Why China’s Posturing in Ladakh Will Delay J&K’s Political Reset 

Like Pakistan, China too would not want any steps taken by India to create the impression of ‘normalcy’ in J&K. 

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of flag of China and maps of newly-formed Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, used for representational purposes.
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When the BJP’s National General Secretary Ram Madhav declared in a newspaper article that the changes set in motion on 5 August 2019 in Jammu & Kashmir had reached a ‘logical end’, it was an indication that the central government was ready to press the reset button in the politics of the new Union Territory.

This was followed by reports that an advisory council would be appointed in J&K, headed by Apni Party leader Altaf Bukhari. The Apni Party was created precisely as a vehicle for advancing Delhi’s agenda in J&K. The media reported that the prime minister discussed the creation of an advisory council with Altaf Bukhari and his 24-member delegation on 14 March in Delhi. Its launch was expected in the first week of June and its deferment has been attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, there may be more than this behind the delay.

Why India’s Handling of Chinese Border Incursion Is Different From Handling of Pakistani Actions on LoC

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Altaf Bukhari, he was well aware of the virulence of COVID-19. On 4 March itself he had cancelled his participation in Holi celebrations; on 11 March, the WHO had declared the virus spread a pandemic; by 14 March there were already 80 cases in India and many states had closed schools, colleges, theatres and public events. Most importantly, if the pandemic did not prevent the Centre from notifying new domicile rules for J&K on 18 May, why would it prevent passing a simple administrative order to appoint an advisory council?

Could the reasons for delaying the restoration of a political process in J&K therefore lie elsewhere? Might the Chinese incursions in Ladakh have played a role?

Like Pakistan, China too would not want any steps taken by India to create the impression of ‘normalcy’ in J&K. The creation of an advisory council would be a step in that direction, giving a semblance of governance through people’s participation, pending elections.

China in particular has an interest in the UT of Ladakh which is twinned with the UT of J&K. While formulating its J&K policy, the Modi government may not give a fig for Pakistan’s reactions, but an upset China is a different kettle of fish. Chinese border aggression in Ladakh is being dealt with very differently, as compared to the belligerence and braggadocio in the face of similar past Pakistani actions on the LOC.

Special Status of J&K Revoked, New Map Boundaries Drawn: India’s Increased ‘Belligerence’?

Strategic experts have elaborated on the larger geo-political and domestic reasons for Chinese action in the region. However, it cannot be denied that China sees itself as an affected party in Ladakh, after the developments of 5 August 2019. The very next day, the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a strongly worded statement which said, “Recently India has continued to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty by unilaterally changing its domestic law. Such practice is unacceptable and will not come into force (emphasis added).”

The statement urged India “to exercise prudence in words and deeds concerning the boundary question, strictly abide by relevant agreements concluded between the two sides and avoid taking moves that may further complicate the boundary question.”

Home Minister Amit Shah had declared in Parliament on 6 August that when he refers to the (erstwhile) J&K state, he includes Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK (‘Azad Kashmir’ and Gilgit-Baltistan) and Aksai Chin in it. On 2 November 2019, the Survey of India published new maps of the Union Territories of Ladakh and J&K. Some would say that the depiction of Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin, within the boundary of Ladakh, was just routine – a continuation of boundaries marked on the old maps of the erstwhile J&K state. However, the new maps coupled with government pronouncements may have been seen as indication of increased belligerence on India’s part.

Why China Undermining India in Ladakh Suits Pakistan

On 6 May 2020, India’s Meteorological Department started including PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan in its daily weather forecasts. Ostensibly this was done to counter the Pakistan Supreme Court permitting its federal government to hold elections in Gilgit-Baltistan. However, Beijing could interpret these moves as combative, since the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through Gilgit-Baltistan.

These moves could also be seen also as an attempt to unilaterally seal the LAC as the international border, after a continued stalemate in the Special Representatives Mechanism on settling the border.

Improved Indian infrastructure in Ladakh would also be seen by China as threatening the CPEC and Aksai Chin.

China was clearly upset with the unilateral decisions taken by India in J&K, (and derivatively in Ladakh, where China lays territorial claims) through the nullification of Article 370. It would not be in its interest to let the Modi government create the semblance of routine politics in J&K after the unexpected and deep political surgery it carried out last year. Nor would this suit China’s all-weather friend Pakistan.

China undermining India in Ladakh suits Pakistan as it puts military pressure on India, tests the boastful domestic strategic narrative of Indian leaders and, by putting Ladakh in the news, focuses international attention on J&K.

Pakistan Keen On Preventing Initiation of Any New Political Process in J&K

Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic has not prevented Pakistan from keeping the Kashmir Valley on the boil. Infiltration from across the border has been cranked up and militant activity has increased and even spread to North Kashmir. Taken together, these developments suggest that Pakistan is also intent on preventing the initiation of any new political process in J&K.

There are reports that Chinese troops have started thinning out from areas where they had transgressed into Indian-controlled territory, and the process of establishing status quo ante has begun. Notwithstanding these reconciliatory moves, China and Pakistan stand more firmly together on Kashmir today than ever before.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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