Pakistan cedes de facto control of Gilgit to China

In a New York Times op-ed Aug. 26, "China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands," Selig S. Harrison of the Center for International Policy writes that Islamabad has effectively handed over de facto control of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to Beijing. Although the region is largely closed to the outside world, Harrison cites reports indicating a "simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army." He describes the development as "a quiet geopolitical crisis" in the Himalayan borderlands of contested Kashmir.

Harrison sees Beijing's long-term strategic designs in South Asia behind the move:

China wants a grip on the region to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan. It takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.

The article suggests that the PLA forces in the region will be working on the "infrastructure projects," including the rail line and extending the Karakoram Highway, which will link China's Xinjiang province with Pakistan. There may also be secret military projects:

Mystery surrounds the construction of 22 tunnels in secret locations where Pakistanis are barred. Tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Himalayas through Gilgit. But they could also be used for missile storage sites.

Harrison states that "Gilgit and Baltistan are in fact under military rule," denied even the limited moves towards democracy that have been implemented in the rest of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir (dubbed by Islamabad "Azad [Free] Kashmir." He asserts that the US can "play a moderating role in Kashmir" through "quiet diplomacy":

Washington should press New Delhi to resume autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. Success would put pressure on Islamabad for comparable concessions in Free Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan, Washington should focus on getting Islamabad to stop aiding the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and to give New Delhi a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan.

Experts in India say that this development may explain recent actions by the Chinese such as the stapling of visas on passports belonging to residents of Kashmir, and more recently, Beijing's decision to refuse a visa for the Indian army’s Northern Command chief Lt Gen BS Jaswal for a planned high-level meeting, apparently on the grounds that he was in charge of Kashmir.

In a commentary on the op-ed, the Economic Times of India Aug. 29 writes that the revelation "shows a clear pro-Pakistan tilt on Kashmir by China. This is in contrast to the stand taken by Beijing during [the 1999] Kargil war when Beijing did not respond positively to Islamabad's call for support." This is "a development that would raise New Delhi’s concerns," the commentary states rather obviously. China has open designs on Indian-controlled territory in the Himalayas (e.g. Arunachal Pradesh).

See our last posts on China, Pakistan, India and the Great Game for Central Asia

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