Pakistan Reader# 140, 27 October 2020
The China- Pakistan Economic Corridor ( CPEC) remains one of the largest Chinese interests in Gilgit-Baltistan. Its investment in CPEC is related to its quest to develop its western provinces like Xinjiang and Tibet and connecting them with the west. But for Beijing, there are strategic interests as well, vis-a-vis India.Nishant Agarwal
The Sino-Pakistan relationship goes back to more than half a century now, and there have been significant Chinese investments and infrastructure built with Chinese assistance in all the Pakistani provinces. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which remains the largest Chinese overseas investment till date has further intensified these ties and have resulted in furthering the Chinese interests in Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan has though historically failed to capture much of limelight and investments, has served various Chinese interests both before and after the signing of the CPEC.
Chinese interests in pre-CPEC Gilgit-Baltistan
Gilgit-Baltistan serves as the entry point for the 1300 km Karakoram Highway, which runs through the Khunjerab pass and a significant part of the highway lies within Gilgit-Baltistan. The Highway has remained one of the most significant projects signifying the friendship of the two countries and has served various Chinese interests in the past. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, it is through this highway that the Chinese supported the anti-Soviet Afghan Mujahideen by providing them with military equipment and support. Uyghurs were trained in Xinjiang along with Taliban and deployed in Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets. (Bonnie Girard, "How 1980 laid the Groundwork for China's Major Foreign Policy Challenges," The Diplomat,12 September 2018)
Pakistan with all-weather connectivity and strengthened military capabilities has always been in the Chinese interest to counter the Indian threat. The Jaglot-Skardu strategic highway was therefore built and modernized by the Chinese to serve this interest of theirs. (Monika Chansoria, "Red Footprints in Gilgit-Baltistan China's expanding presence in PoK," Centre for Land Warfare Studies, 15 December 2010)
Terrorism, separatism and religious extremism have been regarded as the "Three Evils" by the Chinese, and since Gilgit-Baltistan lies next to the restive Xinjiang Province which suffers from an ongoing Uyghur separatist movement, the Chinese have been apprehensive of the drug trafficking and the support by some sections within Pakistan to the East Turkestan Independence Movement and the spread of extremism into Xinjiang through the Karakorum Highway and Gilgit-Baltistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan has also troubled the Chinese through its presence between the "Golden Crescent" of drug trafficking and the spread of HIV/AIDS in Xinjiang among the Han Chinese which was facilitated through this route. ("Golden Crescent' drug plagues China's northwest," Xinhua, 1 September 2007).
Chinese interests in post-CPEC Gilgit-Baltistan
Before examining Chinese interests in Gilgit-Baltistan post the signing of CPEC related pacts, it needs to be ascertained that the Gwadar port remains the chief infrastructural project within this huge $62 billion Chinese overseas investment. As Gilgit-Baltistan remains the sole entry point into Pakistan through land and all highway and rail projects under construction are intended to reach Gwadar; its security remains of utmost importance to the Chinese.
The Chinese interests in Gilgit-Baltistan and its investment in CPEC are related to its quest to develop its western provinces like Xinjiang and Tibet and to connect them with the West. Thus, through CPEC, these provinces get connected to West Asia and Africa, bypassing the need to go through the significantly longer and strategically tense sea route. This route thus ensures China's energy security, development of its restive western provinces through their integration into the regional economy and the broader Belt and Road Initiative; and provides with sufficient strategic advantage too. (Samir Tata, "Deconstructing China's Energy Security Strategy," The Diplomat, 14 January 2017)
Through its cooperation with the Pakistanis in counterterrorism, it has been able to curb what it terms as Uyghur extremism in the Xinjiang province, as significant Uyghur minorities remain in Gilgit-Baltistan and other parts of Pakistan and have found support for their cause and activities. Pakistani law enforcement agencies and the military have carried out raids and operations in the past against Uyghur militants affiliated to the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM). (Zahid Gishkori, "Pakistan mounts secret raids in hunt for Chinese militants," The News International, 3 April 2018)
Initially, investments and projects under the CPEC excluded Gilgit-Baltistan, and there were no major economic and infrastructural projects in Gilgit-Baltistan except the broadening and upgrade of the Karakorum Highway. However, recently there have been several other projects that have added to the Chinese economic interests in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Moqpandass SEZ being built in Gilgit is among the nine major SEZs being built under the CPEC in Pakistan with Chinese help and is stated to boost industrialization in Gilgit and provide employment to the local population. (S M Hali, "SEZ will boost Industrialization," Daily Times, 24 September 2020)
The Diamer Bhasha Dam is yet another big-ticket project being built by China Power and Pakistan Army's Frontier Works Organization and is worth more than $8.3 billion. China is supposed to hold a 70 per cent stake in the project, and it strengthens the Chinese commitment to reinforce Pakistan's electricity crisis and subsequently have greater influence as its control would require the stationing of PLA personnel in Gilgit-Baltistan to strengthen Pakistan's capabilities. In the quest to have the later, the Chinese have been trying to rope in the Iranians too since Gilgit-Baltistan remains a Shia- majority region and the existence of Iranian influence on the population. (Senge H Sering, "China Strengthening Military Base In Gilgit-Baltistan By Constructing Mega Infrastructures, Say Activists," BW Businessworld, 17 July 2020)
Strategic interests and the demand for provincial status
China for a long period has strengthened Pakistan's military capabilities to have a strategic advantage over India. For which it has been helping the Pakistanis with the construction of tunnels in Gilgit-Baltistan which can be used for storing missiles and military equipment under the disguise of building infrastructure for its gas pipelines under CPEC. (Selig S Harrison, "China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands," The New York Times, 26 August 2010)
Further, Chinese fighter aircraft have been spotted at the Skardu airbase in Gilgit-Baltistan recently. The base provides the Chinese with an opportunity to reach the Indian bases in Ladakh faster, as its bases in the western theatre command are situated relatively farther and at higher altitudes which makes it difficult to have operations from the same. (Harsh V Pant and Angad Singh, "Rafale Jets Won't Save India's Air Force," Foreign Policy, 10 August 2020)
Security of the above investment remains one of China's greatest concerns, and it has been demanding the Pakistanis to provide Gilgit-Baltistan with the provincial status now for a decade and a half. However, post- CPEC these demands have increased as the number of projects have increased, and there have been several attacks on Chinese projects and personnel in the past in Pakistan. The disputed nature of the region and the Chinese intent to decouple it from the Kashmir issue is another reason why it has been calling for the transformation of Gilgit-Baltistan into a province. Besides these, the Chinese also seek to use the Shia-majority region as a buffer between Xinjiang and the Sunni Islamic fundamentalists in the rest of Pakistan and Afghanistan. (Hamna Tariq, "Gilgit-Baltistan: China's Golden Opportunity," The Stimson Centre, 8 October 2020)
About the author
Nishant Agarwal is enrolled with the NIAS Certificate Course on Contemporary Pakistan. He is a postgraduate in International Studies at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His research focus includes Pakistan's security issues and economy.