On May 5th, Indian and Chinese troops engaged in a confrontation along the Sino-Indian border near the disputed Pangong Lake, in the Ladakh region of India. According to the accounts by India, this confrontation was triggered by the movement of a large contingent of Chinese troops in an area claimed by India. The confrontation reached its climax when Indian and Chinese troops brawled on the border with stones and clubs, killing and wounding scores of troops on both sides.
These clashes took place with the backdrop of India modifying the status of the disputed region of Kashmir last year. This move by India was deemed by China as a territory-expanding posture, and hence, it reacted in its own way to counter. Ever since June, there have been multiple rounds of talks between Beijing and New Delhi, and so far there has been no agreement on the border dispute. Initially, both sides pulled back their troops to end the face-off however, troops from both sides have still locked horns by the end of August.
Protecting Belt and Road in Pakistan
What triggered China to take an aggressive posture against India in this scenario? The answer lies partially in the protection of the Chinese Belt and Road interests in Pakistan. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Pakistan’s component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), was at stake due to India’s moves in Kashmir. China moved in swiftly to contain the threats soon after.
Moreover, CPEC passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, which is part of the wider disputed Kashmir region between Pakistan and India. This region shares borders with the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of China and serves as the only land connection with Pakistan. China plans to use this region not only for cargo movement for trade, but also for the upstream supply of oil from the Arabian sea.
Right after the launch of CPEC, India began building the strategically important DSDBO road. This 255km-long road allows India greater ease when accessing the Karakoram Pass, which is the choking point on the Sino-Pakistan border. With the completion of this road, India will have a quick and direct approach to the Karakorum Pass. The Chinese seemed to have concerns that India might use this advantage to block the Karakorum Pass in case of a conflict with Pakistan, which would ultimately paralyze the trade and energy supply under CPEC. Hence, some see the recent uptick in tension on the China-India border as China attempting to put New Delhi on the backfoot.
Pak-China Intelligence Cooperation
Pakistan and China have enjoyed extended defense cooperation between one another beginning from the 1960s. However, the level of detailed intelligence sharing increased after Pakistan joined BRI in 2015. Since then, both countries have stepped up their levels of intelligence cooperation on mutual threats, most notably the threat of India’s possible move to sabotage CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan. Sources within U.S. Intelligence confided to Indian media that China had a better understanding of Indian troop movement in the Ladakh region before the May-June border clashes. They assume that China had this advantage because Pakistan had shared intelligence on India’s troop movements in Kashmir, which Islamabad monitors very closely. Consequently, China was able to outmaneuver India in these border clashes. In the realm of defense, BRI proves useful for China here.
Aksai China at Risk
Shortly after India modified the status of Jammu and Kashmir, making it a Union Territory, India then focused on the Aksai Chin region. Originally a part of the Kashmir Region, Aksai Chin has been under Chinese control since 1962. However, India’s position has been that Aksai Chin is a part of India under the illegal occupation of China. In the past, India’s stance on Aksai Chin has been docile, but the aggressive move on Kashmir emboldened India.
Keeping up with the rhetoric around Kashmir, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah went a step further. He said that Aksai Chin is a territory of India that India lost to China in the 1962 war, and vowed to take Aksai Chin back from China. This was an explicit threat to China coming from the top echelons of power in India. This irritated Chinese leadership, and thus they trespassed into the Ladakh region of India to pre-empt any adventurism by India in Aksai Chin. While India did not have any plans of invading Aksai Chin, Amit Shah’s statement proved to be a serious miscalculation.
India Expected U.S. Support
India is a rising power, but it still cannot compete with China on military terms. Just like China supports Pakistan in its rivalry with India, New Delhi expects a similar level of support from the United States. First, India is a strategic ally of the U.S. in the region, and both countries have cordial relations driven by interests. Second, U.S. and China relations are going through a rough patch, and this makes U.S. intervention on behalf of India even more likely. Therefore, even Chinese experts were expecting India to leverage the Indo-China border clashes to draw in U.S. support.
U.S. President Donald Trump did offer to mediate the dispute between India and China following the border clashes, however, this rhetoric was the extent of the U.S. involvement in this matter. Given the economic crisis due to the pandemic, and the social unrest over racial inequality, the U.S. likely chose to avoid jumping into the Kashmir border dispute theater amid its issues back home. This was clearly a setback for India, as now it must deal with China on its northern border by itself.
India on the Backfoot?
After seemingly getting outmaneuvered by China on the “Line of Actual Control” – the name given to the blurry Sino-India border – and receiving a cold shoulder from the U.S., India on the backfoot. India failed to correctly predict China’s reaction to its moves in Kashmir last year. Now, India is left with a situation where its geo-strategic influence in the Ladakh region near the Karakorum Pass has reduced. India can no longer threaten Pakistan by blocking the passage of CPEC in Kashmir, and its claim on Aksai Chin has also weakened in the aftermath of the border misadventure with China.
BRI Better Secured after the Clashes?
In the aftermath of the Indo-China border clashes, both sides will reach a temporary resolution. However, China will keep on pressuring India on this fragile border issue to keep New Delhi’s aggressions against BRI in check. The latest confrontation in the Ladakh region at the end of August is a testament to this assertion. Therefore, China will be less inclined towards any permanent border settlement with India, at least in the Kashmir region.
Despite setbacks in these border clashes, India will continue opposing CPEC and BRI. India’s opposition will be limited to the extent of issuing diplomatic statements, and it will likely refrain from any physical activity in opposition to CPEC. Consequently, BRI in general, and CPEC in particular, will emerge stronger from this crisis. The threats to CPEC in the Karakorum Pass have also been contained, and India has got the message that China will not compromise on the security of BRI. Therefore, the Belt and Road Initiative is now technically more secure following the Indo-China border clashes.