China’s heightened concerns over Aksai Chin and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is routed, in part, through Gilgit-Baltistan, may have set the backdrop for the ongoing stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh.
“There appears to have been a strategic shift in Chinese thinking after India abrogated Sections of Article 370 last year and created the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. India has always claimed Aksai Chin, but the issue appears to have been re-interpreted in China after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked,” says P. Stobdan, former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, who specialises in trans-Himalayan studies.
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Mr. Stobdan added that the CPEC — China’s strategic pathway to the Indian Ocean — which passes through Gilgit-Baltistan — has emerged as an entirely new factor, reinforcing and clubbing the already strong security relationship between China and Pakistan. “Pakistan has become exceptionally important to China as CPEC — which gives access to Gwadar port and helps Beijing reduce its vulnerability on the Americans who dominate Malacca Strait — is the gateway governing China’s international trade. The CPEC has imparted game-changing strategic ballast to the Sino-Pak relationship.”
The CPEC is “too big to fail,” as China has already staked its prestige in the enterprise, which has been showcased as the flagship of the Beijing-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The CPEC plan was robustly challenged in the aftermath of the August 5 change in the status quo in Jammu and Kashmir, which covers Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), including Gilgit-Baltistan, on the corridor’s route. Speaking in the Lok Sabha on August 6 last year, Home Minister Amit Shah unambiguously nailed India’s claims over PoK and Aksai Chin.
“Kashmir is an integral part of India, there is no doubt over it. When I talk about Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it,” he said. For the record, Mr. Shah was echoing a February 1994 unanimous Parliament resolution that categorically stated that Jammu and Kashmir was an integral part of India, and that Pakistan must vacate parts of the State under its occupation. Besides, a Parliament resolution passed on November 14, 1962, commits India to recover Aksai Chin and other areas of J&K occupied/annexed by China.
Overriding India’s position, the Chinese have insisted that Aksai Chin belongs to them, citing geo-strategic considerations. “Aksai Chin is the essential link between Xinjiang and Tibet, and China’s national highway 219 passes through this passage. Aksai Chin is, therefore, central to China’s territorial unity and the one-China principle,” a Chinese academic, who did not wish to be named, told The Hindu .
Unsurprisingly, on August 12 last year, the Chinese asked visiting External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to comment on India’s outlook both on Aksai Chin and Pakistan in the backdrop of the August 5 move to remove Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
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Mr. Jaishankar told the Indian media in Beijing then that apart from Aksai Chin, his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi had also referred to the rising tension between India and Pakistan as a result of these changes. In his response, the External Affairs Minister had reassured his Chinese counterpart that the revocation of Article 370 “did not impact the Line of Control (LoC)”. Besides, “There was no implication for the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. India was not raising any additional territorial claims. The Chinese concerns in this regard were misplaced,” he had said.
Following the August 5 declaration, China’s visibly re-energised strategic equation was spotlighted after Beijing emphatically sided with Islamabad, citing the UN resolutions and the UN charter as the basis for resolving the Kashmir issue, backing the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s earlier statement that India’s move was “unacceptable.”
Analysts say that the undercurrents following New Delhi’s recent decision to issue weather bulletins for PoK locations may have further glued bonds between the two “iron brothers,” whose relationship has acquired fresh geopolitical heft following the CPEC.
In view of reinforcing the CPEC, Chinese state media announced late last month that China was constructing a brand new high-altitude airport at Taxkorgan — a county that falls within the Shaksgam valley, in Gilgit-Baltistan, which Pakistan had ceded to China in 1963.
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China’s concerns about growing ties between India and the U.S. appear to feed into the growing dissonance in India-China ties since the creation of two Union Territories from the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. Briefing Chinese media on the Chennai informal summit in October between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mr. Wang told the visiting Chinese media that President Xi had proposed to Mr. Modi, a trilateral partnership among China, Pakistan and India, free from the influence of “third parties” — a veiled reference to Washington. “President Xi Jinping stressed [during talks with Mr. Modi] the Chinese side sincerely expects sound China-India relations, China-Pakistan relations and India-Pakistan relations and expects to see all sides work together to promote regional peace and stability and achieve common development and prosperity,” he observed.
India’s hectic activity
India’s hectic and overdue road construction activity from 2014 appears to have channelled into the growing mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing about each other’s broader strategic intentions. “After decades of neglect, the Chinese seem unable to digest the hectic Indian road construction activity along the borders,” says Mr. Stobdan.
Commenting on China’s response to India’s border road construction, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran had earlier told The Hindu that “Chinese actions during the current stand-off are strategic in that they regard the DSDBO road with some suspicion, given the advantage and access we would gain all the way to the Karakoram pass.” He was referring to the 255-km Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) section of the road between Leh and Karakoram Pass to Demchok.
Observers say that the stand-off in Ladakh is a pointer to a much larger transformation of the regional geopolitical architecture in south and southwest Asia, starting with Afghanistan but also including Kashmir, requiring a much broader and deeper diplomatic conversation, especially between India and China.
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