China’s unilateral attempt to alter status quo of South Asian Nations


By Olivier Guillard, a specialist in Asian issues, research associate at the Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, a researcher at CERIAS (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada), Director of Information at CRISIS24 (Paris), and lecturer (geopolitics; political science) at EDHEC Business School (Lille).  

How to cite this publication

Olivier Guillard, China's unilateral attempt to alter status quo of South Asian Nations, Institut d'études de géopolitique appliquée, Paris, July 10, 2024.


The views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author. The illustrative image, which is free of rights, was chosen by the editorial team.


The Shaksgam River lies on the northern side of the Karakoram watershed [1] and is located at the strategic crossroads between the Siachen Glacier, Aksai Chin and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir ("PoK"). The deviation between India and China's boundary claim starts from the confluence of the Oprang River with the Shaksgam River. While the Sino-Pakistan border runs along the Karakoram Watershed towards the south, the Indian claim line continues along the north besides the Aghil Mountain Range. [2]

In 1963, Pakistan illegally gifted the Shaksgam valley to China under the China-Pakistan Agreement 1963 ("China-Pakistan Agreement") whereby Gen. Ayub Khan of Pakistan handed over parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to China. The agreement purportedly establishes the formal boundary line between China's Xinjiang region and PoK by delineating the boundary alignment along mountain ridges and rivers. The said concession of territory to China was illegal from the start as the Shaksgam valley was rightfully an Indian territory that was under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. As such, as per the legal maxim nemo dat quod non habet (No one gives what he does), Pakistan could not have gifted what was not rightfully its territory in the first place.

The China-Pakistan Agreement, which is still provisional in nature and has never been accepted by India, also establishes a joint commission to demarcate the boundary on maps and on ground, after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute with India. [3]

In this background, China has been illegally developing operational infrastructure, especially the Shaksgam Valley Road under three main tracks:

  • Track 1 that enters Shaksgam Valley from the Northwestern side at Sokh Bulaq and follows the Shaksgam River for 70 kms.
  • Track 2 that is from the Balti Brangsa towards the Shaksgam Pass. The construction of this road was halted in 2021.
  • A third track is being developed from since 2023 from Kul across the Aghil Pass presumably towards Skardu. It currently measures 117 kms in length and 5 mts in width.

Additionally, China has established new construction camps in March 2024 that each have containerized housing modules, a concrete batch plant, rock grinding equipment, additional support facilities and a sizeable fleet of heavy construction equipment and light vehicles. By early May 2024, numerous flood control ditches were also noted to protect these new constructions.

China's turn-coat outlook in similar disputes

The illegal construction in the Shaksgam Valley by China is not a new narrative and is reminiscent of Chinese sly expansionist policy in the entire region in disregard of international law and agreements. In 2017, Bhutan accused China of unilaterally constructing a road near the Doklam [4] plateau, thereby attempting to violate the 1998 Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Agreement ("MPT Agreement") signed between the countries. The MPT Agreement was initially signed to maintain peace in the border areas until boundary disputes were settled. In the aftermath of standoffs between the Indian military and China's People Liberation Army, several attempts to restart negotiations regarding the MPT Agreement have failed. [5]

While China continues its hard power tactic of illegal constructions around the Indian sub-continent and disclaiming all allegations, a turn-table event was noted in 2020, when it opposed Bhutan's funding to construct the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary in Trashigang district in eastern Bhutan. This was an unanticipated objection for Bhutan. Historically, China has shown keen interest in Central and Western Bhutan and has controversially offered to give up its claim in Central Bhutan in exchange of Doklam, Sinchulung, Dramana and Shakhatoe, that form Western Bhutan. [6] After the funds were cleared, Bhutan issued a demarche, denouncing China's claim in the east, which China wrongfully counter argued stating that the "disputed" boundary was yet to be demarcated. [7]

While the thematic underlining of both Shaksgam Valley dispute and Sakteng Sanctuary issue are nearly identical, the turn-coat stance and abuse of similar boundary provisions has brough China's double standards to the forefront. Article 6 of the China-Pakistan Agreement states that "the two Parties have agreed that after the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, the sovereign authority concerned will reopen negotiations with the Government of the People's Republic of China, on the boundary as described in Article two of the present Agreement, so as to sign a formal Boundary Treaty to replace the present Agreement." [8] By renewed construction of the Shaksgam Valley road, Beijing is violative of this provision that specifically lays the settlement of Kashmir issue and demarcations of boundaries as a condition precedent to any development of strategic and operational infrastructure by China.

