Many local factors have contributed to the face-off between Indian and Chinese forces in Ladakh.
Western Ladakh borders Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan, where China has invested hugely its economic corridor project with Pakistan under the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s apprehension about Indian designs on the territory has been accentuated by recent comments by Indian leaders, including External Affairs Minister Jaishankar, that India expects to have ‘physical jurisdiction’ over it ‘one day’.
Ladakh also borders Tibet and Xinjiang, the turbulent peripheries of China, and Beijing is apprehensive of Indian moves supported by the US that may threaten its control over these regions.
The trigger for the current face-off was China’s opposition to India’s laying a key road in the finger area around Pangong Tso Lake and constructing another connecting Darbuk–Shayok–Daulat Beg Oldie road in Galwan Valley. China is also laying a road in the finger area, which India finds objectionable. According to Indian sources, China has deployed 5,000 heavily armed additional troops to the area and India has responded in kind. Both militaries have also moved in heavy equipment and weaponry, including artillery and combat vehicles, to their rear bases close to the disputed areas in eastern Ladakh.
Indian and Chinese forces in Ladakh are separated on the basis of a Line of Actual Control, drawn at the end of the 1962 war but still contested in some areas. India argues that Chinese forces have violated this arrangement. Bilateral moves at the military and diplomatic levels are on to defuse the situation, but both sides have rejected US President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate the dispute.
However, most observers believe that not only local factors have led to China’s move in Ladakh. Beijing is feeling increasingly beleaguered globally and regionally and has embarked on a strategy with several goals. It assumes that foreign adventurism cloaked in the garb of ultranationalism can shore up the Chinese Communist Party’s rule at home. While the authoritarian regime’s legitimacy rests primarily on its economic performance, it is now facing the prospect of a severe decline in the country’s GDP.