On Thin Ice: Navigating the Pitfalls of Himalayan Geopolitics

When discussing Asian power politics, there is an understandable instinct to focus on the South China Sea and China’s relationship with Taiwan. However, by doing this, we risk losing sight of another hotspot with real potential to stir up a major conflict in the coming decades: the Himalayas. Beneath the natural beauty of the region lay cold political calculations and strategic decisions, all of which are vitally important to global stability.

China-India relations have been strained for some time and show no real signs of improving, with the Himalayas especially serving as a military flashpoint. The region has spawned several border conflicts, owing to perceived intrusions of the so-called “line of actual control” or LAC, the loosely defined demarcation between the two countries. In one particularly gruesome skirmish 4 years ago, Indian and Chinese soldiers fought it out during a brutal night-time melee, where most of the deaths are thought to have been incurred by people being pushed or falling off the steep cliff sides. Due to a 1996 agreement prohibiting the use of firearms along the LAC, the fighting was also done hand-to-hand, with barbed wire clubs, iron rods, stones and batons being some of the makeshift weapons used by the combatants. These arresting descriptions invite us to imagine chaotic and undisciplined combat between opposing patrolmen, but the fact is these clashes are fundamentally built on strategic considerations, not spontaneous violence.

Take the Galwan River Valley, where this face-off occurred. The Galwan runs from the Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin territory and into eastern Ladakh, which is part of Indian-administered Kashmir, in the northernmost part of the country. On top of being a diplomatically delicate topic already, Kashmir is riddled with military and infrastructure dilemmas. The Galwan River ridge for example overlooks the strategically important Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) road built by India, which could provide it with easier military access to the area. Since the clash, the country has been ramping up other infrastructure projects along the LAC, redoubling its efforts to maximize road connectivity and all-weather transportation capabilities.

To further complicate matters, India recently discovered a prodigious lithium deposit in its administered Kashmirian territories, instantly making it one of the world’s biggest exporters. Being a major dealer in lithium, China’s dominant position could be challenged in the coming years, while India’s existing disputes with Pakistan – the third nuclear power in the region – have been well attested for decades. Given the good relations between China and Pakistan, India is facing the very real threat of a two-front war, should any future conflict escalate beyond repair.

China has not been sitting still since 2020 either. By finishing construction of the new G216 highway – which links the territories of Xinjiang with Tibet and connects north to south — China is strengthening what has been a militarily vulnerable position: its older G219 road, running closely along the LAC. By improving old highways and linking up new ones to potential hotspots, Beijing is trying to safeguard its military standing in the region against Indian aggression. Alternatively, improved infrastructure in the otherwise nigh-unnavigable Himalayas could springboard an offensive in the other direction, supporting a future assault by the People’s Liberation Army. In recent years China has also been constructing massive dams along the many rivers originating in the Tibetan plateau, creating a riparian chokehold that could be used against downstream nations. On balance, it is safe to say China holds the geopolitical advantage in the region. Tibet acts as a massive buffer zone that any eastward army would have to cross to push into Chinese territory. The supply lines alone, first across the mountain range and later passing the plateau, would make any Indian ground incursion unlikely to succeed. Conversely, China’s only major hurdle for a future PLA assault is the Himalayas themselves, where both powers are fervently vying for position.

For example, China appears to be courting one of India’s indirect buffers. Nepal is in a precarious geopolitical position, straddling a large segment of the Himalayas and essentially separating the two massive states from each other. The country is geographically and politically cornered and must perform a continuous balancing act in its dealings with the giants. The recently reshuffled coalition government elected China as its foreign minister’s first visit and is dominated by two communist parties. Ideological sympathies notwithstanding, there is also practical cooperation: the two countries are actively engaged in Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) infrastructure projects, as well as in the “Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank” (AIIB), China’s premier socio-economic development outlet. Beijing has plenty of reason to be keenly interested in events in Kathmandu.

The courtship is not without its blemishes, however. Chinese implementation of BRI plans has not been universally popular and projects in various countries have often proven disappointing (if not impossible) in practice. There are disagreements in Nepal over whether some Chinese-funded projects are BRI investments or not, and there is a history of Chinese troops reportedly encroaching on Nepalese territory in the past. Additionally, Indian influence over Nepal is unmistakable. Apart from being the country’s largest trading partner, India and Nepal share a close cultural bond, and maintain friendly diplomatic relations. Squeezed in between the major regional powers, Nepal has no choice but to play both sides, while India and China must keep strengthening ties to their shared neighbour, preventing the pendulum from swinging too far the other way. 

Further east there is also the matter of Bhutan, which although put in a similarly tight spot between the superpowers does not have any official diplomatic ties to China. Beijing, however, means to change that. China has been vocal about its wish to establish relations with the small country, and a pending border deal over Chinese territorial claims could be the last piece to the puzzle. If this is accomplished India could find itself vulnerable, especially along its thin Siliguri Corridor, the country’s only connecting point to its northeastern territories. This exposed position is a strategic nightmare, and a friendly Bhutan outside of Chinese influence keeps it more secure than it would otherwise be. Just as with Nepal, Indian trade is critical to Bhutan’s economy and the countries have very close ties, meaning that again, just as with Nepal, Bhutan is perpetually dragged in two directions and has to perform a careful balancing act.

All in all, the Himalayas could become as much a powder keg as the South China Sea is, with very real potential to ignite, if regional states are not careful. For India and China, the continued military and infrastructure investments on both sides of the LAC are worrisome, but overall better than an alternative where one state is utterly dominant, threatening a full engagement. Going forward, Beijing will most likely capitalise on its superior geographic position while New Delhi looks to secure its standing in existing territories. Smaller nations wedged in between the two are faced with unique opportunities to play both sides but have to navigate the pitfalls that come with such strategies. To the west, India has to cautiously weigh its own goals and ambitions against Pakistan’s position, especially given the fragile state of that country’s government. There is a net of complicated relationships in the Himalayas, and it’s not bound to untangle anytime soon.

[Header image: Pangong Lake, situated on the Line of Actual Control between China and India, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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