Gilgit-Baltistan and its Chinese angle: Security
With respect to the growing dynamism of South Asia’s security structure, the Gilgit-Baltistan region that is the main component of PoK plays a significant role due to its geo-strategic placement. The region is a complex, alienated and impoverished society despite being a strategic geographical and resource-rich region. This is a result of a combination of factors like the incessant denial of constitutional and political status, economic exploitation, and Islamabad’s repressive activities and role in encouraging sectarian rivalry, clampdown on religious and ethnic identities, demographic engineering, hatred among various heterogeneous communities preventing the political mobilisation, curbs on dissent by the locals, among others.
As China rises, it is seen to be actively expanding, protecting and deepening its sphere of influence, even by the use of aggressive power sometimes, in its vicinity as well as across the world. It also seeks to address its diverse internal problems by taking recourse to belligerent posturing in the international order. The Belt and Road Initiative, is so, seen by various observers as China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”. The BRI’s “flagship” project, CPEC is a physical manifestation of this mind-set of Chinese policymakers by involving Pakistan in its grand project. Pakistan sits at the helm of China’s persistent geo-strategic and economic concerns with Gilgit-Baltistan providing the only land linkage between these two nuclear-armed allies. The Sino-Pakistan Axis thus, greatly relies over this region as Pakistan depends largely on China for aid and assistance in all matters and facets and considers Beijing as the cornerstone of its foreign policy, with the latter covertly dictating its domestic policies as well.
Beijing has been using Pakistan’s unpredictable and lofty relationship with India to its maximum advantage trying to sustain a strategic edge over its Asian competitor since the 1960s. China’s approach with regard to Kashmir issue has tilted towards Pakistan and they have jointly started executing projects to develop Pakistan’s capability and strengthen its discourse vis-à-vis India. CPEC definitively represents a dangerous situation for India’s internal security, economy and its regional standing. Moreover, the region has witnessed a clear thrust in international discourse post the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the actualisation of the CPEC project that will alter the course of politics and alliances in South Asia. The exceedingly central role Gilgit-Baltistan has in the project is an index of China’s hegemonic ambitions. China’s long term goal of territorial aggrandizement has been streamlined further with the deepening of the ‘iron brotherhood’ which serves its interests, provides abundant resources in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, aside from filling in as the point of convergence for extension of the tremendous CPEC venture.
Beijing also seeks to develop stronghold over the South Asian region by controlling Gilgit-Baltistan that is an enviable geo-strategic location and provides access to Pakistan, neighbouring Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, and is an essential point for PLA troops stationed to pressurise and attack India. The region provides China with connectivity to Gwadar Port through the CPEC road and rail network and thus, to the oil stocks of Persian Gulf. It also serves as a fundamental linkage to China’s troubled Xinjiang province and Beijing’s presence in the region can prevent Islamic fundamentalist forces from Af-Pak from fomenting trouble and secessionist fervour in China.
The Chinese approach focuses on encircling India in a hostile environment and their presence in the illegally occupied Trans-Karakoram Tract and Gilgit-Baltistan region spells trouble for India. Beijing’s approach is unabashedly confrontational and ignores the sovereign case of India over its legitimate domain of Jammu and Kashmir. China’s latest, unprovoked and fatal intrusion in the Galwan Valley in Ladakh is a testimony to its approach of safeguarding its core interests as Aksai Chin serves as the essential link between Tibet and Xinjiang and the infrastructural development by India in terms of road construction activity and revival of airfields along the LAC puts a lot of pressure on Aksai Chin. Similarly, any attempt by India to re-claim its illegally occupied Gilgit-Baltistan would wreak havoc on the former’s dream infrastructural project, CPEC.
Beijing through its unfettered activities in the region eyes control over South Asia and is advancing its hold, trying to alter the demography and geography of Gilgit-Baltistan to suit its own interests. It is pressing Pakistan to make Gilgit-Baltistan its fifth province, as providing constitutional status to the politically bereaved region will provide protection for the CPEC project, the future of which depends on regional peace. This would enable China to advance its grandiose abhorrent dreams of establishing an edge in the region and becoming an enviable power. However, this proposal has not been keenly taken up by many groups like the Legislative Assembly of AJK and separatists of Jammu and Kashmir UT. They believe this will weaken Pakistan’s stand on J&K at the international level as it is incongruent with Islamabad’s strategic agenda and its broader forthright claims on Kashmir. This move, if it takes place, is likely to be seen as recognition of the status quo by Pakistan. The area, thus, might be an “autonomous self-governing region” on paper, but in actuality its constitutional and political position is in a limbo. It has a history of grave political exclusion, no democratic rights, and political ambiguities with its population being subjected to great human rights and socio-economic challenges which the CPEC might even entrench further.
