A report has emerged that the Chinese are building a 36km road in Shaksgam Valley, near the critical Siachen Glacier.
Does this development pose a military threat to India? Or will it do so in the future? Here is a comprehensive assessment.
Boundary-related issues have cropped up once again between India and China. Only last year the two countries had a standoff at Doklam, which, by all estimates, is far from over. And now a says that the Chinese have built a 36km road in Shaksgam Valley. It also suggests that this could pose a military challenge to India, especially with respect to its position on Siachen Glacier.
How does this development in Shaksgam Valley augur for India and Sino-Indian relations? And what’s the overall geostrategic importance of the Valley? We take an in-depth look.
Note – maps
This analysis covers a vast geography and so all the information cannot be presented on a single map. Further, since the elevation aspect – the heights of various physical features like mountain passes and peaks – is a crucial factor impacting the military aspect, regular 2D maps don’t bring out this aspect clearly.
To help the readers fully comprehend the subject, I’ve done two things:
- Prepare multiple maps which help to put the analysis in context
- An interactive embedded map:
- All the peaks, features, glaciers, and passes mentioned in the write-up are marked on the map.
- Information has been grouped into following categories on the map: (a) Karakoram Peaks (b) Glaciers (c) Passes (d) Rivers-Valleys-Lakes-Landmarks
- You can zoom in or click on the icons to identify them.
- However, there is one thing missing in the embedded map – the current boundary alignment between India and China (and Pakistan and China), and the claim line as per India. For that, please refer to the regular map.
- The best way to understand, and appreciate, the geography is to view the map in 3D. To view the map in 3D, do the following:
- Click the 'Star' icon next to the name on the map header (Northern Boundaries) in the map embedded below.
- Open Google Map and go to 'Your Places' (you need to be logged in to your Google account).
- In 'Your Places', click the 'Map' section.
- You'll see a map by the name of Northern Boundaries (same map as below).
- Open the map and use the 3D feature to get a bird’s eye view of the elevation profile in the area and appreciate how it’s an important arbiter.
- You can also use the ‘Control + left mouse button’ to rotate the map and view it from different angles.
- Search function within the map will help you quickly locate each feature mentioned in the write-up.
- I've taken care to mark the location of various features as exactly as possible. Some of these features were already marked on Google Earth. Others I've marked by cross-referencing topographical maps, literature on the subject, and Google Earth. Mistakes, if any, are all mine. Please feel free to point them out.
- All maps are courtesy Google Earth.
Forbidding Geography, Complicated History
It’s important to understand the geography of the region, along with some of the history, to place the overall debate in proper context.
Shaksgam River originates in the east, in an area between Shaksgam Glacier and Shaksgam Pass, and flows in the north-westerly direction till it takes an abrupt turn towards the north-east and, after traversing a short distance, merges with Raskam River. This place is called Chog Jangal and the combined river is known as Yarkand River.
Technically, Raskam River is same as Yarkand River – it’s just that the Kyrgyz nomads and Kanjutis (people of Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan in present-day Pakistan-occupied Kashmir) referred to a section of Yarkand River as Raskam River, and the valley along it as Raskam Valley. Historically, this valley has had a say in the boundary question between British India (Jammu and Kashmir) and China (Sinkiang) and later, when Pakistan and China settled their boundary in 1963. This area was historically under the control of the Mir of Hunza (cultivation was done in the valley). The British, in their effort to forge a northern boundary lining Kashmir and China, got the Mir to give up his claims; later when Pakistan agreed to a boundary settlement with China, it formally gave up this territory.
In geographic terms, Shaksgam River lies on the northern side of the Karakoram watershed. What this means is that rivers on northern side of the Karakoram Range, like Shaksgam River and Yarkand River, flow in the north-westerly direction and empty themselves in the vast expanses of the Tarim Basin. On the other hand, rivers to the south of this range, like Shyok River, which is an important tributary of Indus River, flows in the south-westerly direction and meets the Arabian sea. While the north-facing glaciers on the range feed rivers flowing into Tarim Basin, the south-facing glaciers feed the tributaries of Indus River. For example, Siachen Glacier is the source of Nubra River and South Rimo Glacier is the source of Shyok River. On the other hand, Shaksgam River is fed by multiple glaciers which lie to south of it with Shaksgam Glacier, Kyagar Glacier, Singhi Glacier, Staghar Glacier, and Urdok Glacier being the main feeders.
