At the end of last year, statements were made by the Indian Army Chief, General V.K. Singh about the presence of Chinese Peoples Liberation Army [PLA] troops in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. And in true colonial style, emerged reports that Pakistan might lease the Northern Areas [(NA)- India terms this as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir] to China for 50 years! So if China is planning to stay put in the region, its troops will have to march across the Karakoram Highway.
Chinas interest lies in the geography that links coastal city of Gwadar to the Himalayan Kashgar region on the Chinese border, and the resources and market of 180m people along the route.
To put things in perspective, it is necessary to highlight the areas in which the Chinese already have a foot in the Northern Areas of Pakistan [what India calls Pakistan Occupied Kashmir]. First of all for Beijing, POK is a geo-strategic card, just as Kashmir was to colonial Britain. Bordering as it does the Xinjiang province, China would like to keep a watch on events and in addition, there worry is that since terrorist training camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border and in FATA are sending extremists into their territory, China would like to keep track from a close range of happenings. That is why China now seeks to establish military bases in the FATA, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas or in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region that borders China.
The next aspect of note is that Beijing is a fair weather friend for Islamabad. And therefore, economic investments in Pakistan and more importantly in NA are contextually important. China’s interest lies in the geography that links coastal city of Gwadar to the Himalayan Kashgar region on the Chinese border, and the resources and market of 180m people along the route. This is precisely why the Karakoram Highway is there. Construction of the Karakoram highway commenced in 1959 and ended in 1979.
The highway is the best example of the partnership between both sides and during Kargil it was reported that Bejing moved some of Pakistan’s nuclear assets via this route to safekeeping in Xinjiang. Senior PLA commanders were also present in GHQ Rawalpindi when the Northern Light Infantry moved into the unoccupied heights of Kargil in 1999.
The highway is the best example of the partnership between both sides and during Kargil it was reported that Bejing moved some of Pakistans nuclear assets via this route to safekeeping in Xinjiang.
Writing in the New York Times, Selig Harrison argues that it takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf whereas if there is a high speed rail or road link the time taken to transport cargo across the Karakoram highway in 48 hours. The aim would be to get to the Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours. The reverse could also work in terms of oil being shipped to mainland China though the costs would quite high. The conclusion is that Beijing wants the NA for economic reasons.
Using the land option to transport cargo and oil across the Khunjareb pass, might never quite match the capacity of the sea lanes, given the topography and the existing carrying capacity of the railroad. According to one analysis on the internet, the costs of “moving oil from Ras al-Tanura to Gwadar and then by rail into the heartland of China would likely cost closer to US$8.00 to US$12.40 per barrel, making that route economically uncompetitive, as well as limited in capacity.”1 This of course would not include the cost of building a rail link between Kashgar and Islamabad. Therefore, this remains a future project but worth watching given the Chinese panache for thinking big!
What China is doing is “˜integrating the NA into its sphere of influence by political and economic support and assistance. In this manner, Pakistan is getting the support it needs for its claim to the region.
Apart from roadways, China has invested heavily in infrastructure, telecom, rail links and tourism. Not only is Beijing investing funds in the upgradation of the Karakoram highway, but it is also planning to build rail links to the NA. It is also working on hydro-electric projects in the area. Chinese telecom company, China Mobile, is a player in PoK and parts of Gilgit-Baltistan and is now planning to maximise its coverage by setting up more cell towers and sites. A joint venture named Pakistan-China Sust Port Company is managing the Sust dry port, some 200 km from Gilgit on Karakoram highway along China border.
What China is doing is ‘integrating’ the NA into its sphere of influence by political and economic support and assistance. In this manner, Pakistan is getting the support it needs for its claim to the region. This assistance also helps Islamabad move ahead on the path of development. The diplomatic consequences of this strategy were made visible to India when Beijing began issuing stapled visas to residents of Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh, which, significantly, are not issued to POK residents. There were no stapled vias for the the “Chief Minister” of Gilgit-Baltistan and the “Prime Minister” of the so-called “Azad Kashmir” when they accompanied President Zardari to Xinjiang in September 2011!
In the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake in POK, the Chinese PLA sent several teams for the purpose of reconstruction and rehabilitation. There are over 14 projects under this scheme with Chinese investments. Chinese construction and telecommunication companies have obtained contracts to expand the Karakoram highway, construct tunnels and mega dams at Diamer Bhasa, Bunji and Skardu. Analysts are forecasting the negative environmental impact of the hydro-electricity plants in the NA and the tunnels being constructed for this and other purposes. Diversionary tunnels built under the mountain walls it is said will lead to erosion and avalanches.
The PLA aims to effectively counter the Muslim separatists based in FATA who undertake cross-border terrorist operations in Xinjiang. The Chinese Muslim rebels want the creation of an independent Islamic state and are allegedly being trained in Pakistans tribal areas.
