Galwan: The Disputed Valley
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The history of Galwan Valley and of Aksai Chin in more general terms is a contentious and, post 1960, a tumultuous one, which has witnessed several powers vying for control of the region. In view of the recent skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops, it is the objective of this article to historicize the present hostilities and understand how developments in history have led to the Valley being coveted as a prized geostrategic possession. The Galwan Valley is located in the Indian region of Ladakh and straddles the LoAC (Line of Actual Control) which separates Chinese illegally occupied Aksai Chin from Indian territory.
Much like the high-altitude barren plateaus of Aksai Chin, Galwan Valley is remarkably deficient in any form of natural resources worth skirmishing over. The closest lucrative spot is the adjacent Sinkiang region in China which is mined for jade but the Galwan Valley itself has historically been an area for Ladakhi farmers to take their flocks to graze in summer. It was also part of a seasonal summer route for the Silk Route which was abandoned later and since it is located between the Karakoram Himalayan subregion to the north and the Southern Himalayas to the south; thereby representing inhospitable terrain which is difficult to traverse.
It must however be clarified that it is not the objective of this article to prophesize the belonging of any territory to either of the two warring parties. In order to achieve a holistic understanding, narratives from both sides of the borders will be highlighted. Although both India and China as sovereign entities with fixed borders are recent creations, various empires "belonging" to both have laid "claim" to the territory at different points in history.
Post the emergence of the two independent nations of India and China in the later half of the twentieth century, the initial Chinese claims to territory within India were in the form of cartographic aggressions. The questions of the Galwan Valley and Aksai Chin were raised in 1954 at a summit where Premier Zhou Enlai reassured the Indian leadership that Chinese maps claiming these regions as part of China were merely a mistake on behalf of the earlier Kuomintang government and that the new Communist government had not yet been able to ban such maps out of circulation. The Indian leadership at the time had good reason to believe so. Even the Manchus (1644-1912) had no such claims over the region as evidenced by the official map of their empire which was formulated by Portuguese Jesuit cartographers in 1762 (Khatri, 2018). Even as late as 1933, there was no incongruence between British Indian and Chinese maps in terms of possession of territory.
However, the Chinese position formally changed in 1959 where there was an official acknowledgement of Chinese intentions to act with the purpose of claiming Aksai Chin. Its maps explicitly lay claim to the Valley as well. It must be emphasized that the Galwan Valley didn’t represent a great priority for the warring parties in 1962. China was motivated more by insecurity due to the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the need to exercise strategic domination over India. However, Galwan Valley was cited as the immediate trigger for the war when Indian troops were deployed in the region. The Valley witnessed confrontation and faceoffs between the two parties at a mere distance of 100 metres and continues to witness clashes today.
Indian military importance attached to Galwan Valley has increased exponentially since 1962 due to increased Chinese activity only a few miles away across the LoAC. Since 1986, Xiaoping’s forward policy has involved sending Tibetan nomads into the Valley for grazing since the Indian Changpa nomads are increasingly leaving the region in order to migrate to cities. This aids China in claiming the Valley as its own if the demographic makeup of the region tilts in their favour (Stobdan, 2010).
The 13th Five Year Plan by China, in addition to its One Belt One Road initiative has prioritized road building and the development of infrastructure towards and along the Indian border (Sun 2020). The Chinese National Highway 219 passing through Aksai Chin is of great importance to China since it connects the two most troubled regions of its territory: Tibet and Xinjiang. The Chinese plan to turn disputed areas into tourist hubs would complicate the situation for India if a confrontation were to arise due to the possible presence of civilians and foreign tourists at the theatre of conflict. Galwan Valley also acquires importance due to it being positioned near the starting point of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) near the Karakoram region illegally ceded to China by Pakistan.
In terms of Indian activities, the Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) airstrip which was revived in 2008, occupies a vital position due to its proximity to the Valley and to the troops serving in adverse conditions. 2013 witnessed the commencement of the landing of Antonov An-32 and the Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 aircraft to provide a faster avenue of supplying the troops and to augment the defence preparedness at the border (Subramanian, 2020). India has also managed to successfully complete the construction of the strategic route from Darbuk to DBO (the DS-DBO road) which serves as an important avenue to mobilize troops and supply existing troops at the frontier. The Indian army has invested heavily in constructing 37 military truss bridges that succeed in making the route an all-weather one. Earlier this road was subject to landslides, flooding and erosion due to the Galwan River’s unpredictable current. This serves as an improved alternative to the seasonal Sassar La pass which remains inaccessible due to glaciation in winter (Saha, 2020). It becomes all the more important to guard the valley now since China possesses the advantage of altitude and can deter Indian troop movement from the Galwan heights within Aksai Chin (Mehta, 2020) An occupation of the Valley could potentially aid enemies in overwhelming the aforementioned airstrip and the DS-DBO road; thereby completely cutting off supplies to Indian troops positioned further north.
An alternative take focuses not on geopolitics but on the investment in human capital that the army has maintained over the years. According to Gagne (2017) since the 1948 war with Pakistan, India has relied heavily on the locals and locally sourced army men to aid in terms of defence, logistics and intelligence. Despite the region being poorly equipped and fortified in 1948, local Ladakhis and several notables from the Valley aided in organizing the resistance against the invaders despite several only being armed with traditional lances and bows. Recognizing the indomitable spirit of the Ladakhi people, the Indian Army has invested heavily in the training and upkeep of regiments from Ladakh and bases its ability of defending the region upon close interconnectedness between the locals and the Army.
The Valley’s importance has thereby increased exponentially only in recent years and as witnessed by the aforementioned historical analysis, any claims by either of the parties on the basis of history can be labelled as insubstantial due to the ambiguity of territorial possession in the past. The importance afforded to the Valley by India has increased both in absolute terms due to its activities on the Indian side of the LoAC and in relative terms as well due to increased threats posed by Chinese activities proximally.
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