Amid talks of military disengagement, China has made some mischievous contrivances that can’t be ignored. A day after the seventh round of Commander-level talks on October 12, Beijing reiterated for the second time that it “does not recognise the Ladakh Union territory illegally set up by the Indian side.”
Is China short of legally questioning India’s sovereignty over Ladakh? New Delhi has rebutted by saying “Ladakh is an integral and inalienable part of India.” But the matter cannot be put to rest there, for China has been consistently raking up the issue at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) since August 2019.
Beijing contends that “Abrogation of Article 370 undermined China's territorial sovereignty and violated bilateral agreements on maintaining peace and stability in the border area,” suggesting that Ladakh’s administrative jurisdiction includes Chinese territory. This is despite India allaying fears that the new arrangement has no impact on Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. While New Delhi ended the issue there, China is now seemingly using it to broaden the canvas of the conflict.
It is unclear what China’s skin in the Ladakh game is. Its opaque maneuverings are hard to fathom. It could well be linked to rhetoric around LAC conflict. It could also be linked to China’s Kashmir policy that has swung from neutrality in the 1950s to affirming Pakistan’s position in the 1960 to terming the Kashmir dispute a bilateral issue in the 1980s. But, Beijing’s hidden motivation was known—to prep up Pakistan's position, even protecting its terrorists from getting listed by the UN sanctions committee.
Last year, India, in a single stroke, exposed China’s duplicity. Beijing now refers to the UNSC resolutions. At a time when China’s stake in J&K has increased due to its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) commitment, Abrogation of 370 badly neutralised China’s Kashmir handle.
India’s Ladakh move probably unsettled China, for it furtively thought itself a third party to the J&K dispute due to its illegal occupation of 5,180 sqkm of Shaksgam Valley and 38,000 sqkm in Aksai Chin plateau. Privately, Beijing considered Kashmir a “legacy of history between India and Pakistan” left behind by the British. And, one of the claimants (Pakistan) recognised Chinese sovereignty over the land it controls in Ladakh. Aksai Chin is now considered as part of Xinjiang province, legitimised by its G219 link with Tibet.
China’s new spin of “not-recognising’ Ladakh also comes with its opposition to “India’s border infrastructure building and military deployment” that it considers as the “root cause of tensions”. Clearly, the sinister side of Chinese argument seems to convey that no material changes should be made until the J&K should be resolved trilaterally by India, Pakistan and China.
China has also snippily announced clarity in its LAC position in Ladakh based on its unilaterally defined November 7, 1959, proposal that New Delhi considers “untenable”.
It is an ominous sign of Beijing wanting to abdicate or unwilling to pursue further the previously signed border agreements since 1993 that sought to first clarify LAC before it is formally aligned.
Clearly then, Beijing wants to alter the very nature of the conflict hitherto limited to LAC disputes. A shift in the goalpost, even a backsliding, is seen from September 10 Moscow consensus that agreed to follow a five-point approach to end the LAC crisis. Multiple rounds of talks are entailing results.
While the deescalation/disengagement dichotomy continues, the Chinese are obfuscating the matter to shift the focus from boundary to territorial agenda of Ladakh status.
Meanwhile, we have missed a recent essay with the provocative title 'Ladakh-the heart of Kashmir once belonged to China'. The essay, written by an anonymous math teacher who is a lover of frontier ethnic history, that appeared on zhuanlan.zhihu.com said, “To claim Kashmir as part of China is though not entirely correct, but Ladakh was indeed part of China.”
While using Chinese sources, it said Ladakh had changed many hands between the Tang and Tubo (Tibetan) Dynasty, but underscored the point that Ladakh Kingdom was established by the descendants of the Tubo Empire. Moyu – Ladakh or (Sun Earth) or the high place of clouds, together with Burang and Guge, formed a part of Ngari-Khor-Sum, meaning (Ali Sanwei or Ali Sanbu).
The essay noted that Ladakh was controlled by Zongzhiyuan (ministry of political and military affairs in Tibet) since the Yuan period that the Ming Empire that inherited the legacy and even added a mansion at Ngari palace. Finally, it was the fifth Dalai Lama of Tibet who, with the Koshot Mongols, brought Ladakh under the Ganden Phodrang’s control, thereby paying tributary to the Qing Dynasty until it came under the Islamic and British influence.
This tendentious write up on Ladakh couldn’t have been written for only academic historical disquisition. It is surely a first step to test the waters for China’s potential future claims over Ladakh.
The write up was akin to recent Chinese classic territorial maneuverings in Central Asia. Early this year, a Chinese historian Cho Yao Lu, while using Chinese sources, claimed the entire Pamir region in Tajikistan. Two other official media outlets—toutiao.com and sohu.com—claimed the entire territory of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan with a title 'Why Is Kazakhstan Eager to Get Back to China'.
Clearly, the Chinese are building a new historical territorial narrative around the Pamir, Karakoram, Ladakh and other adjoining areas as part of a single plan. It may also be a part of China’s campaign to push its BRI projects across the region.
Worst, the claims are supported by several military infrastructure actions. Opening of a new airbase in Tashkurgan, upgrading of Khotan and Gar-Gusa airports to cite a few gives China additional access to these much-contested areas. Ladakh stand-off may have helped further boost its military facilities.
China’s growing aspirations over Ladakh is a cause of worry. Any concession would encourage China to go for the second step in Ladakh. The issue needs a deeper analysis to build a counter narrative by India.
Ladakh was never a part of Tibet as Chinese claim. The fact is that Guge and areas up to Kailash-Mansarovar and Burang of Tibet belonged to historical Ladakh. We tend to ignore the fact that Maharaja Hari Singh, at the time of signing the Instrument of Accession on October 26, 1947 referred to himself as “Shriman Inder Mahinder Rajrajeswar Maharajadhiraj Shri Hari Singhji, Jammu & Kashmir Naresh Tatha Tibbet adi Deshadhipati”. He was not just the ruler of J&K but also of Western Tibet. India would do well if it stops playing into China’s hand and instead starts to appropriate its own history and icons of Ladakh.
The author is founder of the Ladakh International Centre. He is on the Advisory Council of Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, Washington. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of THE WEEK