The watershed principle is one of the criteria used to settle boundaries. McMahon Line in the east, which forms the boundary between India and Tibet, is based on this watershed principle. With one major exception, the boundary alignment agreed between Pakistan and China, from a point west of Kilik Dawan Pass (on China-Afghanistan-Pakistan tri-junction) to Karakoram Pass in the east, adheres to the watershed principle. Consequently, the boundary agreed upon moves from one Karakoram peak to another in the south-easterly direction. For example, it runs right along the crest of Mount K2 or Mount Godwin-Austen (second-highest peak in the world), placing the northern face of the mountain in China while the southern face lies in Pakistan.
The one exception is the area north and east of Shimshal Pass along Braldu River, till its confluence with Shaksgam River. People from Shimshal (to the west of Shimshal Pass) used the grazing areas along the river (mentioned as Braldu grazing grounds on the map) during summer and if the area went to China (as it should, as per the watershed principle as Braldu River flowed north and the boundary should have passed through Shimshal Pass), the local people would lose valuable grazing area for their cattle and face hardships. Pakistan requested the Chinese to adjust the alignment and they agreed. Pakistan consequently gained about 750 sq km of area in this sector.
India accuses Pakistan of gifting Shaksgam Valley to China because the alignment agreed upon, as per the watershed principle, between Pakistan and China puts Shaksgam River within China. If we compare what India considers as the northern boundary between Jammu and Kashmir and Xinjiang, and that agreed between Pakistan and China, we find that during the initial stretches starting from Afghanistan-Pakistan-China tri-junction (west of Kilik Dawan Pass) to Khunjerab Pass and another 60-odd kilometres to the east, both are the same.
The deviation in the two claim lines starts from the confluence of Oprang River with Shaksgam River. From this point onwards, while the Sino-Pakistan boundary takes a sharp dip in the southern direction and then follows the Karakoram watershed, the Indian claim line continues along the Aghil Mountain ranges. While the Karakoram mountain range forms the southern face of Shaksgam Valley, Aghil Mountains form the northern face. By agreeing to an alignment along the Karakoram mountain range, Shaksgam Valley and the southern face of Aghil Range have been ceded to China by Pakistan. The two alignments again meet in the east at a point south of Shaksgam Glacier (mentioned as Peak 93 on the map; this is not an official name but given by the author) and from here till Karakoram Pass, the two alignments are again the same.
India, China, and Shaksgam Valley
Only a part of the border alignment as per the Sino-Pakistan agreement of 1963 along the Karakoram watershed is between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China; the remaining part is between India (Ladakh) and China. In the latter cases, the boundary alignment runs from Sia Kangri Peak (at the head of Siachen Glacier – currently the northernmost point under the control of India) towards east till Karakoram Pass. The alignment passes through the crest of all major peaks on the watershed which form a wall between the north and south. Shaksgam River and its eponymous valley lie to north of this great wall and any north-south movement is possible only through a few high passes in this wall of mountains. The difference in elevation of the valley and this mountain wall is stark – while the Shaksgam Valley floor itself is at an elevation of 4,500m (14,764ft), the boundary runs along a ridge line which is in excess of 6,500m (21,325ft)!
The map below offers a glimpse of this border. The three passes at the top (marked as P) from left to right are Indira Col (West), Indira Col (East), and Turkestan La. Glaciers from left to right are Shaksgam, Kyagar, Singhi, Staghar, and Urdok. You can see Kyagar Tso Lake mentioned at the bottom of Kyagar Glacier. You can also notice Kyagar and Singhi Glacier blocking the Shaksgam River channel.
Shaksgam Valley and Military Implication
Given the geography, how can China pose a security challenge to Indian interests in the region? To understand this, we assess the following two questions:
- Can China threaten Siachen Glacier and other areas in this region via Shaksgam Valley?
- Is China trying to create a lateral link between the east and west via Shaksgam Valley?
1. Threat to Siachen Glacier
From the Chinese point of view, if they can come down from the north into Siachen Glacier and then proceed south towards Shyok Valley, they will achieve a military masterstroke. They will land right in the middle of the rear of Indian defences to the east. Technically, the Chinese can then move east along Shyok River and attack Indian positions in Daulat-Beg-Oldie (DBO)-Karakoram Pass complex from the east. Indian positions would be caught in a pincer from the front (Chinese assault from Aksai Chin towards DBO) and from the rear. The defence of Leh would have to be mounted from Ladakh Range.
But alas! If all this was as simple as writing this scenario.
Nevertheless, we look at possible Chinese threat to Siachen Glacier, how feasible it really is, and the role of Shaksgam Valley in helping the Chinese achieve their objectives.
The threat to Siachen Glacier can manifest in two ways – one, China uses long-range artillery to target Indian positions on the glacier; second, it makes an attempt to occupy the glacier.
