Lying between the Kunlun mountain range in the north and Himalayas to the south, Ladakh was originally inhabited by people of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent. Historically the region included the valleys of Baltistan, Indus, and Nubra, besides Zanskar, Lahaul and Spiti, Aksai Chin, Ngari and Rudok.
Located at the crossroads of important trade routes since ancient times, Ladakh has always enjoyed great geo-strategic importance.
In the beginning of the first century AD, Ladakh was part of the Kushan empire. Later it changed hands multiple times, alternating between the kingdoms of Kashmir and Zhangzhung. In 1834, Gen Zorawar Singh, a general of Raja Gulab Singh who ruled Jammu as part of the Sikh empire, extended the boundaries of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom to Ladakh, which till the 15th century was part of Tibet and was ruled by dynasties of local Lamas.
Partition, Pakistan and Chinese occupations
Immediately after India’s Partition, tribal raiders from Pakistan attacked Ladakh. They captured Kargil, and were heading for Leh when they were confronted by the Indian Army, who got back Kargil.
Although India has always considered Aksai Chin to be part of Jammu and Kashmir, in the 1950s the Chinese built a highway, called western highway or NH219, connecting Tibet with Xinjiang through this region, which was more easily accessible to the Chinese than to the Indians, who were across the Karakoram.
India learnt of this road in 1957, and it was one of the causes of the 1962 India-China war, after which China strengthened its control over this region. China today claims Aksai Chin to be part of Hotan county of its Xinjiang province.
Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley, which was part of the Baltistan region north of the Karakoram, to China following a Sino-Pakistani agreement signed on March 2, 1963.
The strategic importance of Ladakh
China’s forays into the region began after the 1949 Communist Revolution, when Chairman Mao Zedong, a veteran of guerrilla warfare, began consolidating China’s periphery as part of his expansionist designs.
The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupied Tibet in 1951, and then began to eye Ladakh. The reason was that the road connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet (NH 219) had to pass through Aksai Chin, which was held by Indians but was seldom patrolled by them.
The Tibetan revolt of 1959 and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India saw China further strengthening its military presence in Ladakh to ensure the security of NH 219. India reacted with its ‘forward policy’ as part of which it began setting up Army posts in the region to prevent Chinese expansion.
This resulted in the initial clash between the Indian and Chinese forces in the Kongka Pass area in 1959. Later, Galwan Valley became the scene of action when the Indian Army established a post to cut off the Chinese post in the Samjunjling area, marking the beginning of the 1962 war.
Pangong Tso, the contested lake
This lake, which is one-third in India and two-thirds in China, is of great tactical significance to the Chinese who have built infrastructure along both its sides to ensure the speedy build-up of troops.
Chinese incursions in this region aim at shifting the LAC westward so that they are able to occupy important heights both on the north and the south of the lake, which will enable them to dominate the Chushul Bowl.
The narrow Chushul valley, which lies on the road to Leh with Pangong Tso to its north, was an important target for the Chinese even during the 1962 war. It was here that the Battle of Chushul was fought.
Strategic SSN, to the far north
The area spanning Galwan, Depsang plateau, and Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO), is called Sub-Sector North (SSN). This enclave that lies to the east of the Siachen glacier is of immense significance given its proximity to the Karakoram Pass, close to China’s western highway or NH 219 going to Aksai Chin. It’s the SSN that provides land access to Central Asia through the Karakoram Pass.
Domination of this area is also crucial for the protection of the Siachen glacier, lying between the Saltoro ridge on the Pakistani side and the Saser ridge close to the Chinese claim line.
The Galwan heights overlook the all-weather Durbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie (DSDBO) Road, which connects Leh to DBO at the base of the Karakoram Pass that separates China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region from Ladakh. Domination over these heights allows China to easily interdict this road.
Occupation of Galwan by China will neutralise the tactical advantage India gained by building the all-weather Durbuk-DBO road over the last two decades.
Last year, the Border Road Organisation (BRO) made this rugged terrain even more accessible by completing the 430-metre-long Colonel Chewang Rinchen Setu (bridge) across the Shyok river. With this, the Darbuk route to DBO became available round the year, and the travel time of troops to the SSN was halved.
Some analysts believe it was this bridge, coupled with the ongoing work on a link road to LAC in this area, which prompted the PLA to enter Galwan.
The Chinese have also intruded into the Depsang plains near a place called Bottleneck point, an area 7 km away from an ITBP base on the newly-built Darbu-Shyok-DBO road. They have done it in the past too, most recently in 2013 and 2015, coming almost 15 km inside the Indian LAC. But on both occasions they were forced to retreat.
SSN is critical to India also because it offers maximum scope for military collaboration between China and Pakistan against India by virtue of its location bordering the Siachen glacier.