China is a major threat as it is trying to acquire control over territories like Gilgit-Baltistan that are soft-spots of conflicts and trying to unilaterally change the status quo in the region.
Strategically, politically and economically, the global heart of gravity is moving towards Chinese hegemonic tendencies in Gilgit-Baltistan which will strengthen its power and connectivity with regions it has no direct linkages, over-land or by sea. Pakistan is going to act as a mere puppet at the hands of it “big brother”. While taking China’s intentions into consideration, nothing is beyond expectation.
Baltistan, also called “Little Tibet” has a pre-Islamic identity. While Islam is deeply rooted in the Balti consciousness, the pre-Islamic identity that links them to Tibet and Ladakh is undeniable and hence, Chinese latest incursions in the Galwan Valley might also indicate a hidden agenda of gaining a foothold over Ladakh and linking it to Tibet, that is under Chinese illegal occupation and Gilgit-Baltistan, that is under the illegal occupation of Pakistan and the hotspot of China’s growing ambitions by way of huge investments in CPEC. This is surely a possibility, given the fact that China seeks to encircle India and break it up for its own advantage.
Following the Galwan attack, Chinese obstinacy had completely altered the Sino-Indian relationship and New Delhi has to stand tall in the face of the adversary. A tactical manoeuvre has been witnessed in the recent past with more and more references being made to the region and making it an important context of India’s security and policy circles. While India’s position in the past on the domain was abstruse, the lack of consensus among the leadership being an important factor responsible for this, the contemporary leadership is highlighting its rightful control over the region. What India needs now on this matter is a concerted, pre-meditated and calculated approach to safeguard the strategic region which is its rightful territory and maintain its sovereignty in the face of the threat it faces from Sino-Pak strategic engagement and the construction of CPEC, mainly. Its approach if planned advantageously will give India a direct link to the energy-rich republics of Central Asia, scuttle China’s ambitious star project CPEC and counter and stymie its possible Tibet-Baltistan-Ladakh angle. It would also jettison Pakistan’s direct land access with China and destabilize it by delivering a decisive blow on its domestic and foreign security strategy.
Accordingly, India needs to adopt an approach to back its diplomatic discourse with military preparedness as it’s reclaiming of control over Gilgit-Baltistan will be India’s endgame in the geo-strategic issue concerning Jammu and Kashmir, furthermore, putting a stop on China’s key passage to the world’s vital asset, the energy resource base. It is thus, fundamental for New Delhi to assert its political and military control over Gilgit-Baltistan and put an end to the shadow-boxing ties that it shares with Pakistan on this matter. The way forward is to, thus, adopt diplomatic pressure, military capability, strategic capacity and political will.
This would make India credibly stronger and help it emerge as a significant player in the South Asian geopolitical and economic setting. In the present scenario, thus, it is imperative for India to keep its side strong and the global discourse in its favour, for which it needs to adopt a substantive rather than merely a rhetorical position, by maintaining a consistent approach and not underestimating the threat the Sino-Pakistan nexus and Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan is bound to have. If the CPEC is a success, China and Pakistan will jointly sit on the geo-strategic throne with Pakistan’s illegal occupation turning into “fait accompli”.
Moreover, India’s strategic conundrum has to be managed well by allying with friendly neighbours and handling the situation pre-emptively in South Asia.
USA and Russia might also get greatly engaged in the regional politics, given their bettering bilateral relations with New Delhi and the world’s discontent with China over the COVID-19 pandemic, to disrupt the processes unfolding in the region under consideration and newer strategic alliances may unfold in the times to come. Thus, with China acting out of line and raking up issues pertaining to India’s domestic matters and further, expanding and deepening its ruthless activities in creating troubled waters for India, both regionally and globally, New Delhi’s diplomatically engineered tactical punch would be a welcome move in times of emerging uncertainties about China’s unruly and anarchic misdoings. This is an opportune moment for India, hence, to support the countries against a hegemonic China that seeks to advance a world in a mould that suits its needs and designs and reclaim its illegally occupied strategic territory of Gilgit-Baltistan.
(The author is a graduate in History from Miranda House, University of Delhi and currently pursuing Masters in Politics and International Relations from Pondicherry University. )