1.1 Fire Assault on Glacier
Depending on the kind of artillery it uses and the areas on Siachen Glacier it wants to target, People’s Liberation Army-Ground Forces (PLAGF) will have to reach within 30-100km of the glacier. The closer it comes and longer the range of artillery it uses, the farther it can target Indian positions on Saltoro Ridge and areas to the south of the glacier.
The PLAGF has long-range multiple-rocket launch systems (MRLS) (100+ km and 200+ km range) that can target Indian positions from locations within Shaksgam Valley. However, given the fact that any projectile fired towards Indian positions from Shaksgam Valley will have to clear the high ridge lines of Karakoram Range, the firing will have to be done at high angles. This perforce means reduced range and so the firing units will have to be placed much closer to the glacier. This is despite the fact that artillery rounds in the rarefied air of high altitude tends to have a longer-than-expected range due to reduced air resistance. Given the range aspect, tube artillery will be of limited use if it is placed north of Urdok Glacier because from this location it can target positions only at the northern end of the glacier. On the other hand, if tube artillery is placed in the east segment of Shaksgam Valley, it can target northern and central parts of the Glacier. As will be explained later, building any infrastructure in the eastern part of the valley is a difficult proposition.
So, how do you reach a suitable place in Shaksgam Valley to target Siachen Glacier?
A recent claimed that the Chinese have built a 36km road further into Shaksgam Valley from their position at the junction of Oprang River and Shaksgam River, which is the border point between Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China (as per the 1963 Sino-Pakistan border treaty). If China continues to further develop this road, they could technically reach the base of Urdok Glacier, which lies on the other side of Siachen Glacier, across the Siachen Muztagh section of Karakoram Range.
However, if the intention is to strike Indian positions on Siachen (including areas as far south as the start of the glacier or even further south in Shyok Valley) with long-range rockets, China has multiple options which do not require it to build a road in Shaksgam Valley.
For example, the entire glacier from north to south, including areas right up to Diskit (confluence of Nubra and Shyok River) are within the range of long-range MRLS from areas which are under Chinese control. This includes the area to the north of Karakoram Pass, which is undisputed Chinese territory and which does not require the Chinese to develop any specific infrastructure. Or, it can launch rockets from Aksai Chin area, which is Indian territory under Chinese control.
For an idea about the distance involved, the map below shows a 40km and a 100km radius circle centred on the northern edge of Siachen Glacier.
1.2 Physical Assault on Siachen Glacier
Let’s now come to the second aspect of the Chinese threat to Siachen, i.e., threatening physical occupation of the glacier. To do this, the Chinese will have to find some way to physically assault Indian positions on the glacier.
There is only one route by which the Chinese can hope to reach the glacier. This involves coming up Urdok Glacier, which lies on the other side of Siachen Glacier, the two divided from each other by a vertical wall of the Siachen Muztagh Mountains (sub-range of Karakoram Range).
The map below shows the main features on this ridge separating the northern end of Siachen Glacier from Urdok Glacier.
The satellite images below give an idea of the geography corresponding to the above map in the area and the important features on the ridge dividing Siachen Glacier from Urdok Glacier.
Numbered features on the map below are (17) Tiger Saddle (Indian Army position), (3) Conway Saddle (Pakistan Army position), (9) Indira Col (West), (8) Indira Col (East), (10) Turkestan La (Younghusband), and (11) Turkestan La (East). The unnamed peak immediately north of Mount Hardinge is Sia Kangri.
A closer look at the Indira Ridge:
For an idea about the kind of geography a person coming up from Urdok Glacier towards Indira Ridge would face, we look at it from the other or Chinese side.
The view of Indira Ridge from the upper reaches of Urdok Glacier. Features 1 to 4 are Indira Col (West), Indira Saddle, Indira Col (East), and Turkestan La (Younghusband). Turkestan La (East) is not visible and accessible from this direction.
The view from east to west when looking from Staghar Glacier towards Turkestan La (East). This is considered the most accessible route to Siachen from Shaksgam Valley.
The geography in this area, when looking from Siachen towards Urdok Glacier, is best described in the words of distinguished Himalayan mountaineer Harish Kapadia, who led an expedition to the head of Siachen Glacier in 1998. I quote:
- The main Indira Col (west) is located at the foot of the eastern ridge descending from Sia Kangri. It is here, exactly, the heads of the Siachen and Urdok glaciers meet. This Col was recorded to have been reached by Col N Kumar’s team in 1981 and again by the Americans in 1986. The northern sections of this Col are overhanging and it is not possible to descend in the north from here or from India Saddle.
