Speculation on Depsang

The Indian strategic community is in a dither, trying to work out why the Chinese have suddenly sent forty troops 19 kilometers into territory that they have traditionally not even bothered to claim. No theory is better than any other so long as Beijing remains opaque on its motives, even denying that there was any intrusion at all. I suspect that we will eventually find that domestic drivers inspired this strange and egregious move, but for now all one can do is speculate.

My favorite school of thinking is a bit far-fetched, but has a certain geopolitical flair to it. This links the Daulat Beg Oldie intrusion with the Chinese takeover of the Pakistani port of Gwadar. The Depsang plateau’s northern ridge overlooks the Karakoram Pass – China’s gateway to Pakistan and lands beyond.

Beijing’s demands that India cease and desist its recent attempts to improve its border defenses are an attempt to neutralize the plateau as a site for Indian military deployments. An artillery line or two, or even some sort of a helipad on Depsang’s heights, and it’s hunting season for any vehicle, train or container crossing the Karakoram Pass.

Similarly there has been amazement at China’s recent announcement that it will invest $750 million in developing Gwadar – a port connected to nothing, where a ship docks every half year, situated next to the fully developed port of Karachi.

Are these events connected? They would be, physically, if China extended its plan to be Eurasia’s infrastructure hub to encompass Pakistan and the Arabian Sea.

As a Global Times article pointed out, a pipeline running from the Karakoram to Gwadar would allow China access to West Asia without the hindrance of the Straits of Malacca. Such a corridor would additionally boost Pakistan’s economy. Cleaning up the Depsang would be part of any strategy to secure such an enormous project.

It sounds nice, but formidable in terms of funds and engineering. I suspect therefore it was more of a few Chinese commanders getting together, saying India needs to be taught a lesson, and someone piped up: “Let’s do it on the Depsang plateau then, we need to keep that clear anyway.”

Or maybe the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan was on their mind. Or sheer orneriness. Or all of the above.

Copyright © 2013 the Hindustan Times.

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