Heightened tensions between three Asian nuclear powers
Myra MacDonald reports on the growing threat from border clashes on India, Pakistan and China’s high mountain frontiers
Wherever you travel in India and Pakistan, you will often see people playing an impromptu game of cricket on a stray patch of flat land. But I had not expected to see a game in progress on the world’s coldest, highest battlefield.
I was researching the Siachen war, fought between the two South Asian rivals over the glaciated wastelands of the Karakoram that lie at the point where India, Pakistan and China meet.
Our tiny helicopter landed at Gyari, where the Pakistan Army had set up a battalion headquarters on a snow-covered plateau at 13,000ft and barricaded by huge granite walls. At the height of the fighting, Gyari had been heavily shelled by Indian artillery. But shortly before my visit the two countries had declared a ceasefire.
As I remember it, with the light-headed hypoxia that comes with high altitude, the mood was distinctly cheerful. An officer greeted me in the drizzling snow by cutting off the stem of one of the wild sia roses that grow in the region and presenting it to me.
At a briefing inside, an earnest young man talked of the importance of the military deployment here, the Pakistan army as determined as its Indian counterpart to ensure that ‘not one inch of land’ should be ceded to the other side.
Then, as we returned outside, blinking in the strong high-altitude sun, the soldiers began playing a few overs of cricket. The war was forgotten as they focused on the precision of the bowling; the thwack of willow on leather echoed off the mountain walls.
Their youthful enthusiasm reminded me of the boys I had often seen playing cricket in the towns and villages of India and Pakistan. I remembered that scene vividly when, eight years later, a huge avalanche tumbled down from the mountain walls above Gyari. One hundred and forty soldiers and civilian contractors were buried alive. They would have been just like the men I met. They all died.
I made that visit to Gyari in 2004 as part of my research for a book on the Siachen war, which began in 1984 when Indian troops occupied mountain passes to block a Pakistani takeover of the Siachen glacier. It was a particularly cruel war where far more men were killed by the weather and terrain than in fighting.
Troops spent months in isolated posts on narrow mountain ledges with barely space for eight men. Some of these posts were above 18,000ft, a height so unsuited to human life that the body has to feed on itself in order to survive. They suffered from altitude sickness and frostbite, were buried by avalanches or fell into crevasses; soldiers returned from forward posts emaciated and blackened with soot from kerosene stoves.
They were expected to fight at altitudes where even walking is an effort, often under withering artillery fire directed at them from below, using knives and bayonets when their rifles froze in the cold. These human costs were exacerbated by the inherently escalatory nature of mountain warfare – armies invariably sprawl outwards as the other side seeks to find and exploit gaps in the enemy’s defences and a war, once started, can be impossible to stop.
For a new book, White as the Shroud, India, Pakistan and War on the Frontiers of Kashmir, I have been drawing on the lessons of the Siachen war to look more broadly at all the contested frontiers in the region. These include the Line of Control which divides the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir between India and Pakistan, the frontline in Siachen, and the disputed frontier between India and China on what is known as the Line of Actual Control. Together, they form a near-unbroken chain around Ladakh, once the largest but least populated part of erstwhile Kashmir and since 2019 incorporated into India as a union territory.
All three of these frontlines are becoming more volatile. An India-Pakistan ceasefire on the Line of Control has all but broken down. On the Line of Actual Control, tensions are at their highest since China defeated India in a 1962 border war. Twenty Indian soldiers and an unconfirmed number of Chinese troops died in a clash last June in the Galwan Valley, which lies at nearly 14,000ft in the bleak desert fringes of eastern Ladakh.
The three disputed frontiers are managed differently and there is no neat correspondence between the India-Pakistan and the Sino-Indian relationship. They nonetheless share some characteristics. The most striking is the human cost of posting soldiers on the high-altitude periphery. Since the clash in Galwan, thousands of Indian troops have been sent to reinforce the Line of Actual Control, digging in through the winter.
Though their posts are not quite as high as those in Siachen, they face the same challenges of high altitude, sub-zero temperatures and biting winds, along with the lack of shelter and the supply difficulties that come with deployment in remote terrain too harsh for human habitation.
Beyond that human toll are the strategic risks. The region is too vast for fixed linear frontiers. Instead armies seek key defensive positions in isolated posts, whether in the snow-covered heights of Siachen or in the rocky desert expanses of the Tibetan plateau. But there is always another position in the distance or higher up that looks like it might be essential to protect posts already held, or to watch over the surrounding terrain, creating constant pressure on armies to expand their deployment.
These frontier tensions, moreover, are playing out against a background of multiple overlapping sources of conflict – between Pakistan and India, between India and China, and between central governments and the people living on the periphery, whether that be in Kashmir, or in Xinjiang and Tibet, which both border Ladakh.
These overlapping conflicts are in turn exacerbated by the chains that bind Pakistan, India, and China into an awkward three-way competition. Pakistan distrusts a much larger India, while India fears a more powerful China. An alliance between China and Pakistan, linking them across a land bridge that runs through the Pakistani part of Kashmir, leaves India – and Ladakh in particular – hemmed in on two sides.
These overlapping conflicts then meld into the ever-present risk of tactical miscalculations when soldiers are posted in undemarcated, difficult terrain. Fighting on the frontiers also happens either despite the fact that all three countries involved have nuclear weapons, or because the supposed unthinkability of all-out war means they are more likely to channel their energies into
localized conflicts. Given the stakes involved, and against a background of rising international tensions between China and the US, these obscure frontier conflicts are likely to become a serious source of concern in the months and years ahead.
