Strategic Importance Of Aksai Chin: Why Are the Chinese So Worried?

Representative image.

Representative image.

Strategic importance of this area became prominent but not evident to Indian polity when Chinese constructed a road from Tibet to Xinjiag province in 1950.

Group Capt MJ Augustine Vinod VSM (Retd)
  • Last Updated: June 22, 2020, 3:35 PM IST
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The year 2020 was supposed to be a year where all plans that we made for 2020 were supposed to have come true. What came true, however, was what China gave to the world; a novel (meaning new) coronavirus of the year 2019.

The WHO, with Tedros at the helm, called it Covid-19. Initially, they said it will not harm humans and human to human transmission is not possible. WHO too lapped it up conveniently and sold it to the world. Viral outbreaks are normally attributed to its origin since time immemorial. Plague of Athens 429 BC, Mexico Small Pox in 1520 AD, London Plague 1563, China Plague 1641 and more recently Spanish Flu, and Mweka Ebola. How is it that a new viral strain that the world is seeing for the first time, which originated in Wuhan, China, does not carry the name of origin and is not called Wuhan Virus? Why is this important in our current topic of “Air War in Aksai Chin”? Well! Wuhan Coronavirus aka COVID-19 put a lot of focus on China. So, China did what it does best, remove focus from the virus and create ruckus in South China Sea and Galwan Valley. Suddenly, news channels and states world over are now talking of this ruckus rather than Wuhan Virus.

Aksai Chin is disputed between India and China since the formation of India and it goes back to the nineteenth century. William Johnson, a civil servant with the Survey of India, proposed "Johnson Line" in 1865, which put Aksai Chin in Kashmir. This map was not shared with China. The moot question is why not? Because Xinjiang prefecture at that time was not under the control of China. It came under Chinese control years later and it was not until 1892 when China erected boundary markers at Karakoram pass.

In 1897, a British military officer, Sir John Ardagh, proposed a boundary line along the crest of the Kun Lun Mountains, north of the Yarkand River. At the time Britain was concerned about the danger of Russian expansion as China weakened, and Ardagh argued that his line was more defensible. The Ardagh line was effectively a modification of the Johnson line, and became known as the "Johnson-Ardagh Line". This line accounts territory further north as far as the Sanju Pass in the Kun Lun Mountains, which is well north of the current claim lines.

Strategic importance of this area became prominent but not evident to Indian polity when Chinese constructed a road from Tibet to Xinjiag province in 1950. Shocking aspect was that India did not come to know of the road until 1957 and that too when Chinese owned up to having constructed the road. Now, why is this road important for China? If you look at the map, the road to Kashgar from Tibet runs south of Taklamakan desert and traditional road north of Taklamakan desert.

North road, though much older, takes couple of days more of travel and in winters gets frozen at places and is difficult to negotiate sometimes. Southern road is preferred due to less travel time and frozen water in winters means road and adjacent area are firmer for travel and do not flood due to melting water. Someone should have appraised Nehru of this, someone from the Army or other strategic think tank. Did any such outfit exist at that is a big question? India too had just been liberated from British stranglehold and was still finding its feet in the brave new world. Be that as it may. It was said that there were very few who had Nehru’s ears. There is an interesting anecdote that goes with this issue of Aksai Chin:

“On December 5, 1961 during the debate on Aksai Chin in Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had made that famous statement in Parliament of “not a blade of grass grows there”. This was at a time when China was invading, infiltrating, and occupying Ladakh (Aksai Chin). It invoked immediate sharp rejoinder from Mahavir Tyagi who pointed to his bald head and wanted to know whether he too should treat it as useless.”

Such was the outlook of our polity then for which we are paying the price now with lives of 20 soldiers and may be more, god forbid, in the future.

In the 50s, PLA outposts were constructed in Tianwendian, Kongka Pass, Heweitanand Tianshuihai etc. Indian Army did point out these developments to New Delhi, but then Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai was gaining voice and no one wanted to bell the cat. In the meantime, this road was upgraded to China National Highway 219. These days it is called G219 and it goes through the India claimed region of Aksai Chin.

First incident of stone throwing at Indian Army by PLA happened in 2017. It is an important year for the region because in 2010, China conducted geological surveys in Western Kunlun region, which Aksai Chin is part of. Lo and behold in Huoshaoyun, a major lead-zinc deposit, and numerous smaller deposits were discovered. Huoshaoyun is a mountain located in Aksai Chin near the Tibetan border. Mining development of Huoshaoyun started in 2017 and Chinese PLA started pelting stones and started stronger assertions to this strategic piece of land.

This year on year nibbling strategy of China was not without reason. This huge zinc deposit may be extending into the claimed land (large garnet deposit is close to the point where 3 Idiots was shot and is still called the Garnet Hill). Moreover, more they nibble, more defence in depth is provided to this Highway 219. Every summer, like a ritual they kept doing it. This summer, however, they were faced with 16 Bihar of Indian Army and Col Santosh Babu’s unit. They did not budge, 20 lives were lost but they did not budge. That was the kind of resolve that 16 Bihar displayed.

If China decides to wage war with India in this region, especially air war, they are in for a rude shock.

Disclaimer:The author is a former Indian Air Force fighter pilot. Views expressed are personal.

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