- On the same ridge, a point of 6,000m is erroneously marked on the present map as Indira Col. It is a steep saddle and by no imagination can be called a col (col is the lowest point on a ridge). It is not known how and when this point came to be associated as Indira Col and who reached it first. But at present, all the teams from the army and others reach this Saddle. We propose to call this point India Saddle. It is the northernmost point of India at present (being a few "seconds" further north of the true Indira Col [West]).
- On the ridge further east lies the Indira Col (East), which was reached by Bullock-Workman expedition in 1912. This col is located on the head of a minor valley rising from Siachen Glacier. It is possible to descend to the north from this col into a side valley of Urdok Glacier.
- The easternmost pass on this ridge is Turkestan La (North). It is an easy pass on both the sides and this was reached in 1889 by Col Younghusband.
- The ridge turns south from here. Little to the south Turkestan La (East) is located.
On reaching Indira Col, he states thus:
- I decided to reach this Col with Sherpa Pemba Tsering. After a walk of about two hours, we were at the pass. At the pass we made a safe anchor and walked on the northern cornices to safely look down Urdok Glacier.
- This beautiful flat glacier led northwards to join Shaksgam River, which was visible. Several peaks were visible, but unfortunately Gasherbrum I was in the clouds. On the north was Chinese Turkestan, where trekkers in recent years had roamed freely.
- Apart from the political divide, we were standing on a major geographic divide too. The waters from this col drained in the south to Siachen Glacier, Nubra, Shyok, and Indus rivers to merge with the warm waters of Arabian Sea. Waters to the north drained into Urdok Glacier, Shaksgam River, Yarkand River, and Tarim and Qyurug Rivers to merge with the Lop Nor Lake.
Therefore, if Siachen has to be threatened, the best access is through Turkestan La.
So, does it make sense for the Chinese to make a road in Shaksgam Valley (starting from their border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in the east) till the base of Urdok Glacier to bring troops and support equipment for this task?
Well, it so happens that the Chinese have a much shorter option available to them, in case they would like to embark on such an adventure.
The alternate option runs through Aghil Pass. As the crow flies, Aghil Pass lies around 60km north of Turkestan La. This pass connects Shaksgam Valley with Raskam Village (also called Yilike) and the upper reaches of Raskam Valley. Between Aghil Pass and Raskam Village/Yilike lies Surukwat Valley.
A metalled road connects Raskam Village/Yilike with Mazha, which is a node on the Chinese C219 highway (which connects Xinjiang with Tibet and runs through Aksai-Chin). Mountaineers and hikers who intend to explore Shaksgam Valley or summit the K2 peak from the northern/Chinese side or other peaks in the area, take this route to reach Shaksgam Valley. They travel by 4x4 vehicles till Raskam/Yilike village and from thereon engage camels and porters for a hike till their respective base camps.
If fact, Raskam/Yilike is a nodal point for other Chinese border outposts in the region. An access road from it goes west along Raskam Valley till its confluence with Shaksgam River. From here, the road travels south to the Chinese border outpost (on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Chinese border), through which a 36km road has been extended into Shaksgam Valley proper.
The last point to which the road has been extended (as visible on Google Earth) is more than 100km as the crow flies from the northern head of Siachen Glacier. In comparison, Aghil Pass is less than 50 per cent of the distance. It also has an additional advantage of being closer to the main highway, which, when push comes to shove, will eventually be the main feeder of troops and supplies.
Shaksgam Valley starts off as a narrow valley which gradually opens up and increases in width as the river flows from east to west.
As explained earlier, starting from its origin in the general area between Shaksgam Glacier and Shaksgam Pass, the river is fed by five major glaciers (from east to west), i.e., Shaksgam Glacier, Kyagar Glacier, Singhi Glacier, Staghar Glacier, and Urdok Glacier. Of these, Kyagar Glacier and Singhi Glacier extend right into the river bed and block it at many places. This makes the river run through a narrow channel and consequently, lakes tend to develop behind these blockades. During the summer season, the river witnesses flooding as the glaciers recede and the stored water flows out. Kyagar Tso is one such permanent lake which exists before the junction of Kyagar Glacier with Shaksgam River. The length of the lake varies depending on the season.
The satellite image below shows the eastern part of Shaksgam River and Valley. In the satellite image, you can identify Kyagar Tso lake at the base of Kyagar Glacier. Further east, you can notice Singhi Glacier also blocking the Shaksgam Valley.
Therefore, while it is relatively easy to make a road starting from the west and moving east till the base of Urdok Glacier, doing further east will be a very difficult proposition. And while the Chinese have shown exceptional engineering capability in surmounting physical barriers while developing infrastructure, what remains to be seen is whether the cost-benefit exercise supports such development activity. Because we must remember that between Shaksgam Pass and Urdok Glacier, there runs a 6,500m high Karakoram wall which simply doesn’t allow any north-south movement to threaten Indian positions further south. To gain entry into Siachen Glacier, the Chinese will have to come up Urdok Glacier.
