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Pakistan-occupied Kashmir

Mainstream, VOL L, No 39, September 15, 2012

Chinese Strategic Footprint in 
Pakistan-occupied Kashmir

Monday 17 September 2012

by Soumya Tiwari

The Chinese footprint in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is a frequently debated question around the world and in our subcontinent in particular for the past many years. The media and policy-analysts are keen to know which way India-China relations will turn especially when it comes to boundary disputes be it in Arunachal Pradesh, where China claims around 90,000 sq. km of Indian territory, or be it in the western sector, PoK, covering approximately 5180 sq. km of area.

In the backup of the recent delegation level meeting with Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie in New Delhi, the debate on Beijing’s strategic footprint in PoK has come out in the open afresh. The Times of India on September 4, 2012 reported that Defence Minister A.K Antony has submitted in a written reply to the Lok Sabha on the question of the Chinese developments in PoK, saying that India has asked China to stop expanding its infrastructure build-up in PoK.

Before this many other media reports have highlighted the issue, like the New York Times report, that there were two important develop-ments in Gilgit-Baltistan: a simmering rebellion against the Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7000 to 11,000 soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the area. Another media report in October 2011 said that the Federal Government of Pakistan wants to seek Chinese assistance for making two of Gilgit-Baltistan’s (G-B) airports ‘all weather’ to guarantee uninterrupted flights to the mountainous region.

Chinese Interest

With such news in the media, one could not stop thinking what could be the reason for the involvement of China in PoK, which is also known as the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

Even though China, not being a part of South Asia, has considerable economic, political, and strategic interests in the region, China’s strategic policies have been unclear and no one has been able to gauge the precise objectives of those policies. However, what appears is that it has built inroads into the subcontinent via Pakistan, by taking advantage of the incapability of Pakistan and managed to seek its place as a vital player in the region by offering its assis-tance to Islamabad. The Chinese policy in South Asia has a mix of strategic as well as opportunistic dimensions. We can see its strategic dimension in its relations with Pakistan and its opportu-nistic dimension can be found in its relations with the other South Asian countries (Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and Nepal).

In accordance with this it can be pointed out that China wants a grip on the strategic areas to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Persian Gulf through Pakistan; hence it is building high-speed rail and road link. This link would enable Beijing to transport cargo and oil tankers from eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara in Balochistan, just east of the Gulf, in 48 hours. Many of the PLA soldiers entering Gilgit-Baltistan are expected to work on the railroad. Some are extending the Karakoram Highway, built to link China’s Xinjiang province with Pakistan. Others are working on dams, expressways and other projects. One can witness the growing closeness between Pakistan and China, as has been stated by the Pakistani President, Asaf Ali Zardari, that Pakistan-China friendship has gone beyond the usual inter-national relations and encompasses all the regional and global issues.

Pakistan, in order to prove the consistency in its ties with China, signed in 1963 the ‘Boundary Agreement’ and ceded around 5180 sq. miles of the two most strategic locations at the northern part of Jammu and Kashmir to China, namely, Gilgit-Baltistan. According to China, the year 2011 was named as China-Pakistan Friendship Year to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the nations with the latest project deals and meetings at various levels. The Chinese State Councillor, Meng Jianzhu, has conveyed that China is willing to push forward the China-Pakistan cooperative partnership to a new level.

The mega project of Karakoram Highway (KKH) is a strategic one to provide China easy accessibility during the winter. With this project they will get trouble-free passage to Pakistani ports from where they can push their trade of Chinese goods, liquor and also get smooth access to oil from the Gulf with its presence in the Gulf of Aden. Apart from the economic advantage from this project, China also aims at gaining strategic military importance through it. For instance, the Silk-Worm missiles that China got in roubles and sold to Pakistan came via KKH, where bridges are constructed to handle heavy military equipment and tanks. With this kind of accessibility Pakistan with Chinese assistance can prove to be a military problem for India, especially in the LoC area.

China is also eyeing on the resource-rich and geostrategic region and taking advantage of the socially fractured G-B to ensure increased presence in that region’s economy. The Gwadar port is seen as an important focal point that Pakistan and China can both influence for their mutual benefit. China has made investments in securing mineral reserves, oil, and gas and iron ore in Africa. The port on the Arabian Sea, which links the Chinese mainland through railway and roadway, is thus of immense importance. Apart from Beijing’s requirement for economic and natural resources, the Chinese policy-makers have been witnessing some terrorist infiltration from the Af-Pak region in its Muslim dominated province of Xinjiang. Therefore in order to protect its sovereign land from the occupation of the terrorists, China feels that its presence in PoK can help in keeping watch over such activities and when the time comes, it can put pressure on Pakistan to tackle the situation.

At the same time China has been miffed with the new US policy to progressively shift 60 per cent of its formidable naval fleet to the Asia-Pacific region with India being described as a “linchpin” in the US strategy. Therefore looking at this it has always given diplomatic priority to its all-weather friend, Pakistan.

Conclusion and Solution

In view of the aforesaid facts about China in G-B, it can be stated that China and Pakistan perceive a serious threat from India’s growth and its acknowledgment, by some of the major powers, as an emerging or rather emerged dominant power in South Asia; thus the two nations are compelled to think about strength-ening their security.

Hence it is time for New Delhi to rise up and become more action-oriented and assertive in its border areas. The easy-going attitude of India can be a problem and may turn out to be a big loss. The construction of railways in KKH and Aksai-Chin by the Chinese should be a wake-up call for India to pull up its socks for tough days ahead.

The failure of India to expedite building development projects on the border areas in the northern parts can be a big drawback. India must understand that the Chinese interposition in PoK will adversely affect our foreign policy and also the eco-system and bio-diversity of the adjacent areas will be wrecked. The melting of glaciers can lead to a rise in the sea level, increasing humidity, flash floods and ultimately submergence of the areas around the sea. The seismic zone close to J&K would be detrimental to parts of the State in the wake of an approaching calamity, for example, the Diamer Basha Dam could be one of the harmful projects affecting the entire region of J&K including Gilgit-Baltistan.

Further, India should be more proactive in its policies and also consult the international bodies as frequently as it is done by Pakistan. India must learn from the Chinese method and convert strategic assets into economic opportunities. It must not ignore its North-Eastern region which is a link to South-East Asia on account of its geographic proximity to our neighbours. All the pending and behind-the-schedule road projects must be completed on a priority basis and also India must engage in trilateral and bilateral talks with China and Pakistan and discuss the issues pertaining to Gilgit-Baltistan. As the facts suggest, any kind of development of conflict in that area will have direct implications on us.

New Delhi must try to develop and maintain its relations with the civil society of PoK, because the instability which exists there will soon lead to increase in the India-Pakistan rift. Hence, a stable situation will be favourable for India. India must reinforce itself against China’s possible strategic involvement in PoK and also recognise the potential threat to international security which PoK has become of late. A start to this can be made from the delegation-level meeting between the two countries hosted by India this month.

Therefore, it can be said that with corrective measures and a tactful approach India can hope to preserve peace on its borders without direct confrontation with its opponent.

Soumya Tiwari worked with the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, and is currently engaged in Defence Economics.

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