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An Indian fighter jet flies over Leh, the joint capital of the union territory of Ladakh, on June 26, 2020. India acknowledged for the first time on June 25 that it has matched China in massing troops at their contested Himalayan border region after a deadly clash this month. The Himalayas region, which includes Mount Everest, is home to endangered animals. Photo: Agence France-Presse

China-India border conflict can be resolved with Himalaya nature reserve, says scientist

  • Indian environmentalist argues rare wildlife under threat as both countries build infrastructure along contested border
  • Ecology trumps geopolitics as Himalaya rivers supply water to more than 1 billion people, scientist says
China and India could resolve their deadly border conflict in the Himalayas by turning all the disputed areas into a nature reserve, an Indian scientist wrote in Nature magazine.

Maharaj Pandit, a professor of environmental science at the University of Delhi, said both India and China were building roads and other infrastructure that were destroying the flora and fauna in the Himalayan mountain range, according to the article published on June 23.

Pandit cited examples such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a “flagship” of China’s Belt and Road Initiative according to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, as well as the Indian Border Roads Organisation that began building a road close to the border with China in April 2019.

Analysts say the strategic implications of these infrastructure projects has irked both sides and contributed to the current conflict at the border, known as the Line of Actual Control. Pandit wrote that neither side wanted war, and efforts from conservationists to establish nature reserves in the Himalayas should be considered as a possible diplomatic solution to the border conflicts.

The Himalayas region, which includes Mount Everest, is home to endangered animals such as the snow leopard and musk deer and stretches 2,410km (1,500 miles) across several countries, including China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bhutan. Pandit’s vision for a giant nature reserve would require the cooperation of all these nations, he said.

“I want to extend the discussion to the entire mountainous region of the Himalaya, the Trans-Himalaya and Hengduan mountains in China and the mountain ranges of Indo-Burmese region,” Pandit told the South China Morning Post in an interview.

“These are three most critical global biodiversity hotspots of immense conservation significance and share millions of years of biotic exchanges,” he said.

Chinese and Indian forces fought a war over the border in 1962 and smaller skirmishes and stand-offs have happened since.

This year, scuffles broke out between Chinese and Indian forces on May 5 and 6 on the northern shore of Pangong lake, a territory divided by the Sino-Indian border. The conflict is unusual in that no shots have reportedly been fired, in line with a previous agreement between the two sides.

Indian and Chinese soldiers are in a bitter stand-off in the remote and picturesque Ladakh region, with the two countries amassing soldiers and machinery near the tense frontier, Indian officials said. The stand-off began in early May, 2020. Photo: AP

But brutal hand-to-hand fighting did take place at Galwan River Valley, part of the Karakoram mountain range, with as many as 20 Indian soldiers killed along with an undisclosed number of Chinese. The disputed border on the India side also falls into the territory of Kashmir, where several wars have been fought between India and Pakistan.

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Pandit, a native of Kashmir, recalls developing an emotional connection to the Himalayas because it was there “24/7 overlooking my window”, he said. Pandit would go on to write a number of academic papers on the effects of deforestation, climate change and dam construction on the Himalayan ecology.

“Militarisation, land-use changes and habitat destruction and fragmentation across the Himalaya are likely to push several species with small populations to extinction. Diplomacy is their only hope,” Pandit wrote in the Nature article.

“It is easy to visualise the kind of impact the military establishments can have in the ecologically fragile areas,” Pandit told the Post.

Satellite images confirm that Chinese forces have put up buildings on the Indian side of the Galwan River Valley. Both sides have deployed thousands of troops to the border as tensions escalated. Pandit argued in his article that high-altitude areas such as Galwan should be free of human interference.

There are other places where people-free demarcation zones have helped wildlife recover. The most prominent example is the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, a strip 4km wide and 248km long. It has not had a permanent human presence since the signing of the armistice after the Korean war in 1953.

The Korean DMZ is now a flourishing site for endangered animals, such as Asiatic black bears and red-crowned cranes, despite being sown with mines and hundreds of artillery and tanks facing off on either side of the border. Environmentalists, such as CNN founder Ted Turner, have argued that the DMZ should be preserved as a nature reserve regardless of the politics between the North and South.

But the Himalayan border region does not need mines to keep humans out: The mountains and extreme weather can do that.

“The terrain poses a problem for both sides, it’s the X factor” said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of Chinese studies at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, referring to the region known as Ladakh in India.

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Kondapalli said from September temperatures in Ladakh could drop as low as minus 55 degrees Celsius. This includes areas such as the Galwan Valley that is more than 4,000 metres above sea level. This gives China and India a tight deadline to resolve the border dispute, he said.

“If both sides don’t vacate those areas, the weather will eventually kill them,” he said.

On June 18, 2020, a soldier of the Indian Border Security Force guards a national highway leading to Ladakh region. Photo: DPA

But analysts say the high-altitude is precisely why China and India are squabbling over a border in what is mostly uninhabitable land.

“It’s the highest point in the world. Missiles stationed in that region can target any point in the world,” said Li Xing, a professor of international relations at Aalborg University in Denmark. Li said part of the reason the border dispute broke out was because India was trying to get the higher ground of the border currently occupied by the Chinese.

 Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the lack of oxygen at such altitudes was also a problem, citing the example of the recurring India-Pakistan conflicts.

“More people on both sides die every year of altitude sickness and other altitude-related or weather-related problems than direct combat,” he said. Rajagopalan added that present-day military technologies such as radar made any slight altitude advantage redundant. 

“I’m not sure it is worth starting a war over, considering that today we have all kinds of technical capabilities to be able to look over a particular hump on a mountain.”

Pandit argues that geopolitical interests pale in comparison to the ecological importance of the Himalayas, noting that rivers from the region supply water to more than 1 billion people.

Declining to comment on which nation is most responsible for endangering this ecosystem, the conservationist said that all countries need to take responsibility to protect the region.

“What we need to remind the leaders of these six or seven nations, and also to those beyond, is that we live as long as Himalaya lives.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Nature reserve call for border areas in deadly showdown