India’s Karakoram conundrum: A legacy of the Great Game

By Prateek Joshi

The Karakoram Range lies on the northernmost borders of Pakistan and India, further extending into western border of China. The range houses a huge concentration of peaks over 8000 metres in height including Mount K2, the world’s second highest peak.

By late 19th century, the region got incorporated into the British India’s princely state of Kashmir. It consists of the Ladakh region in India, Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and touches the Aksai Chin region occupied by China.

The post Second World War era, when India was partitioned and China saw a Communist takeover brought the region into limelight. Immediately after its inception, Pakistan occupied the Gilgit-Baltistan region. To find a solution to the conflict, the then Prime Minister Nehru appealed to the UN, which facilitated for a ceasefire line in 1949. The ceasefire agreement gave a vague border demarcation in the high reaches of Karakoram(the Siachen Glacier) as it consisted of uninhabitable terrain. This ambiguity led to ‘Operation Meghdoot’ by the Indian Army in 1984 to capture the Siachen glacier, which added another dimension to the Kashmir conflict. Since the northern borders of Siachen touch China, the glacier is the world’s only trilateral border junction of three nuclear powers.

In 1999, India and Pakistan fought a war in Kargil, which also lies in the Karakoram region. The Pakistani army occupied strategic peaks lying in the Indian Territory overlooking the Leh-Srinagar highway. The control over these peaks threatened to disconnect the Ladakh region from rest of Kashmir. In the end, the Indian Army was successful in recapturing these peaks.

With regard to China, the dispute started in Eastern Karakoram over the conflicting demarcation of the Aksai Chin region which led to a Sino-Indian war in 1962, following which China occupied Aksai Chin. China’s ‘National highway 219’ linking Xinjiang with Tibet passes through Aksai Chin and hence is supreme to China’s strategic interests. It was the construction of this highway in 1950s which gave rise to the Sino-Indian hostilities.

The dispute over Karakorams can be summarised as follows:

  • Pakistani Occupation of Kashmir in 1947, through which Gilgit-Baltistan came under Pakistani control.
  • The war between India and China in 1962 which resulted in the Chinese Occupation of Aksai Chin.
  • The China Pakistan boundary agreement in 1963 which demarcated borders of both nations in the Karakoram region and the subsequent cession Trans-Karakoram tract by Pakistan to China.
  • The construction of Karakoram Highway (beginning in 1967) which links Pakistan to China which was the starting point of strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan
  • The dispute over Siachen glacier which led to Indian Army capturing the glacier in 1984 making it world’s highest battlefield.
  • The Kargil crisis of 1999.
The Karakoram Highway in the Xinjiang region of China (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)
The Karakoram Highway in the Xinjiang region of China (Photo: Courtesy of WikiCommons)

The Karakoram highway: Sino-Pak geopolitical alliance

India’s border disputes with both Pakistan and China in the Karakoram region brought the these  nations together and their alliance manifested in the form of the construction of Karakoram Highway in the 1960s, which is the sole overland link between Pakistan and China through the Gilgit-Baltistan region. India still claims Gilgit-Baltistan as a part of Kashmiri territory occupied by Pakistan.

Recently, Sino-Pak ties reached a new level when China unveiled the $46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC),  a southward extension of China’s Silk Road economic belt initiative, which will extend the highway southwards to the Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar in Balochistan. The CPEC will drastically shorten the tedious maritime route which China currently uses. In the current maritime route, ships destined for China have to pass through the waters surrounding the Indian Peninsula and the US navy controlled Malacca straits before docking at Chinese ports. With the completion of CPEC, the imports will be docked at Gwadar port, From Gwardar, these goods will be transported to China via the Karakoram highway. This circumvention of this lengthy trade route is not only aimed at cutting the transportation costs, but also has a strategic dimension as any possible threat from Indian or US naval presence will be evaded once Gwadar port is connected to the Karakoram Highway through the CPEC.

Roots of contested geopolitics: The Great Game 

To understand the complexity of the Karakorams, it is quintessential to take a larger picture of the legacy of the ‘Great Game’, which was a 19th century scramble for Central Asian territory between the Great Britain and Russia. The period was marked with both the nations sending their army and spy expeditions to map this hitherto unmapped region. The whole of 19th century was characterised with a constant suspicion of the Russians attempting to invade British India from her Northwestern frontiers. Much of this apprehension of Russian invasion of British India led to the drawing the present day India’s northernmost frontiers.

Rapid Russian conquests of Central Asian Khanates (kingdoms) brought the Russians close to the northern fringes of the Karakoram Mountains, that is, in the Pamir Mountains (Present day Tajikistan). Also, Russia’s commercial dealings with Kashgar (now in Xinjiang, was a famous city of the Leh-Yarkand-Kashgar silk route) too made the British anxious of a possible Russian infiltration from Xinjiang.

By late 19th century, the British became more active in attempting to cartographically demarcate India’s northern frontiers. In this period, the Afghan frontier was drawn (Durand Line) and the northern expansion of Maharaja of Kashmir’s territories took place. Efforts were also made to negotiate with the Chinese and Russians. The Russians came to the bargaining table and negotiated boundary agreements and buffer regions but the Chinese, on the other hand didn’t cooperate.

The Great Game ended long ago, but the era of suspicion, border disputes and geopolitical calculations it propagated got carried into the post colonial states of India, China and Pakistan. These imaginations of the Great Game got reproduced on the smaller canvas of Karakoram mountain ranges. The obsession with borders and strategic mountain passes still characterise the Karakoram region. India as a mutual enemy strengthened the Chinese and Pakistani relations through the Karakoram highway and an unconditional border agreement. On the other hand, the Indian side Karakoram’s borders of Ladakh with Baltistan(Pakistan) and Aksai Chin(China) are heavily militarised.

The Karakorams have a glorious past as a Silk Route road connecting India to the markets of Central Asia. The region also characterises a rich cultural intermingling of Kashmiri, Turkic and Buddhist culture which through the criss-crossing of trading caravans . Once India’s historical gateway to Central Asia and China, is today a strategic flashpoint between India, China and Pakistan.

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Prateek Joshi

Prateek Joshi is pursuing Master's degree in International Relations from South Asian University (a SAARC nations project), New Delhi. His research interests consist of the historical Great Game, Kashmir affairs, Central Asian and South Asian geopolitics . He can be reached at [email protected]

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