Karakoram Highway: A security challenge for India
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Issue Courtesy: South Asia Monitor | Date : 02 Oct , 2015

Karakoram Highway (KKH) connects Abbottabad in Punjab (Pakistan) to Kashgar, Xinjiang region of China across the Karakoram ranges. India has five mountain ranges which guard its northern frontier, namely, Karakoram Range, Zangskar Range, the Ladakh Range, Himalayan Range and the Pir Panjal Range. The Karakoram ranges are the northern most and also form the de facto border along which runs the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Karakoram Highway is the highest paved strategic international road which crosses the Karakoram Range at Khunjerab Pass (15,397’) and is presently a fair weather road. KKH meanders through the Gilgit–Baltistan region (part of Jammu & Kashmir state and presently in illegal occupation of Pakistan). The work is in progress to make it an all-weather road through construction of tunnels, widening of the road to thrice its present specification, construction of bridges and enhancing the load carrying capacity by three times.

KKH and KC serve both political and strategic interests of China and Pakistan. India cannot afford to remain quiet to increased Chinese presence in the disputed Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK).

The highway initially was constructed jointly by Pakistan and China, but its up-gradation is being undertaken by a Chinese company called China Road and Bridge Corporation (CBRC). Consequently, there is large-scale presence of Chinese labour and military troops in the area. The KKH will be linked to the newly- constructed port of Gwadar, built with Chinese aid. This would reduce the distance from the nearest seaport to the land-locked Xinjiang province by 200 km.

It is also proposed to develop KKH into an economic corridor, referred to as the Karakoram Corridor (KC). It would involve up- gradation of KKH into an all-weather expressway, laying of optic fibre cable (OFC) along its entire length, 1,100 km of trans-Karakoram rail link, laying of oil and gas pipelines. KKH and KC serve both political and strategic interests of China and Pakistan. India cannot afford to remain quiet to increased Chinese presence in the disputed Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK). It has obvious implications for India’s security. While China claims it to be part of its economic strategy to revive old trade routes, Indian security experts denounce it as part of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy to encircle India as well as ensure its presence in the strategically important Gilgit-Baltistan region. It is like the case of a half-filled glass. It depends on how the viewer perceives it: half-empty or half-filled? There is no doubt that the Karakoram Corridor would provide China access to the Indian Ocean, thus giving a boost to its trade. But the fact that it can also be used for military purposes to threaten India and de-stabilise the Indian Ocean can not be ignored.

Readers would recall that in the past KKH has been used by China to supply strategic material for production of its nuclear arsenal as well as for supply of long-range missiles. It was also used to equip the Taliban in Afghanistan during their fight against the USSR. Pakistan used it to ship American weapon systems to China for reverse engineering. Thus, KKH poses a great security challenge to India. It can be used for rapid movement of troops and material from China and Pakistan. It can be used for stationing missiles in PoJK. The tunnels would provide enhanced security to these missiles and their deployment can be kept concealed from Indian and international surveillance systems.

PLA Air Force would have the additional benefit of using the air fields in PoJK in case of hostilities with India. The increased Chinese presence in PoJK will act as a hindrance to resolving the Jammu and Kashmir problem.

In case of an India-Pakistan war China can make a “pincer movement” to threaten India and tie down its troops in Ladakh sector. China can also keep an eye on the Indian activities in the region by establishing listening posts and advanced surveillance bases in PoJK. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force would have the additional benefit of using the air fields in PoJK in case of hostilities with us. KKH can also become a lifeline for promoting terrorist activities in the troubled Kashmir region. The increased Chinese presence in PoJK will act as a hindrance to resolving the Jammu and Kashmir problem.

Thus Karakoram Highway (KKH)/ Karakoram Corridor (KC) is the focal point of the Pakistan-China nexus against India and for domination of the region. Pakistan has already illegally ceded to China parts of the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, an integral part of the state of J&K, in Shaksgam Valley and Aksai Chin. Pakistan calls China as its strategic partner and they both have a common enemy, i.e., India.

A new “Great Game” is being played by China in the region to ensure its hold over the strategic region of Gilgit-Baltistan with active connivance of Pakistan. The Indian security establishment cannot turn a blind eye to the happenings in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Saltoro Ridge and Siachen Glacier assume great strategic importance in this context. Under no circumstances should India vacate Siachen Glacier. Our defences in Ladakh sector should be strengthened through rapid development of infrastructure. Re-activation of Daulat Beg Oldi airfield in Ladakh by the Indian Air Force has sent a strong message across. The much needed up- gradation and modernisation of the surveillance systems should be taken on war-footing. Long-range surveillance radars and satellites should be deployed to keep the main arteries in China and PoJK under surveillance. Our Special Forces should be tasked, equipped and trained for interdiction of KKH.

As long as we have an unsettled border with China as well as taking note of China’s military posture in Tibet, India would have to be ready to thwart any Chinese misadventure.

