Siachen glacier lies just northeast of point MJ9842 where the demarcated Line of Control (LoC) ends. Beyond this is unmarked territory, uninhabitable, impassable and impossible to survey. At least that is what the 1949 Karachi Agreement between Pakistan and India to denote the Cease Fire Line (CFL) thought. It thus envisioned, ‘the CFL extended due north (beyond MJ9842) to the Chinese border’. India considers northwest to Indira Col as the terminus of the notionally extended CFL while Pakistan claims sovereignty over areas west of the line joining MJ9842 with Karakoram Pass in the north east. This would include the Siachen glacier.
The two armies had patrolled the glacial region consistently over the years and had nicely kept out of each other’s way. When expeditions routed to the region from Pakistan began to be harried by Indian patrols for territorial violation Pakistan knew it was time to assert its right. Pakistan planned permanent posts in the area to keep the Indians at bay. Planned for 1983, the execution was postponed for the next summer. As Pakistan hurried to acquire high-altitude gear to survive the elements at those heights she learnt from the contracting vendor that India too was in a rush to buy the same equipment in large numbers. The race was on.
In 1984, Pakistan probing patrols sent to assess the state on the ground were surprised by the Indian presence already established in flimsily structured posts. Clearly they had been beaten in time. Since then numerous skirmishes and a short sustained conflict have been unable to dislodge the Indians sitting above at higher peaks. Holding higher ground helps dominate the surroundings and denies access to the area. The Indians have that advantage. We settled in by creating parallel posts on the peaks of west of Saltoro Ridge just across Siachen where both sides now observe each other in clear sight. Some say Pakistan was beaten to the Siachen peaks by a day only.
Having failed to find progress on the issue in numerous rounds of the Comprehensive Dialogue with India, Pakistan resorted to redeeming its operational disadvantage by moving troops to the Kargil watershed in 1999. Pakistani troops occupied high points at Kargil and dominated the Srinagar-Leh highway which passed below these heights in easy range of automatic weapons. The Indians would have only moved on the road if Pakistanis permitted, threatening to choke Indian supplies to Siachen. It didn’t last much longer and within 1999 Pakistan had to withdraw from the peaks. What has recently happened along the India-China border in Ladakh is a replica of what occurred at Kargil. Another supply line of India is being threatened by China occupying the heights on the Galwan watershed.
India built a base at Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) raising it from a remote outpost to a Brigade strength garrison. To provision they developed a road along Leh-Shyok-DBO axis. It passes only kilometres away from the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between China and India and at some places across the claim-lines of China. This brings into play both, Tibet Autonomous Region and Aksai Chin, which are incorporated as regular Chinese territories since the early 60s. India lays a weak claim over Aksai Chin and isn’t loathe to experiment in deliberate nuisance in Tibet. And she claims sovereignty over entire Ladakh contesting China’s claim lines.
The abrogation of Article 370 last year and separation of Ladakh as a Union Territory has brought India into direct confrontation with China. While India had been in a perpetual fight with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir — and China had deferred to Pakistan as the principal party to the conflict — by this action India has converted the J&K issue into a three-way confrontation. If earlier only the McMahon Line and disputed claims over LAC were a problem now China is a direct participant in the J&K issue. It isn’t over yet between them but how India and China settle will determine if indeed it has been strategically as blunderous as it seems.
In its arrogance and hubris India decided to build at DBO. That’s a strategic move of no uncertain proportions by an expansionist India. DBO is only 8 kms away from the LAC with China. By building the road and supply network India has created the means for future expansion in an effort to project power in multiple directions. Through her persistent presence it has established her hold over territories in Ladakh claimed by China across the LAC. India can also threaten expansion into and beyond LAC over Aksai Chin which she has recently begun to assert as its territory. The Karakoram Pass is only eight miles away from DBO while it serves as a supporting rear base for Siachen. The Karakoram Pass links Pakistan to China and then descends down to Skardu and beyond where CPEC and plans to build a huge dam (Diamer-Bhasha) are underway. Both CPEC and the dam are the lifelines of Pakistan’s economy. India wants to choke these avenues with her ambitious expansion. That invokes China’s attention too as these projects are equally vital to China.
When China descended on Galwan and took hold of it, it check-mated India’s stealthy design. India forced woke a rather passive giant into an assertive dragon. A lot that China would probably let go is instead now of close scrutiny for it after India attempted a creeping encroachment into what was vital to China. If earlier China would simply advise both Pakistan and India to work their problems through than resort to use of force has now China join the melee as an active participant with force. China sits atop the peaks in Galwan valley and dominates the DBO-Shyok-Leh road. India will move on it if China allows. That’s China’s strategic riposte to India. India was stealthy; China has called India out on it. That compromises both DBO and Indian claims over any areas either side of the LAC. If it enters war with China, the past haunts. Today China is far superior, and the power differential between the two vast.
Here are three options for peace of strategic consequences in South Asia:
A Boundary Commission instituted under the auspices of the UNO can work a Modus Vivendi between conflicting claims of the three nations through minor adjustments around existing lines of control.
The Commission should create a ‘demilitarised’ Kashmir Autonomous Region (KAR) composed of IOJ&K and AJK. Ladakh may be retained as India’s Union Territory while addressing claims of both China and India. The question of Jammu be left to the KAR representative assembly to establish future disposition.
Leave the region to slug it out and find a balance around force and power. The flip side is obvious. Three nuclear states in a confrontation can only spell disaster for the rest of the world. Deterrence stability will be the first to unravel among the three belligerents with varying thresholds.
The region is currently living the reality of the third option. It just may be time for the world to act.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 21st, 2020.