Two rounds of military dialogue between India and China to end the Ladakh stand-off have brought into sharp focus their apprehensions on road construction along the unsettled frontiers.
Media readouts following the talks suggest that to China’s objections to Indian border road construction along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian side politely but firmly told Beijing that it should shed double standards. China has already established a sophisticated road and rail network in its two strategic regions — Xinjiang and Tibet — that border India, and extended it in the direction of LAC. India has, therefore, only responded to the per-existing “facts on the ground”.
But analysts point out that there has been a fundamental difference between the Indian and Chinese approach to construction of border infrastructure outside the immediate vicinity of the LAC.
After launching its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s primary focus has been essentially geo-economic — to build connectivity for trade and investment on a Eurasian scale — rather than geopolitical, with the use of border roads for military purposes, only as part of its plan-B.
“In India, we fail to grasp that the DNA of the Chinese civilization is geo-economic, not so much about capturing territory through military conquests, but about capturing markets and resources based on trade and investments,” P. Stobdan, former Indian Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, who specialises on China and Himalayan studies told The Hindu .
Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean academic and former diplomat spotlights that China’s strategic culture shaped over the last 2,000 years persuades the Middle Kingdom from fighting “unnecessary wars”. “Two thousand years of Chinese history have created a strategic culture that advises against fighting unnecessary wars in distant places. The likelihood, therefore, is that, while China’s strategic weight and influence in the world will grow significantly, it will not behave as an aggressive and belligerent military power,” says Mr. Mahbubani in his book, Has China Won?: The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy .
On the contrary, India’s long overdue road construction, including the arterial links to the Darbuk- Shyok- Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road, which China has vigorously opposed by deploying troops and heavy armour, has focused essentially on the security dimension, branding the new connectivity as a belated equaliser to militarily counter China.
Analysts point out that while India is fully justified in building dual-use roads on its side of the border, New Delhi will be well served in pushing its interests by applying geo-economic and geo-cultural logic of reviving India’s “civilizational links” with China based on trade, commerce and culture, by constructing new border roads and modern economic corridors, which are digitally empowered.
“India has some reservations about the BRI, but even if does not join this project, how can China object if New Delhi’s road construction in Ladakh is for building a trans-Himalayan economic corridor?” says Mr. Stobdan.
Need for summit
In an article in The Kathmandu Post , Professor Mahendra Lama of Jawaharlal Nehru University elaborates about reimagining border roads by calling for a full formal or informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping “to exclusively review why such fracas, intrusions and border imbroglios become a repetitive phenomenon”.
“India started pretty late in building its mountain borderland infrastructure...The borderland roads and other infrastructures in the mountain areas are very critical both in the context of national security, scientific studies and steady migration of its population from these regions,” he observed.
In fact, apart from restoring some strategic balance in Eastern Ladakh, the DSDBO road, now in serious military contention, can become a major artery, for reviving the traditional trade corridor linking Ladakh and Xinjiang through the lofty 18,176 feet Karakoram pass.
Observers say that the DSDBO road, which terminates at the base of the Karakoram pass, can help instil new life in the old Xinjiang route, which had traditionally terminated at Kashgar.
Prior to the construction of the DSDBO road, a motorable road from Leh, Ladakh’s capital, entered the Nubra valley through the 18,600 feet Khardungla pass and headed to the base of Saser Kangri — a mountain complex of six peaks in the Karakoram range. Thereafter, a track headed to Murgo — linking up with the DSDBO route through Burtsa, Qazilangar, Depsang pass to Daulat Beg Oldie, the gateway to the Karakoram Pass.
“The trade, through the Karakoram, influenced the dress, food and dance forms of Ladakh. On the other side of the pass, ‘Chini Bagh’ at Kashgar [the residence of the British Joint Commissioner of Trade], “Gurdial Sarai” and “Kashmiri Kucha” [street] at Yarkand, where Indian traders used to stay, still remind us of the magnitude of commerce that took place. The Bactrian camel [double hump] of Nubra valley is a relic from Xinjiang,” wrote Virendra Sahai Verma in a 2013 article in The Hindu .
For 28 years, Chini-bagh was home to George Macartney, British consul-general in Kashgar. It hosted famous visitors, including Aurel Stein, Hungarian-born British archaeologist, known for his Central Asia explorations and archaeological discoveries, as well as Count Otani — famous for his expeditions to Buddhist sites in Central Asia .
Besides, new roads in Ladakh can also help revive the “Tibet route”, which passes through Demchok and heads in the direction, 300 km away, of Kailash Mansarovar — an area with a powerful emotional connect with Indian pilgrims.
A geo-cultural approach is also likely to work well with the rapidly evolving Communist Party of China (CPC), under President Xi , which is digging deeply into the country’s civilizational roots of Confucianism and Buddhism. For instance, at the foot of Mount Ni, the birthplace of Confucius, a vast cultural infrastructure is taking root where local CPC members have been instructed “to make people understand traditional Chinese culture, and ensure that some of its values can percolate into their homes,” a local CPC member had told The Hindu .
China has also been regularly hosting the World Buddhist Forum, drawing thousands of monks and scholars from across the globe. “Unlike the Soviet Communist Party, it [the CPC] is not riding on an ideological wave; it is riding the wave of a resurgent civilization, and that civilization has proven itself to be one of the strongest and most resilient civilizations in history,” Mr. Mahbubani observed.