Lines on a map
Historically, the frontiers of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir were never demarcated. Instead the mountains and high cold deserts acted as natural barriers, even as the region was connected to Tibet and what is now Xinjiang through a network of trade, cultural and religious ties.
British colonial rulers, concerned about the southward expansion of Tsarist Russia in the 19th century ‘Great Game’, drew lines on maps, but never attempted to defend every inch of land. Instead, they sought a cushion rather than a hard border, securing the defence of India by roping in buffer states and leaving gaps in ungoverned spaces. These lines on maps, more-over, were never internationally agreed and tended to come in a number of versions based on where different British officials believed the frontiers should lie.
The great upheavals of the mid-20th century set off a chain reaction on the frontiers that continues to this day. Kashmir was divided in the war between India and Pakistan that followed Partition in 1947. The 1949 triumph of the communists in the civil war in China led to a reassertion of central power over its periphery. China’s takeover of Tibet in the 1950s and the building of a road linking Tibet with Xinjiang through territory claimed by India and China set the conditions for the 1962 war.
It was partly due to the scars of that defeat in 1962 that India, fearing encroachment by both Pakistan and China, first sent troops to Siachen.
The Siachen war is a case study in unintended consequences. The first troops sent by India in 1978 were military mountaineers who were merely meant to explore the Siachen glacier, but soon both Pakistan and India were sending military patrols to check what the other was doing.
In 1984, Indian troops occupied mountain passes overlooking the glacier in what was meant to be a show of force limited to the summer months – no one had ever spent the winter in Siachen. But once confronted by Pakistani troops, Indian troops were forced to dig in. Then, following the inexorable logic of mountain warfare, the Siachen frontline sprawled outwards towards the Line of Control.
It was in part to cut off the Indian supply lines to Siachen that Pakistan sent troops across the Line of Control in 1999, leading to the Kargil war in western Ladakh.
Pakistan eventually pulled its troops back to its side of the Line of Control after coming under intense international pressure – the conflict, erupting barely a year after India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, had rung alarm bells worldwide. India, however, was forced to step up its year-round deployment on the Line of Control to prevent any fresh ingress by Pakistan, exposing more troops to the perils of winter at high altitude.
A similar drift towards ever-increasing military deployment has been seen on the Line of Actual Control, where India and China have become embroiled in an infrastructure ‘arms race’.
First China and then India built roads and other infrastructure to help them move troops quickly to the frontier. But rather like the scramble for the heights in Siachen, the infrastructure-building had its own unintended consequences.
Last year’s spike in tensions between India and China in eastern Ladakh followed the completion in 2019 of a 160-mile Indian road running up to a one-time caravan traders’ campsite known as Daulat Beg Oldi. India has also set up an airstrip at Daulat Beg Oldi, which lies on a bleak 16,700ft plateau just below the Karakoram Pass. The road, along with India’s move in 2019 to cancel Kashmir’s autonomous status and split it from Ladakh – appears to have alarmed China. India has blamed China for causing last year’s tensions by pushing troops forward on the frontier. This trend towards increasing deployment on the disputed frontiers is happening in an environment that lends itself to misunderstandings and miscalculations.
Soldiers posted high in the mountains are often far too focused on survival to have any grasp of the broader picture and are a long way from senior commanders. With very limited media access other than the kind of military-organized trips I made with the Indian and Pakistani armies to both sides of the Siachen war zone, it is almost impossible to establish the facts about exactly what happens there. And since these frontiers were created through war, often they do not follow any obvious topography determined by natural features like rivers and ridgelines.
No easy answers, only trade-offs
Looking ahead there are no easy answers to the increasing volatility of the frontiers on the periphery of India, Pakistan and China. Indian media reports suggest India is looking to reorient some of its military forces focused on Pakistan towards its frontier with China. On the surface, that appears reasonable – the presence of nuclear weapons has made a full-scale war between India and Pakistan far less likely. Such a rebalancing however would introduce a new element of unpredictability to the unpredictable India-Pakistan relationship.
It is possible, even likely, that technology will sweep away the patterns of warfare established over recent decades. Military assumptions about the value of fixed and fortified positions are becoming outdated by modern warfare, with its combination of rapid mobility, airpower, drones, satellite surveillance and precision-guided munitions. That, however, provides little comfort to India. In China it faces a strategic rival far more technologically advanced and with an economy nearly five times the size of its own. Moreover, any investment by India in defending its positions on the high-altitude periphery is an opportunity cost in terms in investments not made elsewhere. As a result, it faces difficult trade-offs, while juggling its military and diplomatic approaches to both Pakistan and China.
Ultimately, however, this is not a problem that can be solved militarily, nor by fighting over every inch of land. History suggests that every attempt to bolster frontiers has had unintended consequences that made the problem worse.
And the most obvious solutions – rushing troops and equipment to the frontline to confront an enemy – are not necessarily the wisest ones. When I was researching the Siachen war, two retired Pakistani generals told me in separate meetings that it might have been better if Pakistan had not reacted at all when Indian troops occupied the mountain passes overlooking the Siachen glacier.
If it had simply ignored the Indian ‘assault’ on the empty passes, the Indian troops would have eventually gone home before winter conditions made deployment there all-but-unbearable. But there was too much national pride and prestige involved. ‘We do a lot of illogical things against each other,’ one of them said. Hundreds of Pakistani troops, among them the men buried by the avalanche at Gyari, died because of that choice.
‘White as the Shroud, India, Pakistan and War on the Frontiers of Kashmir’, is published by Hurst