Road building in Kashmir leads to fears of military clash between India and China

Construction work being carried out by India and China near a contested border in the Himalayas is leading to fears of an armed clash between the two countries.

Tensions have been raised by a series of roads and airstrips being built by India along the 4,000km Line of Actual Control (LAC), the demarcation line left by their 1962 war.

By 2022, Narendra Modi’s government hopes to have completed some 44 "strategic roads" along the LAC at a cost of about $3bn, which, among other things, will increase India’s ability to move troops, equipment and supplies to the LAC (see further reading).

China is particularly concerned over roads and airstrips being built in Ladakh, a region in the north of Indian-administered Kashmir at the extreme west of the LAC.

One of these roads runs along the Galwan valley to the Daulat Beg Oldi air base, which was completed in October.

The Galwan was fought over in 1962, and remains one of the most sensitive areas along the LAC.

Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign secretary, told the Reuters news agency: "The [Galwan] road is very important because it runs parallel to the LAC and is linked at various points with the major supply bases inland. It remains within our side of the LAC. It is construction along this new alignment which appears to have been challenged by the Chinese."

Getting tents

According to reports, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is setting up about 100 tents on its side of the LAC, and the Indian army has rigged about 60 on its side. Both have also begun digging defences.

Ashok Kantha, India’s ambassador to China between 2014 and 2016, told the Indian Express newspaper that the presence of Chinese troops in the Galwan was "a major change".

He said: "They are staying put, dug down and in tents and not just as a patrol. These incursions are happening in multiple locations and they have become more assertive and aggressive in their behaviour."

He added that road building was the cause of the increase in tension. "On both sides, infrastructure development is going on, and we have caught up in the last eight years in Ladakh in a big way … the Chinese are concerned that we have better access to the frontier, and their LAC is not the same as ours. This has led to the situation in Galwan."

In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said China is "committed to safeguarding the security of its national territorial sovereignty, as well as safeguarding peace and stability in the China-India border areas".

China is reported to be carrying out "massive construction work" at the Ngari Gunsa airport in Tibet, which is used by the Chinese military and civil authorities, and which is 200km from the LAC in Ladakh.

Enter US and Pakistan

The US has tended to support India’s position, with one State Department official blaming "China’s disturbing behaviour", such as aggressive patrolling along the LAC, for the growing concern.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump entered the fray, saying China and India had both been informed that "the US is ready, willing and able to mediate or arbitrate their now raging border dispute". 

Meanwhile, Pakistan, which is engaged in a Cold War with India, weighed in on the side of its Chinese ally. In a series of inflammatory tweets, Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned India’s "arrogant expansionist policies", saying that they were "akin to Nazi’s Lebensraum". 

Also on Wednesday, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said the conflict was triggered by India’s behaviour in Ladakh. He said although China wished to resolve issues through dialogue, it could not "remain oblivious to India’s illegal constructions".

Blows exchanged

Earlier this month, Indian and Chinese soldiers exchanged blows and threw stones at each other near Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh, leaving about 100 with injuries.

This dispute was over a road being built by India in the Finger area of the lake. Three days later, another incident occurred 1,200km to the east, at Nathu La Pass in the Indian state of Sikkim after Indian soldiers stopped a patrol from the PLA.

The last flare up between the two countries occurred in June 2017, when around 270 Indian troops with two bulldozers, entered Doklam, at the east of the LAC, to stop Chinese troops from constructing a road on land claimed by Bhutan. That led to a two-month long military build-up that ended after the Chinese halted work on the road.

The Washington Post reports some Indian analysts are suggesting the current situation will end in a similar way, pointing to a comment made yesterday by China’s ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, who said: "We should never let differences overshadow our relations. We should resolve differences through communication."

​Image: Peaceful scene: horses graze at an altitude of 4,600m in Ladakh (Dreamstime)

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