Over six years beginning in 1951, not long after the communists took power, China built a highway into the remote Himalayas. Stretching for more than 2000 kilometres and reaching altitudes of more than 5000 metres, it’s one of the world’s most dangerous roads. But the freezing temperatures, hairpin bends and gale-force winds weren’t the biggest danger posed by China National Highway 219.
Built to enable military forces to move between Tibet and Xinjiang, the road passes through Aksai Chin, a rugged swathe of unpopulated high-altitude desert administered by China but claimed by India as part of the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir state. The arrival of the highway was one of the triggers for the 1962 Sino-Indian war, a short but bloody conflict that has cast a long shadow over China–India relations.
Although the border dispute remains unresolved, Aksai Chin has been generally stable since 1962. But this month’s announcement that the Indian government is splitting restive Jammu and Kashmir into two new Union Territories has reopened Chinese concerns about its “territorial sovereignty,” once again setting the scene for heightened tensions along what’s called the Line of Actual Control.
For the past seventy years, Article 370 of the Indian constitution has given Jammu and Kashmir special status, allowing it greater autonomy, including a separate constitution, control over its own administrative processes, and restrictions on non-residents. On 5 August, the Indian parliament, dominated by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, voted to repeal the article, claiming that the state’s autonomy was a cause of separatist violence.
The two new Union Territories — Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh — will essentially be under direct rule by Delhi. Jammu and Kashmir will have its own unicameral legislature; Ladakh will have no legislature at all.
Not surprisingly, the decision has met with a mixed response. The vast majority of the population of the new territories, around eight million people, will be in the new Jammu and Kashmir Union Territory. Jammu Division is majority Hindu, while the Kashmir Valley is overwhelmingly Muslim. Ladakh, with just 300,000 people — Muslims and Buddhists in roughly equal numbers — has been agitating for separation for some time.
Control of the wider Kashmir region has been the subject of dispute between India and Pakistan since Partition in 1947, with Pakistan controlling the western part (known as Azad Kashmir) along with the northern territories (Gilgit-Baltistan). Much of the focus since Modi’s announcement has been on how the region’s change in status will affect that dispute, which has led to tens of thousands of deaths and casualties, especially since the rise of a separatist insurgency in 1989. The region was placed under an unprecedented lockdown, including a total communications blackout, though India has promised to begin loosening its grip this week.
Less widely recognised is the potential for the administrative changes to inflame tensions between India and China. Beijing immediately described India’s decision as an attack on its territorial sovereignty; India responded by essentially telling China not to interfere in its internal matters.
By the time of a meeting in Beijing on 12 August, China’s message had softened slightly, with foreign minister Wang Yi telling India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, that “China is highly concerned about the current situation in Kashmir and the escalated conflict between India and Pakistan.” Wang had earlier reiterated that China was Pakistan’s “all-weather strategic partner.” It has since referred the change in Jammu and Kashmir’s status to the UN Security Council, which discussed the issue inconclusively on Friday.
This is not the first time China has sought to play peacemaker between India and Pakistan. During the 1999 Kargil war — arguably the closest India and Pakistan have come to nuclear war — China dialled back its historically strong support for Pakistan, urging the two sides to resolve their differences through dialogue. China is couching its current concerns in terms of the India–Pakistan relationship and possible instability in the region, but its initial statement betrays its worries about the broader effect on Aksai Chin and its own relationship with India.
China–India border tensions have two main focal points: Aksai Chin in the west, and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the east, which China also claims. Traditionally, the eastern sector has been the major flashpoint, most recently in 2017 when Chinese and Indian forces clashed on the Doklam plateau, in an area disputed between India’s ally, Bhutan, and China, and bordering the Indian state of Sikkim. Unlike Aksai Chin, the disputed territories in the east are well populated and strategically vital to India, leading to periodic clashes.
In the Kashmir region, by contrast, India’s main focus is Pakistan. Although India technically claims Aksai Chin, it has made little attempt to challenge China’s de facto administration of the area.
From China’s perspective, the changes in Kashmir’s status have three possible outcomes. The most likely is that the state’s loss of autonomy will cause a flare-up between India and Pakistan and reinvigorate the separatist movement. This is clearly what Indian authorities fear, given their imposition of a full communications blackout. While any instability in this area is a concern for China, as Pakistan’s ally, especially given the region’s proximity to Xinjiang, the threat of direct conflict with India is low.
The second scenario is that, having exerted greater control over the Kashmir region, India will want to reopen the status of Aksai Chin. This seems unlikely, as it’s not in India’s interests to create a second border conflict in an already unstable region. But it has doubtless occurred to the Chinese government, as evidenced by its early comments regarding territorial integrity.
The third possible outcome — the golden vision offered on 5 August by the Indian government — is that greater centralised control will stabilise Kashmir and open it up to commerce and tourism from the rest of India. It’s true that the region’s economy has suffered significantly from the ongoing conflict, but Kashmiris fear the loss of identity that may come with a large influx of tourists and new residents. For China, a relatively stable, centrally controlled Kashmir region with a growing population is perhaps a greater threat to its territorial claim than ongoing instability. In this scenario, only time will tell.
For countries that are so often at loggerheads, the irony is that India and China may now have more in common than they care to admit. Some observers are likening the Hindu nationalist–led crackdown on Kashmiri Muslims to China’s actions against its Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang. It’s a grim reality on which to be united. •