowing through aerial seeding and use of drip-irrigation technology, h) NITI Aayog should prepare a defence-development plan with the help of Indian Army and Border Road Organization, i) AIF must reactivate the Fukse airport for both civilian and military use, j) attempts should also be made to reopen and refurbish the old Chuchul airport, k) both Indian Army and PLA should revisit the idea of legalising the existing illegal border trade at specific places such Dhumtsele and Demchok.
It could be tried initially for 6 months during summer months April – September, and finally, India should allow the Hemis Monastery to build a large Gate of Wangchuk-ChengoGyas-go or Shiv-dwar on its own land in Demchok.
(The author belongs to Ladakh and is an expert on India-China affairs. Views expressed are personal.)