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Aksai Chin: China's disputed slice of Kashmir

Tibetan prayer flags and army outposts are the only signs of life in Aksai Chin
Tibetan prayer flags and army outposts are the only signs of life in Aksai Chin  


By Nick Easen
CNN

(CNN) -- It may be nothing but an ice desert with little geographical, economic or military value but the dotted red line of disputed territory still encompasses a slice of Tibetan plateau known as Aksai Chin.

This area, which is about 20 percent of the whole of Kashmir, belongs neither to India or Pakistan but the region's other nuclear superpower -- China.

As Beijing's southern neighbors mass troops in a potentially explosive standoff, China peers over the towering peaks and glaciers of the Himalayas nervously.

Chinese foreign policy spokesmen have been careful not to take sides in their statements on Kashmir -- the memory of a brief but brutal war in 1962 was precipitated by China's actions in this very sector.

It culminated in China seizing about 38,000 square kilometers (14,670 sq mile) of Indian territory in Aksai Chin, as well as another 5,180 sq km (2,000 sq miles) of northern Kashmir that Pakistan later ceded to Beijing under a 1963 pact.

Regional analysts say that the area is so remote that India's intelligence service didn't learn that China had established a road through the area until the following decade.

Remote but important

Aksai Chin is over 11 days drive from Lhasa by four wheeled vehicle over rough terrain
Aksai Chin is over 11 days drive from Lhasa by four wheeled vehicle over rough terrain  

The 1962 war over Aksai Chin led to the severing of direct air links between India and China, routes that were not reintroduced until March of this year -- heralding a warming of relations between the former foes.

And at present China is officially remaining impartial despite having vested interests in Kashmir -- it is appealing for restraint from both sides.

For the northern nuclear power is quite aware that both Pakistan and India are quite willing to fight over pieces of real estate that are of little value.

Beijing just has to look at the 18-year old death toll on the icy pinnacles of the Siachen glacier, the world's highest 'cold war' to understand what extremes the nuclear adversaries are prepared to go to.

It is also very much aware of India's utopian mantra for this northern area -- Pakistan to hand over Pakistan occupied Kashmir and China ditto for Aksai Chin.

This is one of the reasons why India and China have made slow progress in resolving differences over their shared 4,500-km (2,600-mile) Himalayan frontier.

A good portion of it -- 3,268 km (2,043 miles) still falls into the three disputed sectors.

Their disputes over the western and eastern sectors are particularly thorny and have hampered better relations for years.

Although last November a minor breakthrough saw another official exchange of approved maps in yet another disputed sector.

While India claims areas of Kashmir, China claims large parts of the northeastern Indian states of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

Busy in Aksai Chin

Yet over the last 40 years China has been busy in Aksai Chin.

Now an all weather highway links remote western Tibet (China calls it Xizang province) with southern Xinjiang province, it is a vital logistical route.

Han Chinese trucks full of Hami melons and dried produce ply the restricted highway along with military supply trucks.

The road most of which is over 4,000 meters -- one of the highest and coldest in the world -- now links Lhasa to Kashgar.

Yet it comes at great cost, the strategic highway needs constant maintenance by remote public works stations.

Travel for tourists in this area is still restricted and those who decide to make the journey by bike or in the back of supply trucks are normally fined at security stops.