By K.N. Pandita
In its issue of August 16, the New York Times published a short and succinct article by Selig Harrison on new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan region. He is a well-known American commentator on political affairs in South Asia and director of the Asia Programme at the Center for International Policy besides a former South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post. He commands great respect with the American think-tanks handling South Asian affairs. This writer had an opportunity of an hour long exchange of ideas with him at Carnegie Institute in Washington way back in 1994 following which excerpts of that interview were published in the columns of this paper.
Pakistani print media closed the eyes to the piece titled ‘China’s Discreet Hold on Pakistan’s Northern Borderlands’, and only a small section of Indian print media mentioned it albeit perfunctorily. However, belatedly and in low key, Pakistan official circles repudiated the revelations, and denied the presence of PLA activist in Gilgit-Baltistan region.
Reacting to Beijing’s abrasive denial of visa to the GOC-in-C, Northern Command, the Cabinet Committee for Security (CCS) met in New Delhi on Wednesday under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister to reflect on this pronouncedly hostile stance of China and New Delhi’s retaliatory action. In all probability, the deliberations of the CCS must have also focused on the revelations made by Selig Harrison in the NYT.
During past few months there has been a flurry of mutual exchange visits between top dignitaries of China and Pakistan. While Pakistan battles with the natural calamity of disastrous floods, geo-political configuration in the western Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan is going through unprecedented re-alignment.
Recent reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, some Pakistan-based journalists and human rights workers have highlighted two important happening in Gilgit-Baltistan region. One is the simmering rebellion among the local population and the other is the influx of 7,000 to 11,000 soldier of PLA of China into the region, which, in the words of Selig Harrison, is “Islamabad handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China.”
This is part of China’s grand strategy in the region with focus on streamlining overland connectivity network. China wants to reduce the transit time between Beijing and China-built Pak naval bases of Gawadar, Pasni and Ormar in the Gulf from 16-25 days to 48 hours through Gilgit-Baltistan. This is envisaged by building a fast-track railway line alongside the Karakorum Highway.
Strict secrecy surrounds the locations where China plans to cut out 22 tunnels into the entrails of Karakoraum Mountain that would facilitate laying gas and oil pipeline to transport Iran- originating hydrocarbons to Beijing. Even Pakistanis are barred from visiting these sites.
But strategists are of opinion that China could also use these tunnels to store her nuclear arsenal including ICBMs capable of hitting the warships far away in the Indian Ocean. Notably, for India, among other things, this move threatens the security of strategic Siachin Glacier, the boon of contention between India and Pakistan…
PLA soldiers brought to Gilgit-Baltistan are doing a variety of jobs; extending Karakorum Highway links, working on dams and expressway and other projects. This gives China a strong foothold in a strategic region where she would want to protect her interest far away from the borders of the mainland …
The PLA personnel hitherto used to come to the site in the region for work and then go back home. But now housing complexes have been raised and the soldiers are permanently encamped in the region.
Pakistan sees Chinese move into Gilgit-Baltistan region more than helpful in the background of ongoing situation there. Besides serving as pressure lever against the security of India’s northern border, it sends ominous message to local rebellious movement. Two reasons serve the catalyst to the simmering discontent in the region for a long time. One is the domination of Pakistani Punjabis over the local people in political and administrative spheres, and the second is the subjugation of local Shiite population by the dominant Sunnis thousands of whom were brought from contiguous Sunni areas in the west and settled here during the days when Perez Musharraf was the corps commander of NA.
The necessity of re-deploying divisions of Pakistan army on Af-Pak war front leaves Gilgit-Baltistan vulnerable to the fruition of mass uprising. Acceding to Chinese military presence in the area means violation of UN stipulations and Indo-Pak cease fire agreement of 1948… Therefore India reserves the rights to lodge protest against Pakistan’s willing acquiescence, which disturbs the UN recognized status of the two countries vis-à-vis the state of Jammu and Kashmir… This can have adverse effect on bilateral comprehensive peace talks that the US wants to go unobstructed.
Pakistan resorted to many gimmicks in the name of political empowerment of Gilgit and Baltistan beginning with the clandestine Karachi Agreement of April 28, 1949. Each step taken by Islamabad ever since ended up in imposing more federal authority and control over the region in one or the other way. In 2009, Islamabad announced the so-called latest political package for the region which made the Gilgit-Baltistan Council the handmaid of Kashmir Affairs Ministry in Islamabad.
The influx of PLA into Gilgit-Baltistan is a clear signal that Pakistan has exposed the region to the inroads of China. It is a deliberate and covert act of disturbing the balance of power in the region which has bearing on the regional strategy of India, Russia and the US. With this development in the Himalayan borderlands, the US can no more be confident in considering Pakistan an “ally” as she is providing all facility and good will for the expansion of Chinese influence in the region. Of course, Pakistan’s policy is usually India centric but the developments taking place in the northern areas of Pakistan will have strong impact on geo-political strategies on international plane.
Nearer home, one wishes Kashmir separatist leadership and its handpicked protesting youth understand the gravity of situation that Pakistan is creating for the millions of toiling people in the entire region of South Asia. What more proof does one need to feel convinced that Pakistan is a failed state. Those who clamour for “Greater Autonomy” for J&K would do well to re-assess the situation in the light of what has been revealed in this write-up. The situation of J&K today is very different from what it was when the rhetoric of greater autonomy began to be orchestrated soon after the ouster of Farooq Abdullah’s government in 1986.