Why is Daulat Beg Oldie so important for India?

Situated within shouting distance from the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in Aksai Chin, Daulat Beg Oldie is as strategic an outpost as it can get in India’s attempt to keep the Chinese under check.

Zee Media Bureau/Ajith Vijay Kumar

New Delhi: If China was unhappy when Indian Air Force’s Antonov-32 transport aircraft landed at Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) in 2008, it must be fuming after IAF’s big boy C-130J Super Hercules transport plane touched ground at the world’s highest active airstrip.

Situated within shouting distance from the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) in Aksai Chin, Daulat Beg Oldie is as strategic an outpost as it can get in India’s attempt to keep the Chinese under check.

DBO sector was at the focal point of increased tension between the two nations after Chinese troops intruded 19 kms into Indian territory in the Depsang Valley on April 15. The tense three-week stand off ended on May 5 when Chinese troops withdrew to their original position.

While, historically, the Chinese never owned the area, the border issue became a constant irritant – infact the longest-running border dispute in the world – after the 1962 war.

McCartney-Macdonald Line Vs Johnson Line Vs Chinese fancy post 1962 war

At the centre of the Sino-Indian border issue is the difference in perception on where exactly the border lies between the two nations.

Long considered as an area that was beyond the outback, Aksai Chin area never really mattered to anybody except for a few trade routes that crossed through the area. The first ‘owners’ of the area were the Sikhs from Punjab who annexed Ladakh, including Aksai Chin, into Jammu state in 1834.

The Chinese army invaded Ladakh in 1841 and defeated the Sikhs. But both sides later signed a treaty promising to respect borders.

After the Sikhs were defeated in 1846 by the British army, the entire Ladakh region became part became part of the Queen’s territory. History has it that the British tried to talk to the Chinese on where the border lay but given the low strategic interest in the region then, both sides decided to go by natural boundaries while deciding the two extremities - Pangong Lake and Karakoram Pass. The entire border in between was left undefined.

Enter WH Johnson, a civil servant in British India, who proposed the "Johnson Line" in 1865. He marked the entire Aksai Chin as part of Jammu and Kashmir. As China was not in control of the Xinjiang region that borders Aksai Chin at that point of time, there view on the Johnson line was never sought.

Then in 1899, after China had reclaimed Xingjian, it expressed interest in Aksai Chin. As Britain and China were allies then, the British proposed a new border line drawn by George McCartney, which put most of Aksai Chin in Chinese territory.

The British proposed the McCartney line, which follows the Karakoram range as the border, thinking that it would be the least controversial and more importantly, defensible.

The proposal was sent to the Chinese by Sir Claude MacDonald but it did not elicit a response from the Chinese. And the British, inexplicably, took their silence as consent.

By 1914, the British wanted the entire area as its own as its strategic frontier in its north-east. The Chinese did not respond favourably but the British went in and annexed the area.

Though the government of India after independence in 1947 chose to take the Johnson line as the border, the Chinese held the view that the entire Aksai Chin was its territory.

Post the 1962 war, China captured the area beyond the McCartney-Macdonald line and continues to hold it.

Later the Chinese proposed that both sides move 20 kilometres inside form the new the Line of Actual Control (LoAC) but it has been crossing the border line as India perceives it.

China appears to deliberately wanting to keep the border line fluid so as to leave a window of opportunity to exert its military muscle if and when needed.

As things stand today, the two sides have failed to even exchange maps that depict each other’s “perception” of where the LoAC runs - China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps.

Daulat Beg Oldie

Located just south of the Karakoram Pass, the Daulat Beg Oldie airstrip holds immense strategic importance for India in the crucial axis in central Asia. Located at an altitude of at 16614 feet (5065 meters), DBO is an important Army forward area post which was built during the Indo-China conflict in 1962. It was abandoned after an earthquake in 1968 only to be revived in 2008 with the landing of the An-32.

India holds the airstrip dear as it can use the airstrip for fast deployment of men and material to the region and can potentially block the Karakoram highway between China and Pakistan.

Given reports that China has taken over the Gilgit-Baltistan area on lease from Pakistan for 50 years, Daulat Beg Oldie presents a real challenge to Chinese plans. China is also working on a plan to link the Karakoram highway to the Gwadar port in Pakistan – given it a strategic exit to Arabian Sea.

Also, the airstrip is important to help India safeguard the Siachen Glacier as essential supplies can be airlifted in times of emergency or when roads get blocked due to inclement weather.

However, the fact remains that China has a sophisticated military infrastructure in Tibet that includes five fully operational air bases and an extensive rail network as against the poor state of affairs on the Indian side.

The landing of C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft, which is capable of lifting upto 20 tonnes of load, is being hailed as a big leap in augmenting India’s position as it gives a six-fold increase in deployment capabilities over the An-32 and Mi-17s so far deployed to DBO.

IAF’s latest success will certainly add weight to India’s bargaining power with China in the high altitude long drawn-out war of attrition between the two sides.