As the face-off between India and China continues in Ladakh, the long-running boundary dispute has again come into focus, besides China’s intentions behind the provocative military action. The aggressor and the initiator of the conflict, China has mobilized massive divisions of troops and heavy war-fighting equipment behind its lines at multiple points. This makes this stand-off rare as in the past standoffs at Depsang (2013) and Chumar (2014).
“Strategically, China captured all territory it wanted in the 1962 war which is primarily Aksai Chin through which passes the NH 219 Tibet-Xinjiang Highway. Following the 1962 war, it vacated all captured territory barring some tactically important areas in Ladakh which will deny India access to Aksai Chin. These are areas near Depsang, Galwan River, Sirijap-Khurnak Fort north of Pangong Lake and the Kailash Range 10 km north of Demchok,” explains former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen HS Panag (Retd) in an article in The Print. In other words, in the 1962 war, China reached its Claim Line of 1960.
In the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), they pulled back to pre-war positions after accepting that the Indian Army was already holding areas south of the MacMahon Line. Their claim over Arunachal (which they call as Greater Tibet) however remains. Interestingly, the importance China attaches to Aksai Chin, which is a critical part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, can be gauged from as far back as the late 1950s offer by Chinese Premier Chou En Lai, where China agreed to give up its claim over Arunachal in return for India to give up its claim over Aksai Chin. The same offer was repeated by deceased President Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s.
While the immediate Chinese trigger has been known to be India’s construction of a feeder road and a bridge to the Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road that will allow faster Indian mobilisation to the DBO airfield just south of the Karakoram Ranges, which threatens Aksai Chin, the diplomatic objective according to Panag, is not capture territory but to embarrass India, “daring it to respond.” Why embarrass India? Because according to China, India has been growing close to the US, China’s primary strategic rival. China’s deep rooted suspicion of India also goes as far back as the 1950s, where India harboured the Dalai Lama and trained Tibetan Guerillas.
Also, China had broken away from its cardinal rule of not commenting on other countries’ internal affairs after India abrogated Article 370 in August 2019 and made Ladakh a Union Territory (UT), saying the move affected China’s own border disputes with India. Home Minister Amit Shah too had made a statement in Parliament on August 6, 2019, about Aksai Chin “being an integral part of India”.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry said, “We urge India to be cautious in words and deeds on the border issue, strictly abide by the relevant agreements reached between the two sides and avoid taking actions that further complicate the border issue.” On August 16, the Chinese Permanent Representative to the UN argued in a closed door informal session of the UN Security Council that the abrogation of Article 370 also “challenged China’s own sovereign interests.”
Until then, China had maintained consistent neutrality on the Indo-Pak territorial dispute over J&K, always asking both sides to resolve it through “increased dialogue and consultation”. (Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang’s statement in September 2017); had until the abrogation of Article 370, nipped Pakistani attempts to raise Kashmir in the UNSC and the UNGA; and consistently stated it’s adherence to “non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries” (the last through a column in the state-run Global Times on May 1, 2017, and a subsequent foreign ministry statement on May 4), the statement was totally uncharacteristic.
In the former, it announced its “vested interest” in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute for the success of the OBOR that passes through the Northern Areas and Gilgit-Baltistan. While boasting about its “increased economic influence” to help resolve the conflicts, it said “(it also) needs to be prudent with other big powers…(like)…India.” In the foreign ministry statement on May 4, it went far as to express clear reluctance to mediate between India and Pakistan, calling it an issue “leftover from history… (which should be)…properly addressed by India and Pakistan through consultation and negotiation.”
China’s deep suspicion of India toeing the US line on South Asian issues, which increased manifold when India was seen tacitly joining President Donald Trump’s racism-tinged “China’s lab made Coronavirus” claim, which progressed to demanding an international investigation and reparations from China over the economic damage caused by the pandemic. News channels friendly to the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) had been theming their evening prime time shows on the subject. This is despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) statement, other virological and microbiology research papers and a public report by the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) itself that denies the possibility of the SARS-Cov2 virus being made in a lab. “China perceives India is exploiting its vulnerability and siding with a country (the US) which has been a greater destabilising force in the world with endless wars, support to radical groups by the toppling of democratically elected governments,” said a member of leading Beijing-based think-tank affiliated to China’s foreign ministry.