(The writer works for Islamabad Policy Research Institute)
China and India – the two most populous Asian states locked in a natural strategic rivalry- are currently amassing soldiers and machinery near the tense frontier in Ladakh. While there is no clear explanation for the standoff, it is generally believed that China is objecting to Indian build up of infrastructure which includes new roads and air strips in the disputed area of Ladakh. Ladakh constitutes a de-facto border between China and India, and also comprises a part of the larger region of Kashmir, which has been the subject of dispute between India, Pakistan since 1947. On ill-defined borders, tensions flare up from time to time. Though there have been numerous rounds of border talks, all have been unsuccessful so far. In August 2019, Indian governmrnt not only revoked Article 370 – which allowed Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) a certain amount of autonomy, its own constitution, a separate flag and freedom to make laws – but it also unilaterally declared Ladakh region a federal territory while separating it from disputed J&K. China was among the handful of countries to strongly condemn the move, raising it at international forums including the UN Security Council (UNSC). In April this year, Indian government again introduced a new law, according to which those who have resided for a period of 15 years in Kashmir are eligible to become permanent residents only. The law triggered fear among Kashmiris about the permanent settlements by the outsiders. The law came at a time when the focus should be on fighting the current pandemic in South Asia.
China, in past, has been trying to balance its relationship between India and Pakistan. China’s profile in South Asia has been rising more since it initiated the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. BRI involving infrastructure development and investments in nearly 70 countries and international organizations fostered a new type of international relations. While a few countries view BRI critically because of possible Chinese influence, others point to the creation of a new global growth engine by connecting and moving Asia, Europe and Africa closer together. Bilateral ties between China and Pakistan have also deepened as China has pledged huge investments in Pakistan through US$62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is a flagship project of BRI.
International relations experts believe that China’s concerns over Aksai Chin and CPEC, which is partly routed through Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), may have set the backdrop for the ongoing stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh. Congruently, CPEC has emerged as an entirely new factor in China, India and Pakistan relations which is an awkward trio. India has already expressed strong opposition to CPEC project which links China’s Xinjiang province to the Gwadar deep-sea port in Pakistan. After scrapping of Article 370 by the Indian government, India considers GB as parts of its own territory. With reference to Aksai Chin China claims that this land belongs to it. Aksai Chin is the essential link between Chinese province Xinjiang and Tibet. China’s national highway 219 passes through this passage. It is therefore, considered a strategic asset and central to China’s territorial unity. A future conflict between India and Pakistan when CPEC investments are at a mature stage is more likely to draw China in, and is likely to induce a change in China’s stance on Kashmir issue as well, making it a party to the conflict. How China and India react to Ladakh Standoff in the coming days will also be important. There is no doubt however, that nuclear weapons will continue to serve as major limiting factor to war even in the future. It is also notable that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the regional institution that would help diffuse a crisis like this, is nowhere to be seen.
Issues of territorial sovereignty are likely to be a greater source of friction between India and China given that such problems already exist and can lead to actions that may compound the problem. Had the Kashmir dispute resolved according to UN Resolutions, border stand-off would not have happened. The other South Asian states hardly expect sound China-India relations, China-Pakistan relations and India-Pakistan relations. They expect to see all sides work together to promote regional peace and stability and achieve common development and prosperity. 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 J&K. The standoff requires a much broader and deeper diplomatic conversation between India and China. Ladakh is one of world’s gloomiest tracts as Indian Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru once put it: “Ladakh is a useless, uninhabitable land. Not a blade of grass grows there. We didn’t even know where it was.” Yet, clashes have taken place there and threat of war hangs over it. Throughout history, border disputes have been a common source of political instability and military conflicts. The fact that more than 50 interstate border disputes continue to exist call for greater knowledge of the ways in which world leaders can reach settlements to end these potentially deadly disputes.