Since the signing of the Simla Agreement in 1972, the Kashmir conflict has largely been viewed as the kernel in historically fraught Indo-Pak relations – a repository of long-standing ethno-religious divisions, opposing nationalist ideologies, and cross-territorial violence. In the wake of the UNHRC’s landmark 2018 report on the region, it has only recently been recognised that effective reconciliation in Kashmir is wholly dependent upon India and Pakistan taking joint responsibility for the endemic human rights abuses committed on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC) i.e. the de facto boundary between India and Pakistan within Kashmir. Nevertheless, in framing the conflict in Kashmir as a wholly bilateral issue, such scrutiny has failed to properly account for China’s emerging role as a hitherto under-discussed third-party in the conflict. In light of China’s previous investments in other conflict zones, and its own history of human rights abuses, The Next Century Foundation’s researcher, Udit Mahalingam, examines how escalating tensions in current Sino-Indo relations can be situated against broader, multilateral disputes occurring at both the LoC and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) i.e. the de facto boundary between India and China within Kashmir.
The recent June 15th clash between Sino-Indo security forces in the Galwan Valley (along the LAC between Ladakh and Aksai Chin) provides the ideal starting point for this discussion. The most significant escalation in over four decades of relations between India and China, the skirmish is emblematic of savage warfare at its worst, despite the enforcement of a 1996 border agreement, which prevents either side from “open[ing] fire […] within two kilometres of the Line of Actual Control”. At least twenty Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese security officials died in the conflict, perishing at the hands of “stones, iron rods and bamboo poles wrapped in barbed wire laced with nails”. With both nations accusing the other of territorial infringement and unilateral aggression, the question remains as to when the process of disengagement will resume, especially considering that Sino-Indo tensions were already simmering in the wake of the 2017 Doklam standoff.
Propelled by far right Hindu nationalism on one side and quasi-hegemonic expansionism on the other, the Galwan Valley conflict is the perfect example of how geopolitical gridlock is often maintained at the expense of ordinary lives, on both sides of the divide. As such, the ramifications that this clash has on the adjacent conflict in Kashmir cannot be understated. To begin with, it situates India’s current infrastructural investments on its side of the LAC within its wider unilateral interventions across the LoC, evidenced most prominently in the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in 2019, as well as the subsequent security lockdown and communications blackout enforced within the region. Moreover, given the strategic importance of Ladakh as the point of intersection between the Indo-Pak and Sino-Indo border, the recent skirmish draws further attention to the importance of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (C-PEK) in relation to the conflicts at both the LoC and LAC.
At first glance, the C-PEK, a flagship for China’s wider Belt and Road Initiative, (BRI), seems to serve as just one of the many signifiers for China and Pakistan’s self-described ‘iron brotherhood’. Nevertheless, given China’s history of engaging in debt-trap diplomacy with other conflict zones in South Asia, it would be unwise to avoid scrutinising the superpower’s strategic investments in transport infrastructure (road-building, rail-line building, etc…) within Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In consolidating its control over the aforementioned region, China has represented itself as a seemingly sympathetic ally to the cause of self-determination amongst the Kashmiri population. Despite China’s well-documented persecution of its own minority Uighur Muslim population, the Galwan Valley conflict has only helped engender such a representation, setting the stage for potential third-party escalations within the region. To quote a recent report from the Observer Research Foundation, “the [Kashmiri] people are seeing China’s aggression as a lesser evil simply because it doesn’t affect their lives and livelihood directly”. Given the intensification of Indo-Pak and Sino-Indo relations, a three-way conflict fought on two fronts would not only shatter the existing bilateral agreement on the Kashmir issue, but would aggravate the humanitarian crisis at both sides of the LoC. The devastation left in the wake of such a conflict will serve as an additional setback to the wider process of reconciliation within the region.
In view of the tensions between India, Pakistan and China, it is imperative that the international community recognise the multilateral dimensions of the conflict in Kashmir. Given the rampant spread of ethno-religious nationalism on both sides of the LoC, a two-state solution may be near-impossible to negotiate, let alone implement. Nevertheless, despite the recent internationalisation of the region’s humanitarian crisis, third-party mediation via the United Nations would fail to account for the intensely tribalized nature of the conflict. This would only help stagnate progress towards long-term regional peacebuilding and reconciliation. In the Next Century Foundation’s view, a syncretist approach would be the most effective long-term solution to the conflict. Such an approach could potentially involve bilateral recognition of the LoC and LaC as official borders rather than loose demarcation lines, as well as a multilateral response to the associated humanitarian crisis (via international judicial institutions, such as the International Court of Justice). In light of the current stasis in Indo-Pak and Sino-Indo relations, it remains to be seen as to whether such a solution could ever be implemented.