Foreign Policy Watch: India-China

Why Ladakh matters to India and China?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Ladakh and its topography

Mains level : India-China border disputes

This article from IE discusses this cold, dry, high altitude territory with its extremely scarce vegetation that makes it a point of disagreement between India and China.

Practice question for mains:

Q. India’s boundary disputes with its neighbourhood are the legacy of its colonial past. Analyse.

Ladakh: The Cold Desert of India

  • Ladakh is the highest plateau in India with much of it being over 3,000 m.
  • It extends from the Himalayan to the Kunlun Ranges and includes the upper Indus River valley.
  • The importance of Ladakh is rooted in complicated historical processes that led to the territory becoming part of the state of J&K, and China’s interest in it post the occupation of Tibet in 1950.

Beginning of the Chinese claim

  • In July 1958, an official monthly magazine in China published a map of the country that would in the next few months become a bone of contention between India and its East Asian neighbour.
  • The map in question showed large parts of the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and the Himalayan territory of Ladakh as part of China.
  • Soon after ‘China pictorial’ came out with the new Chinese map, the leaders of both countries began writing to each other frequently regarding Ladakh.
  • The exchange of letters between Jawaharlal Nehru and his Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai was followed by the Sino-Indian war of 1962.
  • The war also led to the formation of the loosely demarcated Line of Actual Control (LAC) running through Ladakh.

The Integration of Ladakh into India

  • Historically and culturally the state was intrinsically linked to neighbouring Tibet.
  • Language and religion linked Ladakh and Tibet; politically too, they shared a common history.
  • Ladakh was part of the Tibetan empire which broke up after the assassination of King Langdarma in 742 CE.
  • Up until the Dogra invasion of 1834, Ladakh was an independent Himalayan state, much the same way as Bhutan and Sikkim.
  • As the Sikhs acquired Kashmir in 1819, Emperor Ranjit Singh turned his ambition towards Ladakh.
  • But it was Gulab Singh, the Dogra feudatory of the Sikhs in Jammu, who went ahead with the task of integrating Ladakh into Jammu and Kashmir.

British interests in Ladakh

  • The British East India Company, which was by now steadily establishing itself in India, had lacked interest in Ladakh initially.
  • However, it did show enthusiasm for the Dogra invasion of the area, with the hope that as a consequence, a large portion of Tibetan trade would be diverted to its holdings.
  • The state of J&K was essentially a British creation, formed as a buffer zone where they could meet the Russians.

The Sino-Sikh War

  • In May 1841, Tibet under the Qing dynasty of China invaded Ladakh with the hope of adding it to the imperial Chinese dominions, leading to the Sino-Sikh war.
  • However, the Sino-Tibetan army was defeated, and the Treaty of Chushul was signed that agreed on no further transgressions or interference in the other country’s frontiers.
  • After the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-46, the state of J&K, including Ladakh, was taken out of the Sikh empire and brought under British suzerainty.

Chinese interest in Ladakh after the occupation of Tibet in 1950

  • The annexation of Tibet by China in 1950 sparked a newfound interest in Ladakh, and particularly so after the 1959 Tibetan uprising that erupted in Lhasa with Dalai Lama’s political asylum in India.
  • In attempting to crush the Tibetan revolt while at the same time denying its existence, the Chinese have used methods which have brought China and India into sharp conflict.
  • To begin with, the road that the Chinese built across Ladakh in 1956-57 was important for the maintenance of their control over Tibet.
  • The building of the road through Ladakh upset Nehru’s government. The diplomatic negotiations failed, and the war of 1962 followed.

Why conflict has flared up again?

  • There are two layers to this. First, up to 2013, India’s infrastructural development in that area was minimal.
  • From 2013, India started pushing for infrastructure projects there and by 2015; it became a major defence priority.
  • The second layer is the August 5, 2019 decision (to remove the special status of J&K and downgrade the state into two Union Territories).
  • From the Chinese point of view, they would have assumed that if India makes Ladakh a Union Territory, they would be reasserting its control over the entire state.
  • Moreover, it is also important to note that over time, Xinjiang which is part of Aksai Chin, has become very important to China for their internal reasons.

The dispute

  • The British legacy of the map of the territory continued to remain the ground upon which India laid its claim on the area.
  • India insisted that the border was, for the most part, recognised and assured by treaty and tradition; the Chinese argued it had never really been delimited.
  • The claims of both governments rested in part on the legacy of imperialism; British imperialism (for India), and Chinese imperialism (over Tibet) for China.
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