Diplomatically, India should oppose Pakistan’s action of separating Gilgit-Baltistan region from PoJK and making it a separate region directly under the federal government. Any talk on ‘K’ issue must include the Gilgit-Baltistan region with India insisting on its complete vacation by Pakistan. Incidentally, with the region being Shia-dominated it is also a victim of Sunni hegemony in Pakistan. Our relations with other neighbours in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region should be strengthened to negate Chinese influence in the region and to isolate Pakistan.

The Narendra Modi government has already flagged it as a major foreign policy initiative which has begun to yield success.

Similarly, in keeping with Kautilya’s advice that “enemy’s neighbour should be your friend”, India’s relations with countries that border China and Pakistan, like Myanmar, Vietnam, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan and Afghanistan should be friendly and mutually beneficial. Another foreign policy initiative of the Modi government to renew and improve relations with Indian Ocean Rim countries should be pursued with vigour.

Despite recent bonhomie in Sino-Indian relations and the proposed joint military exercise between the two countries India cannot afford to let its guard down. As long as we have an unsettled border with China as well as taking note of China’s military posture in Tibet, India would have to be ready to thwart any Chinese misadventure. Pakistan on the other hand continues to be the breeding ground of terror and an important player of the global jihad against India. It has unleashed a proxy war. Its strategic alliance with China is solely aimed at threatening and destabilising India. Thus, Karakoram Highway and its proposed expansion that provides connectivity to both our hostile neighbours poses a major security challenge.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Brig Anil Gupta

is Jammu-based political commentator, security and strategic analyst. 

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3 thoughts on “Karakoram Highway: A security challenge for India

  1. China presence in pok is something to be worried about.its activity is strongly opose by our previous and currrent leadership in words only that to have never effected heedless china as it assume’ s that we can’t do much in action.its presence in the region is like a thorn in the flesh. Always will remain cause of worry for us. As we need to understand why is china doing. Do it have any real economic angle to built road in such a hoistile terrian where to maintain and keep running of roads is challenge . As we all understand but what to do ? Option is to look at the things how it develops. Developing strike capability and will power to use whenever need.
    To Maintain the route even though would be costly . But purpose to harm india will make it bearable. Its is easy to hit the road and infrastruture at time of conflict . So developing strike capability is more important as damage cause in this desert region will never effect any economic intrest of india. Strike it when required .
    Real cause of worry is to safe guard our sea .

  2. Strategic analyst should have an over all picture before writing any security matters. I do not find anything new in this article. As far as my study goes China is not going to attack us in the near future like in 1962. In 1962 India was not a Naval power . We are a Naval power. All the Chinese ships carrying oil from Gulf country passing through Malacca straight . India can impose Naval blockade near Nicobar Island. We are having powerful missiles which can create considerable damage to their Army installations. More ever they are expanding their defense forces to re-capture Taiwan .Our real enemy is Pakistan. They are very much proud of you nuclear capability. Why did India not provide to Israel even bases for a unilateral strike? The same prime minister was in charge who so triumphantly won the 71 war against Pakistan and conducted India’s first nuclear test. Was it our intelligence agencies that failed us and didn’t advise the PM properly? Was it our armed forces that advised the PM against it for say lack of preparation for another war? Well highly doubt the armed forces were not ready as India had Siachen taken under its control and under Gen Sundarji organized the most massive exercise of the time which almost came to the brink of war.

    The Pakistanis, once they got the F-16s in the eighties immediately warned India of taking out Trombay if India in any way helps Israel or undertook a strike operation itself. Once this threat was conveyed, it completely put Indian leadership in a shell and allowed Pakistan a full decade of unimpeded time to develop the bomb culminating in the 98 tests. If this is the case Army is not responsible I will put blame on IAF. We have procured more than 1000 Mig 21 planes from Russia. If IAF was not confident with Mig 21, we should have asked Israel to help. At that time Israelis had both F-16 A and F- 15A or we should have asked USSR to supply Mig- 25 a few numbers. Army and IAF should have told the civilian Govt. to get S-75 missiles from USSR. USSR used the this missile to shoot down the plane U 2 plane at a height of 70000 thousand feet . So we missed a golden opportunity. People like you should think what is the solution to this problem. ‘ necessity is the mother of invention”.

  3. A good article by our worthy Brig. Sh. Anil Gupta. WIthout doubt China alongwith Pakistan are making efforts to encircle India. However, in view of India’s strategic changes in Foreign Policy, and Prime Minister’s special and sincere efforts to revitalise foreign relations with China’s neighbours, and effective and efficient collaborations with the US, Japan, Australia, have formed a formidable, unified front to contain China. Further, persistent efforts to rope in Sri Lanka, historic handshake with Israel, UAE has strengthened India’s position even more. Additionally China’s fading Economic momentum, crises in many provinces, including Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong etc., gaps between Army and the Chinese Government, rising corruption levels, definitely makes it difficult for China to even think about any sort of direct misadventure with India, hence, India should utilise this opportunity to upgrade its infrastructure, people and positions in the region.

    India under the present, dynamic leadership will decisively aim for the same.

    Best regards,

    Rajkaran Singh Bhatti

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