Interestingly, the news report alluded to before, had quoted this conversation with General Bipin Rawat on the question of road construction in Shaksgam Valley (before they broke the story about the road activity):
“The Army, in fact, believed that it was impossible to build a road through the valley due to the tough terrain in the region. ‘Through the Shaksgam Valley, it is practically near impossible to make a road or a highway,’ Gen. Rawat said in response to a direct question by ThePrint.
‘They may make a mule track or jeep-able track but through the valley, you cannot make a highway. So there is no threat,’ he said.”
While the Chief of the Army Staff is better placed to answer in what context he offered that response, it is quite possible that he was referring to the eastern extremity of Shaksgam Valley from Shaksgam Pass to the east of Urdok Glacier. As explained above, not only is it difficult to build a road in that area, satellite images don’t show any construction activity. So far.
So, why the road?
There can be several reasons why the Chinese have decided to build this road. And whether it will be extended further.
- Infrastructure for better patrolling and movement of troops, if required:
- The Chinese are trying to create a circular road network connecting Raskam/Yilike village-Chog Jangal – Chinese border outpost on Pakistan-occupied China border (confluence of Oprang-Shaksgam River) – Suget Jangal – Kulim Jilga – Aghil Pass – Surukwat Valley, and Raskam/Yilike village.
- Even if this is not meant to threaten Indian positions, it can be used in the future, as per the requirement.
- Provocation – opening another ‘boundary dispute’ to build pressure on India:
- A central piece of Chinese strategy with India, when it comes to border discussion, is to maximise its position. And negotiate from there.
- Take Chinese claims on Arunachal Pradesh, for example. This is a land over which the Chinese, directly or indirectly through Tibet, have never had any physical possession. Yet, it calls it a disputed territory. One border settlement option propounded by many strategists (and which I think was the case in the early 1950s as well), is for China to accept McMahon Line in the east while India gives up claim over Aksai Chin in the west.
- So, China first makes a claim, irrespective of how illogical it is, and then in negotiations, gives up this illogical claim while getting something more tangible in return.
- Shaksgam Valley has been under Chinese control since 1963. And while India has raised objections to the treaty and ceding of Shaksgam Valley to China by Pakistan, it has never made any effort to physically occupy the valley.
- By building a road, the Chinese could be creating another bargain point. In lieu of stopping the construction of this road, it could ask India to adjust its concern somewhere else. Like Doklam.
- Connect G219 with Karakoram Highway:
- The Chinese could look to connect G219 (which connects Xinjiang with Tibet) in the east with Karakoram Highway in the west.
- To achieve this, the road will have to come from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir-China border at the confluence of Oprang River-Shaksgam River, up the Valley of Bradlu River, through Shimshal Pass, Shimshal Village, through the steep and narrow gorge of Shimshal River and join Karakoram Highway at Passu in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
- But to achieve this objective would require massive engineering effort and time, simply because of the forbidding and treacherous terrain involved. Especially, multiple, very steep and narrow river gorges, which will require a road to be built by blasting a passage in the side walls of the gorges.
The Chinese road at this point does not pose any threat to Indian positions on Siachen or anywhere else on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Will it pose a military threat in the future? That depends on the Chinese objectives. Technically, they can mount a physical assault on Siachen Glacier from the north, but it will require substantial investment in infrastructure and manpower. And it will take some time to build up any credible capability. India would have sufficient time to respond to any such development.
The lateral link from Shaksgam Pass in the east to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir-China border in Shaksgam Valley east also looks tenuous. At present.
As Harish Kapadia says in his book Siachen Glacier: The Battle of Roses:
“The situation in Shaksgam Valley today is similar to that on the Siachen in 1970s. China has allowed several mountaineering expeditions to climb in this valley. Many teams have attempted the north face of K2 from here and groups have trekked freely in the valley without liaison officer. The recent years the explorer Kurt Diemberger has spent much time in the area and crossed the Kyagar Tso Lake in an inflatable boat, raising the possibility of such a crossing by an army, should it be required. A French team led by Bernard Odier reached almost all the way to the foot of Indira Col. With a little more time and effort they could have traversed Turkestan La and looked onto the Siachen Glacier. <snip>
The fact that this could happen should make authorities give the Shaksgam Valley the importance it deserves.”
In short, we should remain vigilant. But at the same time, we should analyse developments for what they are and not indulge in sensationalism.