What is the Chinese strategic rationale to establish military bases in POK? The Chinese strategy is to get access to the Arabian Sea and to curb Islamic fundamentalism that threatens the stability and security of Xinjiang. The PLA aims to effectively counter the Muslim separatists based in FATA who undertake cross-border terrorist operations in Xinjiang. The Chinese Muslim rebels want the creation of an independent Islamic state and are allegedly being trained in Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Is it possible that apart from survey teams, engineering experts and the like, the Chinese have police and intelligence personnel to keep watch on developments in militant Islam? In addition, the presence of such personnel will help the ISI keep track of home grown militant entities. The second aspect is that Selig Harrison claims that some 7,000-11,000 PLA personnel are present in NA.
It is reported that a battalion of PLA soldiers was deployed at the Khunjerab Pass straddling the border between Tibet and Balawaristan as part of construction of a railroad to Gwadar, Ormara & Pasni on the Pakistani Arabian Sea coast. Since the PLA has been involved in construction of roads and rail works in such areas, it is safe to assume that the PLA is present in large numbers under the garb of construction activities. One assumption based on the satellite pictures of several tunnels, at various places, along with convoys of trucks and activities at road construction in Gilgit-Baltistan. It could well be that these tunnels are meant for the Khunjareb railway. But media reports suggest that this project is not likely to take off any soon.
The other option is that the PLA personnel are preparing to occupy the 22 tunnels that are being constructed in the NA, where apparently even local Pakistanis are barred. This suggests that China is constructing missile silos for the Pakistan Army with nuclear warheads, of Chinese origins.
In military terms, the move into the NA of Pakistan could have another strategic implication impacting the Indian military. This is the reported cartographic aggression, in real being practiced by the Chinese near the Psangong Lake in Ladakh in the Aksai Chin sector. According to Srikanth Kondapalli of Jawaharlal Nehru University, most of the Chinese aggressions have taken place at the TRIG HEIGHTS. These heights are south of the Chipchap River, comprising Points 5495 and 5459. Southeast of Trig Heights is the Depsang Ridge, which the Chinese are trying to take under their domination.2 This is in line with the series of acts of incursions by the PLA in the Western and Eastern Sector starting in 2009.
Implications for India
When India undertook Operation Meghdoot in 1984 to pre-empt the Pakistani’s from occupying the heights on the Siachen glacier one major concern was that of China connecting to the NA through the territory leased by Islamabad to Beijing in 1963. This lies at the heart of any military move by Beijing to connect the NA to the Persian Gulf for economic and strategic reasons.
But the diplomatic military implications of the recent moves are to be factored in while generating policy responses. Two things are clear. The rebellion within the NA against Islamabad is something that India has to watch out for in terms of support and assistance. But the presence of PLA troops means that physical presence is going to be far more difficult.
Given the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, of trying to reach the Indian Ocean by the forcible occupation of Kabul, the question arises; does Beijing need the access to the Gulf more than Pakistan?
The Chinese presence in the NA has the following implications for India.
- India has maintained that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India. By getting the Chinese to invest in those occupied areas, like the NA, Islamabad has gone a step ahead and could probably count on political support on its stand on Kashmir. All the recent Chinese moves clearly have to do with India’s position on Jammu and Kashmir, and with its policy towards Pakistan. This will call for sustained diplomatic effort over a period of time to reduce the gains of this posture to Pakistan.
- China gains enormously, both in terms of economics, as its companies make money in the NA and AJK. They also gain political support from a compliant Pakistan on several global matters.
- India has the problem of monitoring Chinese presence in POK. It does not have enough assets in the region and will have to depend on Western Intelligence sources. Its Technical assets could definitely be useful and have probably been activated.
- Another way is to view the challenge as emanating from Xinjiang. Could India build its assets there to see what cross-border traffic is taking place, both legal and illegal across the Kashgar region.
- In military terms the Chinese moves to occupy territory or heights is part of the calculated strategy to caliberate the level of any Indian response and to actually occupy the land.
- Given the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, of trying to reach the Indian Ocean by the forcible occupation of Kabul, the question arises; does Beijing need the access to the Gulf more than Pakistan? Or is one going to benefit from the other. The latter is more likely.
- One should also look at literature on Chinese PLA military tactics in mountainous regions [read NA], on boxing India from Aksai Chin and NA.
Given these facts, some serious soul searching has to be done within the portals of power in New Delhi.
- Gabe Collins and Andrew Erickson, “Still a Pipedream: A Pakistan-to-China rail corridor is not a substitute for maritime transport ,” China SignPost™ (洞察中国), No. 13 (22 December 2010).
- Cited in V.K. Shashikumar, No War, No Peace, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 47, Dated November 27, 2010, http://www.tehelka.com/story_main47.asp?filename=Ne271110Coverstory.asp