In July 1958, an official monthly magazine in China named China Pictorial published a map of the country showing large parts of the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) and the Himalayan territory of Ladakh as part of China.
The importance of Ladakh to both India and China is rooted in complicated historical processes that led to the territory becoming part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and China’s interest in it post the occupation of Tibet in 1950.
History of Ladakh
- Up until the Dogra invasion of 1834, Ladakh was an independent Himalayan state, much the same way as Bhutan and Sikkim. Historically and culturally, however, the state was intrinsically linked to neighbouring Tibet. Language and religion linked Ladakh and Tibet; politically too, they shared a common history.
- Ladakh was part of the Tibetan empire which broke up after the assassination of King Langdarma in 742 CE. Thereafter it became an independent kingdom, though its borders fluctuated at different periods of its history and, at times included much of what is now western Tibet.
- Economically, the importance of the region stemmed from the fact that it was an entrepôt between central Asia and Kashmir. Tibetan pashm shawl wool was carried through Ladakh to Kashmir. At the same time, there was a flourishing trade route across the Karakoram pass to Yarkand and Kashgar to Chinese Turkestan.
- As the Sikhs acquired Kashmir in 1819, Emperor Ranjit Singh turned his ambition towards Ladakh. But it was Gulab Singh, the Dogra feudatory of the Sikhs in Jammu, who went ahead with the task of integrating Ladakh into Jammu and Kashmir.
- The British East India Company, which was by now steadily establishing itself in India, had lacked interest in Ladakh initially. However, it did show enthusiasm for the Dogra invasion of the area, with the hope that as a consequence, a large portion of Tibetan trade would be diverted to its holdings.
- In 1834, Gulab Singh sent his ablest general, Zarowar Singh Kahluria, with 4,000 infantrymen to conquer the territory.
- There was no opposition at first, as the Ladakhis were taken by surprise, but on August 16, 1834, the Dogras defeated an army of some 5,000 men under the Bhotia leader, Mangal, at Sanku. Thereafter, Ladakh came under Dogra rule.
- In May 1841, Tibet under the Qing dynasty of China invaded Ladakh with the hope of adding it to the imperial Chinese dominions, leading to the Sino-Sikh war. However, the Sino-Tibetan army was defeated, and the Treaty of Chushul was signed that agreed on no further transgressions or interference in the other country’s frontiers.
- After the first Anglo-Sikh war of 1845-46, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, including Ladakh, was taken out of the Sikh empire and brought under British suzerainty.
- The state of Jammu and Kashmir was essentially a British creation, formed as a buffer zone where they could meet the Russians. Consequently, there was an attempt to delimiting what exactly was Ladakh and the extent of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but it became convoluted since that area came under Tibetan and Central Asian influence.
Invigoration of China’s interests in Ladakh
- The annexation of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China in 1950 sparked newfound interest in Ladakh, and particularly so after the 1959 Tibetan uprising that erupted in Lhasa when the Dalai Lama fled into exile and was granted political asylum in India.
- Consequently, the road that the Chinese built across Ladakh in 1956-57 was important for the maintenance of their control over Tibet. Such events led to the start of India-China war in 1962.
- Recent clashes between India and China –
- There are two layers to this –
- First, up to 2013 India’s infrastructural development in that area was minimal. From 2013, India started pushing for infrastructure projects there and by 2015, it became a major defence priority.
- The second layer is the August 5, 2019 decision (to remove the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and downgrade the state into two Union Territories). From the Chinese point of view, they would have assumed that if India makes Ladakh a Union Territory, they would be reasserting its control over the entire state. Moreover, it is also important to note that over time, Xinjiang which is part of Aksai Chin, has become very important to China for their internal reasons.