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View: How LAC intrusions fit into larger Chinese strategic designs


It is unusual for Indian diplomats and generals to simultaneously engage with their Chinese counterparts, since matters relating to the contested boundary between the two countries have essentially been dealt with by the ministry of external affairs. These parlays have led nowhere, and the current model is unlikely to give us much joy.

Historically, the Chinese have grabbed large areas in the Aksai Chin region, and they’ve refused to give it back. This had even led to the 1962 Himalayan conflict. And despite the series of illusory ‘Peace and Tranquillity’ agreements between Indian and Chinese leaders from 1998 onwards, which have led to 22 rounds of high-level dialogues, the Chinese have yet to accept our maps and claim lines of the LAC along Ladakh.

As nothing happens in China without higher strategic direction, this initiative on the borders – as India and the world battle the pandemic – has taken the Indian army and South Block by surprise, much like the intrusions along Kargil in 1999. The areas occupied by Chinese PLA troops, especially along the LAC, could be as much as 30 sq km. The question that is being asked is: “Why have the Chinese done this now, and what can we achieve or get back from the Chinese?”

There are essentially three issues on China’s mind. One is that the Chinese are keen not only to deflect the bad global press they have received after their shoddy handling – either by default or design – of coronavirus. Coupled with the situation in Hong Kong, Beijing is thus keen to assert itself to reassure its people, its vast diasporas, and its camp followers in the developing world. Hence, its muscle flexing in South China Sea and the unsettled boundary with India.

Second, the Chinese are keen to connect the northern parts of Aksai Chin by grabbing land to increase the depth to their important road link (Highway 219) that connects Kashgar in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet. The two border regions of western China are their Achilles heel. But their grander strategic design is to extend their reach north of the Galwan river – where the PLA has currently camped – up to the Karakoram pass, and then onto the Shaksgam valley, which they’ve occupied since 1963 when Pakistan gave it to them to firm up the China-Pak nexus.

Third, China is forever looking for more water resources in the Ladakh region, as the Indus river system originates from Tibet and goes via Ladakh to Pakistan’s northern areas (that we call PoK). The Chinese agenda is to have access to abundance of water to manufacture microchips. Silicon wafers require lots of pure water (10,000 litres for a 30 cm wafer) to produce, and it is the waters of the Indus river system that China wants from Pakistan.

China imported over $230 billion worth of microchips from the US, Japan and Taiwan in 2018. It wants to make them all itself – and this can be facilitated by the fresh waters of the Indus system and by melting the multiple glaciers in the Shaksgam valley. China had in fact begun eyeing Kashmir’s waters from the 1950s, and now they have agreed to finance five major dams on Indus rivers in PoK.

Thus, with the current intrusions near the Galwan valley, the Chinese PLA has now positioned itself to threaten India’s road development along Shyok river, as this will make it difficult for China’s push towards the Karakoram pass and PoK. And it is unlikely that the PLA will withdraw back to the Indian claim lines on LAC, whatever the assurances that India’s establishment gives.

In the past, Beijing had come close to accepting the McMahon Line – that runs east of Sikkim along Arunachal and beyond – for a swap over Aksai Chin. India should revisit Zhou Enlai’s proposal of 1960, that was repeated by Deng Xiaoping in 1980, if a final settlement is desired. Otherwise, those bilateral meetings between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will remain just photo ops.

Views expressed above are the author’s own

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