Published: December 12, 2017
The writer is a retired brigadier and currently commissioner of the Afghan Refugees Organisation, Balochistan
Gilgit-Baltistan is bounded in the north by the Wakhan strip in Afghanistan and the Xinjiang province of China and on the south and southeast by the India-Occupied Kashmir and on the west by Chitral in K-P. The location makes G-B strategically important for Pakistan, China, the US and India. G-B is as important as it was in 1880s when the Russians occupied Central Asian states and a Russian officer, Colonel Gromechevsky, visited Hunza and his presence there was taken as the start of the great game.
Historically, the Silk Route connected China with Central Asian states and the Mediterranean Sea and there were several routes used from the second century to the fifth century AD. The southern route passed through Hunza then to Hindukush mountains to Afghanistan. In the south, it crossed the Muztag River and after passing through Shimshal connected Hunza. Another route originated from Yarkand, followed a tributary of the Tashkurgan River to the town then either to Wakhan or Khunjrab. It was the Wakhan route that was reached directly from Gilgit, Chilas or Chitral over high passes. The famous Chinese traveller Fa-Hien visited this region in 400AD and passed through Darel Valley (Chilas) into Swat. The state of Hunza also had diplomatic relations with China. Rashkan which is now part of China was earlier part of the state of Hunza and so was Sarikol in Pamir on the borders of China and Tajikistan. The rulers of Hunza whenever in trouble took refuge in China.
The Silk Route is now replaced by the Karakoram highway. It is a dual carriage all-weather road where border trade with China started in 1967. Since then, people of G-B are in continuous touch with the Chinese region of Xinjiang for business activities and today G-B markets are flooded with Chinese goods.
The importance of G-B increased initially with the construction of Karakoram Highway and now with the start of CPEC would be manifold. CPEC passes through the highway and covers 600kms in G-B. The project is likely to bring a lot of changes in G-B in the areas of infrastructure development, construction of roads and hydropower projects. It would open business development opportunities for the people of G-B and certainly will be a game changer for the whole country.
🔴But there are several threats and challenges to CPEC in G-B which cannot be ignored.📌 Firstly, India will not miss an opportunity to damage CPEC as the country has a so-called claim on G-B and opposes the project terming it to be passing through a disputed territory. Recently, a member of Indian Lok Sabha moved a bill for allotting reserved seats for G-B in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. The IOK assembly already has 24 reserved seats for G-B. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee of Pakistan, General Zubair Mahmood, also recently confirmed that India has established a special cell at a cost of $500 million to sabotage CPEC. India is trying its level best to exploit the vulnerabilities of G-B to damage CPEC, as it also wants to keep hegemony in South Asia and hence, does not want to see a stable and developed Pakistan.
📌Secondly, G-B’s geographical proximity with Afghanistan through Wakhan signifies the importance of CPEC. But this strip can be used as a launching pad for terrorist activities by hostile elements by using the passes of Hindukush and Pamir. The possibility of terrorist activities in G-B cannot be ruled out.
📌Thirdly, the US too has serious concerns on the growing economy of China and therefore they want to contain China. Recently, the US secretary of defence termed CPEC disputed as it passes through disputed territory thereby supporting the so-called Indian claim on G-B. The US is afraid of China controlling Central Asian, the Middle Eastern, Eurasian states and exploiting their resources. Thus, it wants to contain China from becoming the world’s largest economy and its influence in the region. In fact, at the US National Defence University, CPEC has been included as a full-fledged subject for studies.
📌Fourthly, the hostile elements in the region can exploit the sectarian issue in G-B as it has a known history of sectarian turbulence and this remains a major threat, and any odd incident can trigger sectarian clashes.
📌Fifthly, there are also small sub-nationalist groups in G-B with different demands though they do not enjoy any significance in the area. Some dissident groups from abroad are running a campaign to instigate locals against CPEC and Pakistan. The ambiguous status of G-B is the major issue which is being exploited. The so-called nationalists are also using the issue of constitutional status of G-B to pollute the minds of the people. It is very unique that the people of G-B liberated their land from the Indian Army without any external help and volunteered to join Pakistan on November 1st 1947. But the people do not have any representation in Parliament and are demanding to be declared constitutional citizens of Pakistan with G-B being made the fifth province of the country.
📌Sixthly, because of CPEC with the passage of time G-B is likely to face serious environmental issues like air pollution, glacier melting, soil erosion and waste disposal. This issue needs to be studied in time and plan must be made to protect the environment.
📌Seventhly, there are rumours that the government is shifting the Sost dry port to Havelian in K-P. Sost has been a historical centre of trade activities because of its close proximity to Kilik Mintaka Pass, Misgar and Chuparsan valley. This move will adversely affect already established local businesses as thousands of jobs will be lost along with many business activities in the area. Already the people of G-B consider that they are getting very little from the project and such measures will add to their grievances.
Considering that CPEC will transform Pakistan’s economy and enhance socioeconomic integration of G-B with the rest of the country, it is important to address these challenges and concerns.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2017