- April 18, 2020,
China treats the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan as Pakistan’s internal matter.
The ambition to find itself a legitimate place in the Indian Ocean is requiring China to establish permanent military bases on the Pakistani coastline.
These bases will be linked to China’s western province of Xinjiang through a web of rail and road networks which are being built through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B). China has christened this framework of regional connectivity as China-Pakistan-Economic-
Many countries ambivalent about China’s true intentions are wary of investing in CPEC, since it passes through territories with contested sovereignty like Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), and could lead to unnecessary rivalry with India.
India perceives China’s activities in Pakistan as having a pincer effect on its economic growth, since China’s naval bases in Balochistan threaten India’s oil and gas supply, while the presence of units of People’s Liberation Army in G-B dampens India’s goals to revive historic commercial connections with the Central Asian Republics.
Notwithstanding India’s links with G-B, China treats the disputed territory as Pakistan’s internal matter. Despite India’s objections, Beijing regularly invites the Chief Ministers and Governors of G-B as part of Pakistan’s official delegations.
Further, China’s state media often refers to G-B as Pakistan’s Northern Province. In 2009, both countries declared Kashgar and Gilgit as sister cities to enhance secretarial coordination and now plan to take the relationship to the next level by proclaiming G-B and Xinjiang as sister provinces.
It is believed that China’s strategic dividends in South Asia will shoot up once Pakistan introduces reforms to extend sovereignty to G-B, as this will help protect Chinese investments and muffle international criticism against troop placement.
US officials warn that CPEC’s debt will hamstring Pakistan’s growth potential. During a recent trip to Pakistan, Alice Wells, the US Assistant Secretary for South-Central Asia, showed concern over lack of transparency, as many firms blacklisted by the World Bank have secured CPEC-related contracts. Studies show that CPEC contributes to glacier-loss and climate change, and hurt the interests of local resource owners.
There is a deep sense of insecurity among the people of G-B as Pakistan and China dictate the terms to locals and deprive them of decision-making and adequate revenue-share in CPEC-related projects. In most instances, locals are forced to vacate private land for CPEC projects and builders are found reluctant to compensate the affected families for their land loss.
While examining in relation to Xinjiang, where Muslims face genocide and displacement, locals in G-B are apprehensive about the impact of CPEC on their culture and religious identity. G-B is the only physical connection between Pakistan and China and a discontent among the locals will easily jeopardise CPEC’s success; something China or Pakistan cannot afford.
G-B is a predominantly Shia territory and portions of CPEC pass through districts like Nagar which have a hundred per cent Shia population. Local Shias venerate the Iranian Ayatollahs, who fund their schools, cultural academies and medical centres. Iranian money has helped locals build irrigation networks and bring clean drinking water to their villages.
Further, Iranian religious universities host thousands of students belonging to G-B. Many Pakistani leaders including the finance minister think that the success of CPEC rests on Pakistan persuading some of its neighbours like Iran to join the mega initiative. Such a development could help China exploit Iran’s soft power to placate the locals of G-B and allay their fears. Tehran’s participation in CPEC will be a net gain for Pakistan if it ameliorates China’s potential to steer Iran away from India.
To summarise, G-B holds huge potential to weave a sustainable strategic relationship between Pakistan, China and Iran, with far reaching implications for the globe.
Pakistan is undertaking administrative measures to lay down a governance structure in G-B that will revive colonialism; and in the name of shared sovereignty, will muffle international criticism against CPEC.
The western world should refrain from accepting such reforms which are masked as mainstreaming regional empowerment but in reality disenfranchise the locals.
Pakistan accepting Beijing’s role in G-B is the first step in formally acknowledging China’s legitimate presence in the Indian Ocean