China-Pak nexus in Ladakh

The past year would hopefully have sent out a message that India is no pushover

China-Pak nexus in Ladakh

CLOSE WATCH: Developments in Ladakh have set the stage for an even closer collaboration between China and Pakistan in undermining India’s security. Reuters

G Parthasarathy

Chancellor, Jammu Central University & former High Commissioner to Pakistan

WHILE India has confronted difficult security challenges in J&K in the past, it has never faced a security situation when it was confronted by tensions across its borders in Ladakh and J&K with both Pakistan and China. The past year has seen the usual tensions, infiltration and exchanges and fire across the International Border and the LoC in J&K. But what really shook the world was the massive and well-planned Chinese incursion from Tibet into the UT of Ladakh from across the Depsang Plains. If left unchallenged, this incursion would have cleared the way for a Chinese move northwards towards India’s strategic air base of Daulat Beg Oldie. This air base is adjacent to China’s Aksai Chin region, which India regards as its territory.

China must learn that undermining India’s ties with its South Asian neighbours can hardly work in the long term.

If the Chinese chose to thereafter, proceed further northwards, they would reach the strategic Karakoram Pass, while also moving closer to the Siachen region claimed by Pakistan. Pakistan, however, had found that Indian forces had taken control of the Siachen Glacier in the 1980s. India and Pakistan had agreed in 1949 that beyond the Shyok river and Khor, the LoC proceeds ‘north to the glaciers’. While the Chinese have agreed to withdraw eastwards from the Pangong Tso, they have refused to withdraw from positions they occupied in 2020 in the Depsang Plains, where they blocked the area to entry by Indian forces. Control of the Depsang Plains provides China with an open road to the Daulat Beg Oldie airfield. It secures access to the Karakoram Pass that links Ladakh to the Aksai Chin region.

Pakistan is, however, very generous when it comes to the delineation of its border with China. The Shaksgam Valley in J&K was ceded to China by Pakistan in 1963, when they signed a boundary agreement to give an entirely new shape to their northern borders. Article 6 of the Boundary Agreement avers that ‘the two parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People’s Republic of China, on the boundary, as described in Article 2 of the present agreement, so as to sign a formal border agreement.’ The agreement laid the foundation for constructing the Karakoram highway, built by Chinese and Pakistani engineers, in the 1970s. This highway links China’s Xinjiang province with PoK. It constitutes the basis for China to co-opt Pakistan militarily in its dealings with India.

Half a century later, one finds a growing Chinese economic and military presence alongside the Karakoram highway. The way is being cleared for a Chinese military presence across the PoK for transportation of Chinese goods, services and personnel across Pakistan, to the Arabian Sea Port of Gwadar in Balochistan, which has been built by China. It is only a matter of time before China takes control of the port from a bankrupt Pakistan, which is unable to repay its debts. This would not be different from how China has taken control of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. Pakistan’s military, obsessed with seizing Indian territory, cannot be expected to look beyond its territorial ambitions in India.

China’s experiences in Ladakh over the past year would hopefully have persuaded Beijing that India is not a pushover, militarily. Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement averring: ‘The two sides need to help each other to succeed, instead of undercutting each other. We should intensify cooperation instead of harbouring suspicions’, sounded reassuring. It was, however, hardly credible. Chinese sincerity will, however, be tested and called into question, unless it moves back to positions it occupied before April 2020. Given past Chinese behaviour, India can expect very little movement by China on this score.

China will also hopefully learn that undermining India’s close relations with its South Asian neighbours by cultivating, financing and favouring political leaders and political parties known to be anti-India, can hardly work over the long term. Despite its efforts, China has been snubbed by Sri Lanka’s political leadership that has seen through its crude efforts to deny India a role in developing port facilities, whether in Jaffna or in Colombo. Taking over Hambantota Port by drawing Sri Lanka into a debt trap, China has sent a signal across the shores of the Indian Ocean that its interests are anything but altruistic. Astute analysts in Pakistan are also evaluating the implications of the growing debt they are accumulating, because of Chinese infrastructure projects for CPEC. Given Pakistan’s constant shortage of foreign exchange, it is not in a position to import defence equipment from the US, Europe or even Russia. China, will, therefore, inevitably remain the almost exclusive supplier of arms to Pakistan.

Developments in Ladakh have now set the stage for an even closer collaboration between China and Pakistan in undermining India’s security. Pakistan’s recent offer of a ceasefire in J&K is a welcome development, as long as infiltration across the LoC effectively ends. It does not, however, mean that China and Pakistan are not colluding in fulfilling their territorial ambitions. India would be well advised to keep track of how China and Pakistan are proceeding in fulfilling their territorial ambitions. The highly regarded president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, recently noted: ‘China is bordered by 14 countries, four of which are nuclear armed and five of which harbour unresolved territorial disputes with Beijing. These include an aging, but wealthy Japan, a rising and nationalistic India, a revanchist Russia, a technologically powerful South Korea, and a dynamic and determined Vietnam. All these countries have national identities that resist subordination to China, or its interests. And the United States maintains a constant forward-deployed military presence in the region’.

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