India verifying if China built road in Shaksgam Valley

The Narendra Modi government is trying to ascertain the credibility and veracity of intelligence reports claiming that China has built around 70 km of metalled road between September 2017 and February 2018 in Shaksgam Valley, around 5,163 square km of which was illegally ceded by Islamabad to Beijing in a controversial 1963 boundary agreement.

While intelligence and reconnaissance reports indicate the presence of a road, South Block has asked for an intelligence assessment detailing the reasons and military objectives that may have prompted China to build a road west of the strategic Karakoram pass, in the Shaksgam Valley. That this construction has happened in the winter months, when such activities are rarely undertaken, is significant. Bound by K2 and Gasherbrum peaks to the South and Aghil Mountains to the north, the Sakshgam Valley is populated by other 7,000-metre plus peaks, high mountain passes and witnesses arctic temperatures in the winters.

China watchers believe that the road is being built for high mountain climbing and tourism purposes, but India’s security agencies are wary of a simplistic explanation, say South Block officials. There’s a fear that this could be part of the realignment of the Karakoram highway in order to keep the 1,300 km road linking Pakistan Punjab to Kashgar in Xinjiang snow-free throughout the year. The Karakoram highway is at the heart of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) , which India has objected to because it runs through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. CPEC will provide Beijing access to Persian Gulf and Arabian sea via the Gwadar port in Balochistan.

Although New Delhi will take up the issue with its two neighbours once the purpose of building the road becomes clearer, senior officials having access to satellite imagery of the region say they are convinced that the alignment of the Karakoram highway is being changed. This could also have strategic implications for India in the Daulet Beg Oldi and Siachen sectors, with the two all weather friends sandwiching Indian positions, the officials say.

Post resolution of the Doklam stand-off, the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has replaced para-military Peoples Armed Police (PAP) along the 3,488-kilometre long Line of Actual Control (LAC) with troops doing training exercises, with some of these carried out in peak winter with oxygen cylinders . The Chinese aerial activity in Ladakh and Barahoti sectors has increased with PLA troops trying to achieve 100 per cent patrolling objectives or else indulging in face-offs, South Block officials said.

The importance of a status quo with neither India nor China undertaking unilateral moves to undermine the peace and tranquillity on the borders will be a topic of conversation with national security adviser Ajit Doval, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting China in the run-up to SCO summit in June this year, they added.