Pakistan has recently unleashed two major territorial reconfigurations: one, the process to merge Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(KP), earlier known as NWFP; and the second, the move to incorporate Gilgit Baltistan (GB) as the fifth province of the country. Since India claims entire J&K, of which GB is the largest geographical entity, the proposition is illegal. It also kills the Pakistani propaganda of J&K being a disputed territory.
…Pakistan has always treated the territory its own, and separate from PoK. For Pakistan, the status of GB, then known as Northern Areas was sealed by the Karachi accord of 1949 wherein there was not a single member from GB.
FATA was created in late 19th century as a consequence of the Great Game. In fact, the Durand Line, the device to divide the Pushtuns, was engendered by the threat of Russians rolling down into India through Afghanistan, gathering Pushtuns as part of the invading machine. Concomitantly, the Gilgit Agency was also created by the British in 1877 .
Durand Line+ FATA+ Gilgit Agency was a late 19th century strategic construct imposed by the British to protect, the jewel in the crown, India. Ironically, 150 years down the line, the same strategic construct is being dismantled and reconfigured for the legitimacy and security of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
China has been breathing down the neck of Pakistani dispensation to establish enduring legitimacy for the GB territory claimed by India, and technically declared ‘disputed’ by Pakistan. The Chinese being careful and shrewd investors are skeptical while pouring 60 billion dollars in CPEC, a project that traverses through GB, a territory with unsettled ownership
Nevertheless, and in reality, Pakistan since its inception, never suffered from ambivalence or ambiguity about the status of GB. It has always treated the territory its own, and separate from PoK. For Pakistan, the status of GB, then known as Northern Areas was sealed by the Karachi accord of 1949 wherein there was not a single member from GB. It was separated from PoK and came direct under Pakistan’s control. The area covers 75 percent (72,496 sq km) of 78,000 sq km that Pakistan occupied illegally. The name Northern Areas was first used by United Nations to refer to the Northern Areas of Kashmir. The UN never intended the name to refer to northern areas of Pakistan. The western block was party to Pakistani machinations and never objected, but strangely India too kept quiet.
The disputed status of GB, as far as Pakistan is concerned, was only on paper, and for international consumption. In turn, the western world, particularly Britain and the US, conspired to ensure that the territory of GB, remains under the control of Pakistan. This was because, geo-strategically and geo-politically, Pakistan was better positioned to further their strategic interests. At the height of the Cold War, American U2 spy aircraft carried out clandestine operations from Peshawar, an area contiguous to GB.
Now that the CPEC has been rolled out, the geostrategic context of GB has changed. The CPEC is not merely an economic corridor. It is a strategic thrust by China in the Persian Gulf region.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union did try to contest US geostrategic designs and manipulations with regard to GB, and in the larger context, J&K. In that, in the international arena it bolstered the Indian claim by putting its weight through ‘veto power.’ After the loss of war of the Soviet Forces by the US and Pak sponsored jihadis in Afghanistan, and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the world became unipolar, with US as the sole power. The victory of the US however did not mean any waning of strategic interest in GB. In fact, in deference to its vital strategic interest in GB, it began to address every related facet even more aggressively—the related facets being the Valley and its protégé, Hurriyat. In that period CPEC was nowhere on the horizon. Notwithstanding this, even then, the acute interest of China with regard to GB was palpable owing to the Karakoram Highway. The American design in GB suited Pakistan, as it provided an umbrella to wage proxy war against India. In turn, the destabilized status of J&K gave fresh geopolitical maneuverability to the US in the subcontinent after the Cold War. Proxy War, terrorism, separatism and Hurriyat were the tools of destabilization.
Now that the CPEC has been rolled out, the geostrategic context of GB has changed. The CPEC is not merely an economic corridor. It is a strategic thrust by China in the Persian Gulf region. The Pak military is wedded to the CPEC. For the US, it has consequences on the geopolitics of the Gulf Region and the international oil politics. The strategic challenge and stakes for the US are enormous, because so far it has been the unrivalled power in the region. Sherry Rehman, the leader of opposition in Pakistan Assembly speaking in CPEC 2018 summit pitched CPEC and BRI beyond Gulf Region. She says: ‘’ By linking Atlantic to the Pacific through BRI, President Xi , China is poised to redefine the global economic order as we know it, and change the way we think about the world. As the tracks for new global connectivity reframe human enterprise, with Gwadar as its launching pad, and Malacca not the only option, China becomes a two-ocean power. This is both commercially relevant and strategically significant.’’
Hence, the US cannot afford to compromise its strategic standing in the region. It will certainly contest the CPEC with every possible means covert and overt. Proxy war after all is not the monopoly of Pakistan. It has made enough internal and external enemies. China too has no dearth of external adversaries. The Baloch have never accepted Pakistan. Avery large segment of Pushtuns hate the Pakistani State and subscribe to Pushtun nationalism. The Shias of GB despise Pakistan because they feel that the State is for Sunnis and their land has been parceled to China by the ‘ Punjabi Military.’ All these elements are opposed to the CPEC. It is for this reason that the Pakistani dispensation, specially the China backed Pak military, has taken the decision to merge FATA with KP. This is a sort of safeguard against the use of Pushtuns, victim of Pak military, by external powers against the CPEC.
The Shias of GB despise Pakistan because they feel that the State is for Sunnis and their land has been parceled to China by the ‘ Punjabi Military.’
Chinese officials are already in talks with Baloch freedom fighters for last four years, and have been offering money to buy their support for CPEC. China prevailed upon Pakistan to replace the provincial government in Balochistan with one which is’ CPEC- friendly.’ The merger of FATA with KP and the move to turn GB into fifth province has been driven by the exigencies of CPEC. Also, the Pak Amy has raised a Division size force, operationally devoted to the security of the CPEC. If Sherry Rehman is to be believed, the CPEC has already generated 60,000 jobs, and the corridor will boost the GDP by 15 percent by 2030. Such Pakistani expectations are scary. One major scare for Pakistan as far CPEC is concerned is India, owing to its claim on Gilgit-Baltistan.
The principal strategic focus of China is on GB. Valley, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Masood Azhar are mere pawns towards realization of the larger objective of CPEC. CPEC is the lynchpin of Belt Road Initiative (BRI). For China, in the international reckoning, the CPEC is the test case. Naeem Akhtar, the PWD minister of J&K recently stated in an interview that the principal player in the state is China.
It is possible that impelled by the imperative of security and legitimacy of the CPEC, China is keen to broker a deal between India and Pakistan which amounts to sealing the territorial status quo which amounts to Pak formalizing its occupation of GB in return for Pak recognizing India held territory in J&K as Indian. The Pakistan decision to incorporate GB as the fifth province should be seen in this backdrop. As the other adjunct, it is quite possible the latest moves for ceasefire on LoC has been brokered by China in deference to CPEC.