Aksai Chin is not coveted for its beauty, mineral riches, or fertile soil, it’s a barren, mostly uninhabitable, cold high plain, but it has attributes, those beloved by estate agents – commanding views, transport links, and, location, location, location. In fact, if you’re China or India, this part of the Karakorum mountain range might even be worth fighting over.
This summer has seen the two sides come to blows, but only with their soldiers’ fists. We’ve seen this before along their 2,100-mile-long border, but what happened in May risks a shooting match. Over the past year India has beefed up its military capability in the region and now China has moved troops 2.5 miles into Indian territory. Each side fears the other seeks to create a situation which will become permanent giving the other a military advantage in a region over which they fought a war in 1962.
India says that despite Aksai Chin being controlled by China it is part of its Ladakh region, China counts it as part of its Xinxiang province. The flashpoints are along what is called the ‘Line of Actual Control’ – (LAC) the points where Indian military control stops, and Chinese control begins.
At 17,000 feet above sea level, shifting river flows and snow mean the lines are not always clear - especially if you don’t want them to be. New Delhi says an army patrol near Pangong Lake was blocked by hundreds of Chinese soldiers operating across the LAC. Punches were thrown, then stones. The Chinese set up camp and moved in artillery. Several thousand soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army are now dug in near the lake and in the Galwan valley, facing thousands of Indian reinforcements rushed to the front line.
Beijing believes India behaved aggressively by building a road which follows the LAC for several hundred miles and connects military outposts. India has also upgraded an old air force landing strip. Both capitals know their long-term strategies will be enhanced, downgraded, or return to the status quo, depending on the outcome of the stand-off.
India must persuade China to move. If dialogue fails the options are to accept humiliation, or move them by force. If not, China will be positioned to lay claim on Indian territory, and to cut the new roads India has built. It has yet to park a tank on the lawn – but has planted several red flags.
There have been other, more subtle, attempts to lay down markers. For example when Prime Minister Modi visited China in 2015, state TV showed a map of India minus Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh – the latter is claimed by Beijing. This spring China’s National Surveying Information Bureau depicted Arunachal Pradesh as being within its borders.
Due to the difficult terrain of the Himalayas, China’s focus is not usually on India, but technology now allows both sides to better operate in the high ground. This makes China increasingly sensitive about Aksai Chin which connects the restive province of Xinjiang to Western Tibet. It is also close to the Karakorum Highway which is part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. It runs down to the Pakistan port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea and is a key component in the Belt and Road Initiative. Part of the Highway is routed through Pakistan controlled Kashmir about which some of the wilder elements in the Indian Hindu Nationalist BJP government have spoken about one day recapturing. That alarms Beijing, which took a dim view of India’s decision last year to redraw its map by splitting Jammu & Kashmir to create Ladakh.
The flare-up occurred in several locations and follows a pattern of challenging the status quo which began when President Xi came to power eight years ago. Until now the most serious incident was in 2017 when India and China engaged in a 73-day military stand-off on the Doklam Plateau in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim. Modi and Xi came to an agreement allowing both sides to save face.
A similar settlement this time looks to be more difficult as China does not appear to be in the mood for compromise. With the world’s attention on the Covid-19 pandemic China has been attending to foreign policy. As well as the Ladakh incident it sunk a Vietnamese fishing vessel, harassed a Malaysian drilling rig, sailed an aircraft carrier fleet around Taiwan, and tightened its grip on Hong Kong. As China’s Covid pandemic wound down, and others intensified, it looks as if Beijing calculated that countries such as India would be too consumed with dealing with the virus to push back.
If China feels it can cement new facts on the ground in Ladakh it will be tempted to reject compromise, and that will leave India with some hard choices.