India and China face off over Himalayan flashpoint

As Chinese and Indian border patrols engaged in a tense face-off last month at Ladakh’s picturesque Pangong Lake, hurling stones and insults at each other, it showed how the remote Himalayan region is emerging as a volatile geopolitical flashpoint between Beijing and New Delhi.

India and China have never agreed the demarcation of their shared border in Buddhist-majority Ladakh, a sparsely populated border area that abuts Tibet. Tensions have risen sharply since the government of Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, separated Ladakh from the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir in a political reorganisation of the volatile region.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping set to visit India on Friday for an “informal summit” with Mr Modi, events in Ladakh have once again drawn attention to the countries’ deep-rooted rivalry.

New Delhi claims that governing Ladakh as a distinct territory, under its direct control, is in the interests of its small, isolated population — long neglected as Indian authorities wrestled with a violent, Pakistani-backed separatist insurgency in the Kashmir valley.

Beijing, which claims parts of Ladakh on behalf of Tibet and still occupies some territory seized during its 1962 invasion of India, has publicly objected to the new arrangements. It has accused India of undermining “China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law”.

Indian analysts believe New Delhi’s moves — greeted with jubilation in Ladakh — are critical for India to consolidate its hold over a region that, while remote, is the focus intense strategic competition.

“Even in hitherto uncontested parts of Ladakh, the superiority of Chinese infrastructure and military capacities has seen a creeping takeover of border areas,” said Ashok Malik, distinguished fellow of New Delhi’s Observer Research Foundation. “It is as if the effective line of actual control keeps moving a couple of inches in the direction of India. At some point, India has to say, ‘thus far and no further’.”

Ladakh was once one of a number of autonomous Himalayan states, also including Tibet and Xinjiang, that Mr Malik says served as buffers between Indian and Chinese civilisations. In contemporary times, Beijing has established a tight grip on its periphery, while India — focused on its western frontier with its rival Pakistan — has been slower to do so.

The meeting on Friday between Mr Modi and Mr Xi follows a similar tête-à-tête last year in Wuhan, where the two leaders tried to infuse positive energy into relations that had sunk to their lowest since China’s 1962 invasion.

The display of bonhomie at Wuhan temporarily improved the relationship’s optics. But Beijing’s obvious ire at New Delhi’s assertion of greater control of Ladakh reflects a deepening competition in the sensitive Himalayan region, where the two countries have longstanding border disputes.

“Even before the Indian action on Jammu and Kashmir, the line of actual control between China and India in Ladakh had already become more active because of increasing Chinese aggressiveness,” said Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research.

“In the 12 months prior to August, there had been a sharp increase in the number of Chinese military forays and incursions, and the Chinese have laid claim to several areas that are currently under Indian administrative control,” he said.

Phunchok Stobdan, author of the forthcoming book “The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas,” argues that Ladakh was long-neglected by the Kashmiri political families that controlled the Jammu and Kashmir state government, leaving the isolated region vulnerable to malign outside influences.

“Ladakh was left on the mercy of the Kashmiris, but they never took interest in the mischievous things going on,” Mr Stobdan says. “That was a mistake. The vacuum was filled by the Chinese, and their proxies.”

India has allowed intensifying Tibetan cultural influences in Ladakh, including through the high-profile annual summer teachings by Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Most Ladakhi monasteries are also now led by exiled Tibetan monks, who have replaced the local Ladakhi lamas.

But Mr Stobdan fears the growing Tibetan influence could undermine India’s long-term strategic interests.

“Indians have played into the Chinese hands by playing the Tibetan card,” says Mr Stobdan. “India tried to Tibetanise it by sending the Dalai Lama again and again, which perfectly suited the Chinese interest. This is a reverse game that China has played. It is not just a military stand-off. It is an asymmetric game of civilisation and culture.”

Historically, Ladakh was an independent kingdom with strong trade ties to Tibet. In the 17th century, the two states warred and the subsequent Treaty of Tingmosgang of 1684 laid the foundation for today’s border, dividing Pangong Lake between Ladakh and Tibet.

In 1834, Ladakh fell to Sikh troops and was incorporated into the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which acceded to India after the end of British rule over the subcontinent in 1947. Three years later, China invaded Tibet.

Though Ladakh is already an important Indian military outpost, New Delhi is anxious about China’s far stronger infrastructure and control — an imbalance it now hopes to redress.

“With the [Indian] government being solely responsible for Ladakh, you can build infrastructure there, make both economic and strategic investments there, and keep a more direct watch on Buddhist monasteries at the border, which the Chinese have been trying to influence with their lamas,” said Mr Malik, who is close to Mr Modi’s administration.

He added: “This is the unfinished business of history, which will be contested into the 21st century.”

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