China’s latest intrusion in Ladakh, apparently to fortify Aksai Chin may have its roots in the Wuhan informal summit of 2017, after which, Beijing has juggled with a range of options to engage and restrain India to protect its core interests.
After the Wuhan informal summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2018, China activated the diplomatic track in order to arrive at an understanding with India on managing the shared interests of Beijing and New Delhi in their neighbourhood. This initiative was in tune with Beijing’s broader aspiration of expanding international support for its Eurasia-centered Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
But just in case diplomacy did not work for many reasons, including India’s growing ties with the United States under the Indo-Pacific doctrine, a plan-B also began to take shape, with heavy reliance on Pakistan.
Pakistan’s inclusion in Beijing’s strategic calculus to counter India’s perceived tilt towards the Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy was spotlighted when the Chinese “invited” to Beijing all the pillars of the Pakistani state — Prime Minister Imran Khan, chief of the army staff Qamar Javed Bajwa, and head of the Inter Services Intelligence Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed on October 8, 2019. The meetings in the Chinese capital took place in the backdrop of India’s abrogation on August 5 of sections of the Kashmir centred Article 370 — a move which had already been unambiguously slammed by both Pakistan and China. Ahead of these meetings, India had also participated in the upscaled dialogue of the Indo-Pacific quad at the level of Foreign Minsters on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
China’s core interests have dictated that India should be firmly dissuaded from considering recovery of Gilgit-Baltistan to fulfil its long-stated goal of unifying Kashmir, in pursuit of a unanimous parliamentary resolution passed in 1994. China has also been vocal about retaining Aksai Chin — the essential link between Tibet and Xinjiang. “Aksai Chin is the essential link between Xinjiang and Tibet, and China’s national highway 219 passes through this passage. Aksai Chin is therefore central to China’s territorial unity and the one-China principle,” a Chinese academic, who did not wish to be named, earlier told The Hindu.
By the time Mr. Modi and Mr. Xi met at Wuhan, Beijing had already begun to sink billions of dollars in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which covered Gilgit-Baltistan. From Beijing’s perspective, any Indian attempt to take over Gilgit-Baltistan, would wreck CPEC — the flagship of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Mr. Xi had staked his personal prestige in the project, which would provide China with access to the Indian Ocean through the Gwadar port. It would also help reduce Beijing’s dependence on the Malacca straits, dominated by the U.S., which had declared its intent to shift its forces from West Asia and the Gulf to the Asia-Pacific, in tune with Washington’s Asia-pivot doctrine.
Closer home, the Chinese have also been uncomfortable with infrastructure development along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, especially due to the pressure it imposes on Aksai Chin.
Revival of airfields
By 2008, India had reactivated airfields of Daulet Beg Oldie (DBO) and Fukche, reducing reliance on Leh as the main air support hub for Ladakh. A year later, the Nyoma airfield had also been revived. “DBO is on the old Leh-Tarim basin trade route through the Karakoram pass and only nine kilometers northwest of Aksai Chin. It is also important because India’s physical link with China’s Xinjiang province, and not Tibet, is routed through DBO,” says a former diplomat, who did not wish to be named.
The revival of the aviation infrastructure has augmented India’s capacity to quickly insert troops and military supplies along the LAC. “DBO, Fukche and Nyoma have supplemented Leh, providing a major boost to intra-theatre movement of Indian forces and equipment along the LAC,” Air Vice Marshal (Retd.) Amit Aneja, told The Hindu.
Indian road construction activity, with the 255-km Darbuk-Shayok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) as the spine has steeled Indian connectivity along the LAC, adding further pressure on Aksai Chin.
But turning to diplomacy at the Wuhan informal summit, India and China took the first baby steps towards working jointly in the region by agreeing to train Afghan diplomats. “This was a highly symbolic move. Soon after the Afghan initiative, China began to develop a coordinated outlook with India as partner in the region, starting with Nepal by pursuing what was called a 2+1 approach. This was to further explore the possibility and range of joint management of the region by India and China,” a Chinese diplomat told The Hindu.