Historically, the Shaksgam Valley was inherited by India following Jammu & Kashmir's accession in 1947, much before the 1963 China-Pakistan Agreement was signed. In current times, the disputed area has not been officially disclaimed by India, despite being considered a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. [9] Article 3 of the MPT Agreement with Bhutan, on the other hand, is similarly phrased and states that "the two sides agree to maintain peace and tranquillity in their border area pending final settlement of the boundary question, and to maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959. They will also refrain from taking any unilateral action to change the status quo of the boundary." [10] In the dispute with Bhutan, China has not only tried to protect its wrongfully claimed territorial sovereignty by arguing that boundary was yet to be demarcated, it has also tried to push its reputation, and in turn expand, by unilaterally undertaking construction activities under the garb of development and "to improve the working and living conditions of the locals in the region". The villages were included in China's state-led poverty alleviation initiative to improve living conditions, while simultaneously serving as strategic strongholds to enhance national security. [11]

On a similar strain, Beijing sparked a new boundary controversy in Bhutan through its unauthorised construction of the Pangda village within 5 months from the Sakteng controversy. While it was initially stated to be in the Yadong county of the Tibet Autonomous Region, satellite images showed the village's location to be 2.5 kms inside Bhutanese territory near Doklam. While Bhutan has negated claims of any such construction, in 2022 satellite images showed a total of 6 such villages with more than 200 structures near the disputed India-China-Bhutan trijunction. [12]

China's consistent pattern of establishing itself in the border regions of the South Asian Himalayan countries is not limited to Bhutan. In the same year (2020), the Nepali opposition alleged that China had unilaterally moved the boundary pillars and constructed military bases in the Humla district of Northwest Nepal and had crossed into the Limi valley. The authorities also confirmed that Chinese had built houses inside the Nepali territory. However, like Bhutan, Nepal has officially denied any claims of China's invasion. [13]

China's expansion and its impact

Security analysts perceive this unilateral expansion as part of Beijing's larger encirclement strategy to box-in India within the subcontinent and keep check on its growing influential power in South Asia. The pressure tactic on smaller nations, coupled with such nations' increased affinity towards China has been touted as not only a security concern, but also more of a political concern. China's offer to Bhutan to give up its western areas (i.e. the Doklam region) would provide it leverage and monitoring opportunities over India's northeastern states and its critical roadways like the Siliguri Corridor, that connects mainland India with the north-east. The objective appears to be to concentrate India's military resources to the north and northeast and weaken its maritime response and presence, as seen by its revised maps of the South China Sea with the addition of 10th dash line. [14]

The renewed construction of the road through Aghil pass is not only a mere 50 kms from the Siachen Glacier but is also strategic connecting/bypass road to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) by connecting Yarkand in Xinjiang to Skardu in Kashmir as an extension of the Xinjiang-Tibet Highway. This highlighting greater Sino-Pak collusive activities. Although the construction has been slow and halted, probably due to the rough terrains, it is likely that Beijing perceives it achievable in the backdrop of climate change's impact in melting glaciers. [15] Allowing unchecked construction implies allowing China to lay claim on land by evidencing its infrastructure in the disputed areas.


The Shaksgam Valley dispute is a notable example of China's repeated attempts to unilaterally usurp the territorial sovereignty of other nations, reflecting its broader strategy to monitor and manage India's regional activities. As evidenced in Bhutan and Nepal, China aims to surveil India in addition to containing India within the subcontinent, thereby expanding its maritime presence. India's keen awareness of the recent construction activities in this contested area underscores its vigilance. India has firmly asserted its right to protect its territorial boundaries and undertake any measure to safeguard its sovereign integrity. This enduring dispute highlights the persistent tensions and complexities inherent in Sino-Indian relations and throws light on the Chinese policy of disrespect towards sovereign boundaries weather on land or at sea.

[1] Interestingly, the watershed principle used to demarcate boundary lines has not been strictly followed. China allowed the Braldu to allow the people from the Shimshal region access to the Braldu grazing zone.

[2] Vats, Rohit, "Is China's Road in Kashmir's Shaksgam Valley a threat to India?", Swarajya Magazine, 5 May 2018.

[3] China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement, 1963, Scribd

[4] The Doklam region hosts the strategic geographic location of the India-Bhutan-China trijunction.

[5] Mehta, Shibani, "On Thin Ice: Bhutan's Diplomatic Challenge Amid the India-China Border Dispute", Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 23 April 2024.

[6] Gurung, Wini Fred & Ranjan, Amit "China's Territorial Claims and Infringement in Bhutan: Concerns for India", Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, 1 April 2021

[7] Ethirajan, Anbarasan, "Why Bhutan's Skateng wildlife sanctuary is disputed by China." BBC, 25 November 2020.

[8] China-Pakistan Boundary Agreement, 1963, Scribd

[9] Kumar, Bhaswar, "Shaksgam valley: How Pakistan 'unlawfully' ceded Indian territory to China.", The Business Standard, 6 May 2024.

[10] Agreement between the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Government of the Kingdom of Bhutan on Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in China-Bhutan Border Area.

[11] Lau, Jack, "Chinese village construction in disputed zone outpaces China-Bhutan border talks", South China Morning Post, 18 February 2024.

[12] Ghoshal, Devjyot & Katakam, Anand, "Insight: China steps up construction along disputed Bhutan border, satellite images show", Reuters, 13 January 2022.

[13] Bristow, Michael, "China encroaching along Nepal border-Report", BBC, 8 February 2022.

[14] Venzon, Cliff Harvey, "China's Fresh Map Claims over Taiwan, Disputed Sea Stir Protests", Bloomberg, 1 September 2023

[15] Lt General Prakash Menon, "What are China's Intentions in building Shaksgam Valley road? Not security, look to political" The Print India, 14 May 2024