By D Suba Chandran
Few weeks earlier, the Indian media and the rest of nation was obsessed with what was happening along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. What does China want in J&K? Is China interested in the territory in J&K? Or is it likely to use as a strategy for a larger political objective vis-a-vis India?
China’s interests in Ladakh should not be seen from a narrow perspecitve; it should be perceived and understood in terms of what Beijing wants all the way from Karakoram Pass, north of Gilgit to Arunachal Pradesh in Eastern India to Arunachal Pradesh, and even beyond. In fact, it should be seen in the larger context of China’s rise in Asia.
Why did Chinese military intruded along the DBO sector few months ago? In retrospect, it appears more than holding of territory; there are larger political calculations behind Beijing’s calculations. First and foremost, in the recent years, the growing India-China relations have been chequered now, especially after the Indo-US nuclear deal. Beijing is apprehensive that the US is attempting to rope India under its strategic umbrella with an objective to check China within Asia. The bigger worry for Beijing is whether India will also go along with this American plan and be a partner to counter China in Asia.
In the recent years, as a part of its renewed efforts relating to its Look east policy, India has been pursuing a larger partnership with not only Southeast Asia, but also has been attempting to build long term strategic partnership especially with Japan and South Korea. From the Indian perspective, it is extremely important to attract investments from the above two countries. Despite internal problems and bottlenecks within India, both Japan and South Korea is extremely interested in investing in India.
Besides the economic component, India is also equally interested in forging a partnership with Japan for strategic reasons. India has been attempting to build a partnership with select countries in East Asia. Japan is an important component of this partnership. Unfortunately, China sees the growing India-Japan relationship as a part of countering China’s rise in Asia. While India-China conflicts are well known to the audience in the region, the growing Sino-Japan differences are not well appreciated here. Especially after Abe taking over as the Prime Minister, there has been an increased hostility towards China. Japan under Abe is getting increasingly assertive vis-a-vis China; Abe in fact has even asked his business community to withdraw from China and invest in Southeast Asia and India.
India is also looking forward to build partnerships in Southeast Asia and East Asia, to counter China’s growing presence and political infiltration into South Asia. Today, China has a strong economic and political presence in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and now Maldives. As a result, India is also attempting to build partnerships all along China’s periphery – starting from Myanmar to Japan. The intrusion in Ladakh happened just before the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to Japan was no coincidence. It was a warning against India for not to move closer to Japan.
So what does this mean for J&K vis-a-vis China’s objectives and strategies in the coming years? To start from the Karakoram Pass across the Highway linking Gilgit and Xinjiang, China is likely to continue with its presence in Gilgit-Baltistan. For China, Gilgit Baltistan is an important strategy of a larger game plan. For China, Pakistan is of extreme importance for political and economic reasons. Economically, Pakistan is important for China, as it plans to build gas pipelines and railway across the Karakoram Highway starting from Gwadar port. In fact the Gwadar port was built completely by the Chinese, to serve a larger strategic purpose. China has also substantially invested in the construction of Karakoram Highway linking Gwadar with Kashgar – all the way across the mainland Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. China’s presence and the substantial investments in GB is also part of this larger objective.
Obviously, the above is partly India specific, and partly related to its own larger economic requirements, however over stated the case has been. As a result, one could easily conclude, China’s presence in Gilgit Baltistan is unlikely to reduce. On the eastern sector, especially on what has been occupied by China – especially Aksai Chin, Beijing is unlikely to even engage in a dialogue with India. For all practical purposes, China considers Aksai Chin as an essential part of its territory and non-negotiable.
Along the Ladakh sector, across the Line of Actual Control, China’s objectives will be guided by Beijing’s larger political calculations vis-a-vis India, and the larger India-China relationship. If India is perceived by China as growing closer into the American orbit, and/or building a partnership with China’s periphery especially in Myanmar, Vietnam, and Japan, Beijing is likely to pursue a hostile strategy along the LAC in Ladakh, and perhaps also in Arunachal Pradesh.
More than the larger political and strategic calculations, Tibet will play, as has been in the past, an important role in China’s perceptions and subsequent strategies across the LAC in the Ladakh region. Despite the increasing presence and investments – human and infrastructure, Tibet continues to be in turmoil. Sharing a rich history and a border with Tibet, Ladakh is important for China.
What does the above mean? First, the LAC in Ladakh sector will remain active; even if there is a relative calm, it will be an uneasy one. Depending on larger strategic equations elsewhere by India, China and the US, Beijing will always use the LAC – from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh as a part of short term strategy serving a larger objective. Second, it means, the attempts to open Kailash Mansarovar route from Leh will take more time to get implemented. Finally, the efforts to open up the border villages and throw open to regular traffic of people and goods within Ladakh will also have to go slow. This also means, the border communities living along the LAC in Ladakh will continue to remain under the larger India-China shadows, further complicating a complex living environment.
D Suba Chandran