The new 2+1 formulation, where the two countries —India and China — would first coordinate a common approach with a third country was aired during Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit to Beijing in June 2018. “Mr. Oli had an extraordinary meeting with President Xi. The Chinese President said he was ready to consider Nepal’s requests for infrastructure development in his country, but before concretising any plans, he would like to take Prime Minister Modi into confidence,” a Nepali diplomatic source aware of the conversation told this newspaper.
“The Chinese made it clear that they were not interested in pursuing a zero-sum approach with Nepal. In fact, the hosts spoke about the Wuhan informal summit between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including the discussion between the two leaders on achieving greater regional cooperation, which covered connectivity,” he added. Separately speaking to The Hindu then, Nepal’s Environment Minister, Shakti Bahadur Basnet, said he welcomed “the two- plus-one format as we are confident that such a dialogue will be conducted in a spirit of equality and mutual respect.”
The 2+1 formulation subsequently mutated into China-India plus mechanism, which former Chinese ambassador to India, Luo Zhaohui said had guided the two countries’ response to “the Rohingya issue in Myanmar and the Iranian nuclear issue,” as reported by The Tribune.
Analysts point out that with an eye on a broader international endorsement of the BRI, China also developed a self-interest in easing tensions between India and Pakistan. “After the BRI has been launched, China was completely opposed to pursue a zero-sum approach. Relationship with Pakistan has been vital because its geography provides China access to the Indian Ocean via the CPEC. But India, with its much bigger economy, on the contrary, is also important to China as it can become a major engine of the BRI in the future,” says another Chinese academic on conditions of anonymity. But he pointed out that unless tensions between India and Pakistan over Kashmir are eased, China understood that India will not board the BRI ship on account of its fundamental objections to CPEC. So far, India has rejected the BRI, citing CPEC, which passes through India-claimed Gilgit-Baltistan, as an infringement of its sovereignty.
Within months of the Wuhan summit, and with BRI as the backdrop, the Chinese, while hosting the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), with India and Pakistan as full members, began to openly air their interest in encouraging a rapport between New Delhi and Islamabad. During the Qingdao summit of the SCO, Chinese Foreign Minister and State councilor Wang Yi told state broadcaster China Global Television Network (CGTN) that , “I think after their joining the SCO, maybe we can provide a better platform and opportunities for the building of relations between them (India and Pakistan).” The Hindu has learnt that the Chinese side had offered its good offices to resolve the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan, which New Delhi politely declined, during the June 2019 Bishkek summit of the SCO.
But after August 5, 2019, when India abrogated Sections of Article 370 and separated Ladakh as a Union Territory from Jammu and Kashmir, China appears to have activated its plan-B, culminating in its latest intrusion, focused on Ladakh, across the LAC.
India’s claim on Aksai Chin
“There appears to have been a strategic shift in Chinese thinking after India abrogated Sections of Article 370 last year and created the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. India has always claimed Aksai Chin, but the issue appears to have been re-interpreted in China after the special status of Jammu and Kashmir was revoked,” says P. Stobdan, former ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, who specialises in trans-Himalayan studies.
Speaking in Lok Sabha on August 6 last year, Home Minister Amit Shah unambiguously nailed India’s claims over PoK and Aksai Chin — an observation that would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing. “Kashmir is an integral part of India, there is no doubt over it. When I talk about Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Aksai Chin are included in it,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, on August 12, China raised the issue of Aksai Chin and Pakistan with visiting External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar. In his response, the External Affairs Minister had reassured his Chinese counterpart that the revocation of Article 370 “did not impact the Line of Control (LoC)”. Besides, “There was no implication for the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. India was not raising any additional territorial claims. The Chinese concerns in this regard were misplaced,” Mr. Jashankar told Indian media in Beijing during a press conference.
Observers say that by putting military pressure in Ladakh, the Chinese are assertively conveying multiple messages, including exhorting New Delhi to restrain itself on Aksai Chin and Gilgi- Baltistan, as well as curb the exuberance of its engagement with the Trump administration under the Indo-Pacific doctrine.