India and China Fight Over Kashmir’s Natural Resources
Last week, India and China engaged in direct conflict over their respective claims to the contested territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The dispute involves access to natural resources, protecting existing infrastructure investments on occupied territory, and jockeying for military supremacy. The human rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir continue to be ignored and violated by both sides.
Having taken land inside the Ladakh region, China is now diverting critical water resources, directly preventing indigenous populations from access, including the people of Jammu and Kashmir. An Indian-imposed communications blackout has cut off Ladakhis including patients, relatives, students, and business owners from each other and the world. Pashmina goats, which are endangered and provide the wool for one of the region's biggest economic exports, have been pushed off their grazing lands and are dying in huge numbers. This seriously imperils the traditional livelihoods of thousands of families in Ladakh and the Kashmir Valley as their wool is woven to produce a historically famed textile, the Kashmir (or cashmere) shawl. Ladakhis and Kashmiris, like all of the indigenous peoples of Jammu and Kashmir, continue to maintain deep, longstanding cultural and economic ties despite the geopolitical machinations of regional powers. The latest Chinese incursion further entrenches them in the erstwhile J&K, with previous claims creating a desired connection between the Tibet and Xinjiang autonomous regions they control.
History of exploitation
Among the long-standing grievances of the indigenous peoples of J&K with the Indian government has been the uncompensated, and culturally and environmentally devastating exploitation of the region’s natural resources-- including mineral, water, timber, and land. The revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy in August has escalated these concerns. This year, the Indian government coerced the Irrigation and Flood Control Department to allow mining in new areas that, according to geological experts and a commissioned World Bank study, will endanger lives and ecology, especially given that Kashmir has suffered massive flooding in the recent past.
Kashmiri-owned companies that have traditionally mined in Kashmir were unable to compete with outside Indian corporations for mining rights as the continued throttling of internet speeds prevented their participation in the online bidding process. The elimination of Kashmir’s forestry laws in favor of Indian federal law has been harshly criticized and is resulting in devastating deforestation.
Water is the region's most at-risk natural resource, with direct regional and global consequences. While Kashmiris have long complained of hydroelectric power taken from Kashmir being exported to India’s grid as Kashmiris suffer Himalayan winters in rolling blackouts, the well-being of the surrounding populations of all three nuclear powers are increasingly dependent on J&K water. Given internal stressors and national ambitions, the latest Chinese incursion into the erstwhile state’s Ladakh region underscore how crucial the region’s water rights are to global stability.
The latest troop movements reflect the international nature of the disputes at which the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir is at the center. Regional observers attribute the Chinese incursion into the Galwan Valley in part to India's revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019 (achieved through highly questionable constitutional procedures, human rights abuses, and military lockdown), which is jeopardizing accords that outline resolution to the disputed status of J&K. Part of what revoking Kashmiri autonomy achieved was tightening Indian federal control over Kashmir’s waters. China is now diverting waters away from India in this newly seized territory, also contravening international agreements. The flouting of previous accords reached over the J&K region is troubling, as previously rounds of such behavior lead to multiple wars. These escalations are projected to only heighten given entire populations in the surrounding water-stressed countries increasingly depend on the Indus waters that originate or flow through J&K. This is the only river system Pakistan has access to, with Pakistan alarmingly projected to “run dry” by 2025. India’s bread basket of Punjab also depends on the Indus as 21 major cities nationwide are expected to run out of ground water this year. 600 million Indians already endure acute water shortages with 200,000 now dying annually from insufficient or polluted water supplies. With the Indus itself expected to start running dry by 2050 due to glacial melt caused by climate change, food security and livelihoods of over one billion people are at risk. “It staggers me that this isn’t the biggest news story in the world at the moment,” said Sunil Amrith, a professor of South Asian studies at Harvard University.
These domestic stressors are occurring at a time when India has repeatedly threatened to take Pakistan-administered Kashmir, China complains of threatened territorial integrity after J&K’s revoked autonomy, and Pakistan warns of looming nuclear doom.
With all frameworks for a permanent political settlement made increasingly unlikely by India’s recent implementation of new domicile laws in J&K, India, Pakistan, and China are moving to secure their access to the region’s wealth through hard power.
China and India have developed infrastructure near the line of actual control (LAC) which the other nation cites as a provocation. For its part, India built a road connecting a forward airbase to the LAC border along the Shyok River. This road will allow India to move troops and equipment to the border more easily. China has also been pursuing infrastructure development in partnership with Pakistan, as a part of both the Belt and Road initiative and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The latest aspect of this partnership is a dam proposed to be built in Gilgit-Baltistan, the first Chinese infrastructure project inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir. In portions of Kashmir currently administered by China, but claimed by India, China also operates a number of mines such as the lead-zinc mine in Aksai Chin.
Contours of Conflict
Numerous border areas fall within rivers or on top of glaciers, meaning the physical geography actually changes year to year. This presents all three countries with opportunities to change the state-of-play by moving troops and development into border areas. In the past, these battles have led to war. Jammu and Kashmir has been called the “most militarized region in the world” and the likely site of a future state-to-state conflict.
Both Pakistan and China consider the abrogation of Article 370 and the conversion of Indian administered Jammu & Kashmir into union territories an aggressive change to the status quo, creating new and potentially irreversible material breaches to India’s international legal obligations. This in part accounts for the motivation behind both the Chinese incursion and the joint dam project.
Whatever the outcome of current negotiations, India has increased the chances of war breaking out over the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir through its provocative and unilateral moves over the past year. In addition to violating international law, these moves upset a de facto, but always tentative regional peace. The motivation for the abrogation of Article 370, as with the advancing of CAA/NRC legislation despite the ongoing domestic civil upheaval that has resulted, appear to be primarily driven by the ideological commitment of the BJP government to Hindu nationalism and its militant, expansionist, authoritarian, anti-minority ultranationalism. We are now seeing on-the-ground reactions from Pakistan and China, moving to improve their position in response to ongoing and increasing Indian aggression. Given the state of relations, the history, and the stakes involved, there is no reason to think the cycle of aggression will stop of its own accord or that the fallout will be limited.
Implications for US-India relationship
India's exploitation of Kashmir's natural resources devastates the region's environmental, economic, and labor conditions, and are of particular concern as the US seeks to deepen its relationship with Prime Minister Modi and the BJP government. In addition to India's ongoing violations of human, democratic, and religious rights, US policymakers should also address the issues of resource & labor exploitation in any future conversations around bilateral trade. As India's actions increasingly mirror China's, it is imperative that the US bring India back into the democratic fold. By advocating for the observance of international accords on the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, the US can lead in the effort to solve the worsening water crisis threatening global stability.