It is a cold desert flatland that does not receive rain or snow and gets. Mostly uninhabited, its water sources are the Karakash river and brackish lakes.
China occupied Aksai Chin claiming that it was part of ancient and medieval Chinese empire. It is a convenient claim from an era when boundaries did not have the same sanctity as they do in the times of nation-states.
If the same logic is extended, Tibet becomes an illegal occupation of China. The same Tibet had an intricate trade and cultural relation with Ladakh of which Aksai Chin is a part.
Tibet-Ladakh relations continued even after the Mughal Empire extended to Ladakh in 1660s. Some twenty years later in 1680s, the rulers of Ladakh and Tibet signed a treaty that now debunks China’s claim of Ladakh being an integral part of Tibet.
Later during the times of British rule over India, another treaty was signed in 1842 between the rulers of Tibet and Kashmir, confirming that Ladakh was part of Kashmir and controlled by its government. Dogra chief Maharaja Gulab Singh was the king who had conquered Ladakh in 1834.
Kashmir along with Ladakh came under the British rule in 1846 and thereafter the British decided the boundary of Ladakh and Tibet. The government of India inherited the territories and boundaries of the British Empire in the subcontinent as decided by the India Independence Act that created another country by the name of Pakistan.
China did not object to Ladakh or Aksai Chin being part of India until a couple of years after 1950, when Indian Constitution adopted the whole of Jammu and Kashmir as its integral territory.
Historian Ramchandra Guha writes in his “India After Gandhi”: No official Chinese maps showed Aksai Chin as part of China before the 1920s, and a Sinkiang (Xinjiang) map of the 1930s showed the Kunlun (the mountains) rather than the Karakoram (range) to have been the customary boundary – which had been the Indian claim all along.”
Celebrated French journalist and author of “The Fate of Tibet: When Big Insects Eat Small Insects”, Claude Arpi has cited the US intelligence agency, the CIA to show that the Chinese policy on Aksai Chin shifted in 1952.
The Chinese planned aggression beyond the western boundary of Tibet – which had been taken over by the communist regime in 1950 – through a network of three roads to be built under military supervision passing through Aksai Chin. One of these three roads is Highway Number 219 that connects Hotan in Xinjiang to Lhasa in Tibet.
Claude Arpi also cited a CIA document to say that the Chinese military first made its appearance in Northwestern Tibet — that is, east of Ladakh-Aksai Chin — in 1951. Construction activities began only after 1953 when Hindi-Chini Bhai-Bhai was becoming the slogan for India-China friendship.
By 1959, the myth of friendship had been busted and then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was diplomatically asserting India’s sovereign right over Aksai Chin that China had for all practical purposed occupied.
Five years before the India-China war began, a Chinese newspaper, Kuang-ming Jih-pao, reported on October 6, 1957: “The Sinkiang-Tibet — the highest highway in the world — has been completed.”
It reported that a number of trucks were running on the highway on a trial basis, arriving in Tibet from Xinjiang.
In 1958, then Foreign Secretary Subimal Dutt wrote to Nehru saying there was “little doubt that the newly constructed 1,200 kilometre roadpasses through Aksai Chin”.
China strengthened its position after the 1962 war and set the LAC entirely unilaterally in Ladakh including the Galwan Valley area where a violent face-off took place on June 15-16 night last week.
In 1962, Chinese troops were stopped by the Indian soldiers near the present-day LAC in Ladakh unlike the eastern sector, where the invaders had come down to Tezpur in Assam. When China announced ceasefire unilaterally, it retreated to the McMohan Line in Arunachal Pradesh but held military control of Aksai Chin.
According to an article having its origin in PLA Ground Forces and written sometime in 2010, the Chinese leadership of 1960s considered the occupation of Aksai Chin as a brilliant move coming out of “the strategic vision of a great man, Chairman Mao Zedong”.
It argues that “Aksai Chin is like a Damocles sword hanging over India’s head” in addition to being a gateway to Central Asia and an easy route to “easily run over New Delhi, the Indian capital city. Subsequently sweep across Mumbai etc. India’s economic centers, and defeat India once again.”
This explains why China was expressly keen in seizing Aksai Chin.