Pakistan moves to secure strategic ties with China

Like Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, Gilgit Baltistan – which had been part of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir during British rule – is not formally part of Pakistan and is not under the jurisdiction of the Pakistani constitution. There are no representatives from Gilgit Baltistan in the Pakistani parliament or federal government institutions.

A report has been published by the Urdu-language daily Roznama Bang-e-Sahar, a newspaper distributed in Gilgit Baltistan on December 13, 2011, less than three weeks after the November 26, 2011 NATO raid on a Pakistani border post that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. (It should be noted here that the May 2, 2011 Abbottabad operation, in which the US killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was seen in Pakistan as a violation of its sovereignty. Following the unilateral US raid, the Pakistani government and military leaders are implementing a series of economic and military policies to bolster Pakistan’s strategic relationship with China.)

The Roznama Bang-e-Sahar report stated: ‘In the backdrop of the deteriorating situation in Pakistan and strained relations with America, deliberations have begun [on a proposal] to hand over Gilgit Baltistan to China on a 50-year lease.  A Chinese think tank has also given the green light for this move.’

The report, which originated with an Islamabad dateline, surmised that international powers – that is, the US and its allies – want to foment terror attacks in Gilgit Baltistan in order to watch China by sending a counter-terrorism force there.

It stated: ‘According to extremely reliable sources, amid the growing conflict in the Pakistani tribal areas, NATO forces’ operations and the conflict in relations with America, international powers are planning to turn Gilgit Baltistan into a base of terrorism in order to keep an eye on China [possibly by being present in Gilgit Baltistan on the pretext of carrying out anti-terror operations].’

The Urdu daily added: ‘Smelling the [emerging] situation and in order to protect Gilgit Baltistan from international conspiracies, the think tanks of China and Pakistan have begun discussions to hand over this region to the control of China on lease. In the first stage of this plan, China will formulate a strategy for development projects and in the name of working on them will gradually take over the control of this region. In the next stage, China will take Gilgit Baltistan under its total control for 50 years and deploy its troops there.’

The Roznama Bang-e-Sahar report acquires importance in view of the five-day visit to China by Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani on January 4-8, 2012. During a meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao in Beijing, General Kayani said that the development of a China-Pakistan strategic partnership is the ‘cornerstone of the two countries’ policies.’ In his remarks, the Chinese premier said that ‘the Chinese government and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] would continue to strengthen defence cooperation between the two countries and more frequent military to military exchanges.

The report about the move to hand over Gilgit Baltistan to China comes amid earlier reports that Chinese soldiers are already present in Gilgit Baltistan. In August 2010, a report in The New York Times revealed the presence of ‘an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army’ in Gilgit Baltistan. Indian Army generals have also warned in recent months that Chinese troops are present not only in Gilgit Baltistan but also inside Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, which is known as Azad (free) Jammu & Kashmir.

In April 2011, Lt.-Gen. K. T. Parnaik of the Indian Army warned that Chinese troops are not only stationed in Gilgit Baltistan but are also present inside Pakistani Kashmir along the Line of Control (LoC) which divides Jammu & Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Speaking at a seminar, Lt.-Gen. Parnaik stated: ‘We hear many people today who are concerned about the complicity of the Chinese if there were to be hostilities between India and Pakistan. Not only because they are in the neighbourhood but the fact that they are actually stationed and present on the LoC.’

In October 2011, Indian Army Chief General V K Singh warned that 4,000 Chinese troops are present in Pakistani Kashmir, stating: ‘There are certain construction working teams, a large number is available. Around 3,000 to 4,000 of these people are present including certain people for security purposes. There are certain engineer troops.’

The report in The New York Times regarding the presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit Baltistan was also confirmed by Kashmiri researcher and author Dr Shabir Choudhry, who led a team of researchers to Gilgit Baltistan in October 2010. Following his research in Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistani Kashmir, Dr Choudhry delivered a series of lectures in the UK, addressing the implications of China’s increasing presence in Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistani Kashmir, and warning of the likelihood that the region could emerge as a battleground for military confrontation between China and Pakistan on one side and India and the United States on the other. The following are excerpts from two of his lectures:

‘Some people…claim that only Indian-administered Kashmir is disputed. In our view that is a distortion of the facts, as the Kashmir dispute is political in nature, and the entire State of Jammu & Kashmir, which includes Jammu, Valley, Laddakh, Azad Kashmir, and Gilgit Baltistan, is disputed.

‘Hitherto there were only three parties to the Kashmir dispute, namely the people of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan, and India. Over the recent past some quarters are working hard to make the Republic of China a party to the dispute. To me this is a very dangerous move which will complicate the dispute further, and could prove to be disastrous for the region, especially for areas of Gilgit Baltistan and northern parts of Pakistan…

‘The Sino-India war of 1962 resulted in Chinese occupation of Kashmiri territory of Aksai Chin. This war brought Pakistan and China closer to each other; and to strengthen that friendship, Pakistan gave away around 2200 square miles of Jammu & Kashmir territory from Gilgit Baltistan to China…

‘China wants to ensure that they have a greater say in the matters of Gilgit Baltistan, and even in matters of Pakistan. They want to ensure that they not only have access but control of the route to Gwadar [the Chinese-built port on Baluchistan cost], where they have invested billions of dollars.

‘There is a big Chinese presence in Gilgit Baltistan. Apparently they are involved in the construction of many mega projects, but the presence of the Chinese army and their designs to take control of this region is worrying to many. Not only are they opening Chinese banks there and building infrastructure by investing billions of dollars, they are secretly and assertively taking control of the region. When we visited the region… [in October 2010] we saw many Chinese there, which included army men. In the past, they used to come for development work, and lived in temporary shelters, and went back after completing their tasks; but now they are here to stay and have built concrete accommodation.’

Tufail Ahmad