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China-Pakistan Nexus Over Gilgit-Baltistan: A Cause For Worry – Analysis

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The open nexus between China and Pakistan over the Gilgit-Baltistan issue is evident with the announcement in Pakistan on elevating the status of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region, historically an integral part of Jammu and Kashmir, to a fifth province of Pakistan.

The two neighbors are coordinating measures to ensure GB becomes the fifth province at the earliest and jointly prevent India from taking any military action on this illegal annexation with China providing the moral, political, tactical and military support. The planned large scale military exercises by PLA in Tibet; amassing of troops and heavy military hardware has clear cut objectives and may be viewed as part of this overall Plan. The objectives being:

  • Pressure and prevent India from undertaking any military action against Pakistan in the event of the region being annexed by Pakistan as its fifth province.  
  • In case of any war-like posturing by India, PLA to keep Indian Army engaged on LAC.
  •  Help China legitimize its illegal road construction activities, Construction of Moqpondas Special economic zone in the CPEC corridor that passes through the region and legitimize presence of PLA forces to maintain security in the region. 
  • Secure China’s $60 billion investments and thereafter push for leasing of this debt burdened region to China to exploit the natural resources in the region.
  • Allow China to secure a direct link to POK via the Karakuram Pass to save about 1500 kms of the supply route currently operating via the Khunzraba Pass bordering Xinjiang.
  • Beijing’s diplomatic and political gestures, overtones to resolve the LAC intrusions issue only aimed at  gaining time and not to impact PLA’s action on the ground –total disconnect between PLA’s actions and political-diplomatic engagements.

  These objectives are to be achieved in two stages: 

Stage one: Pakistan speeds up the parliamentary process to get the relevant bills passed in its parliament to include the GB region as a fifth province of Pakistan, and thereby legitimize China’s construction activities and investments in the region.

Stage two:  China to secure a direct access road to the region via the Karakuram Pass to save about 1500 Kms detour link via the Khunzraba   Pass bordering the  Xinjiang region.  The Pakistan army will coordinate with PLA and increase pressure on LOC to ward off any aggression by India.

To complete the first stage quickly, the Pakistan Army is using its influence and muscle in ensuring the speedy completion of parliamentary process. Pakistan media reports that the Pakistan Army chief along with the ISI chief met on September 16 with 15 key opposition leaders to discuss the issue of  “not dragging the Pak Army into political issues.”

But the real purpose of the meeting, as disclosed by Pakistan Railway Minister Sheikh Rashid, was to ‘expedite and seek support of opposition leaders to grant’ “provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan.”  The opposition parties Alliance, while confirming the meeting, have separately stated that the issue would be taken up  only after the scheduled November 15 elections in Gilgit-Baltistan to elect the 24 member legislative Assembly.  

Gilgit Baltistan leaders also seem to be divided over Pakistan’s fifth province plan. Local leaders are divided over the issue whether to ask for more autonomy or seek the merger of the entire region that includes POK as a full-fledged province of Pakistan. Facing increased pressure from China, the Pakistan army is attempting to expedite the move by using pressure tactics to brow beat the opposition in supporting the Army’s plan at the earliest.

In this vein, the Army unsuccessfully tried to create a rift within PML-N ranks and opposition alliance. PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz  Sharif has said that the issue such as GB should be decided in Parliament and not at the military headquarters and had accused her uncle of hobnobbing with  the military leadership – thus forcing Mr Nawaz Sharif to issue a warning  banning his party members from holding any private meetings with military leadership.

The Government has arrested some opposition leaders particularly the leadership of PML-N, charging them with corruption charges etc. To help Pakistan seek time for passing this resolution in Parliament and prevent any pre-emptive attack from India in the GB region, China has succeeded in buying time by keeping India engaged in talks.

To accomplish the second stage of this plan, while China is keeping India engaged in talks, it has started making large encroachments in the critical Depsang Y-Junction that controls the access to several areas of utmost importance to Indian defences.

The strategically located Depsang plains area about 18 kms inside what India perceives to be its territory, and has been occupied by the Chinese army blocking the Indian army patrolling beyond their traditional patrolling  points 10,11,11A,12,13, which fall short of India’s LAC claim and are well within the Indian territory.

A core concern for China is also that the Depsang-Dalat Beg Olde (DBO) sector is in close proximity of the G-219 highway connecting Tibet with Xinjiang. For India the DBO and Karakoram Pass in the North are of great strategic significance and it would undermine the Indian position if it allows PLA to continue to occupy it.

To keep Indian forces under check and engaged, PLA has resorted to aggression in the Pangong Tso–Chushul and adjoining areas along the frontier with Ladakh only as a tactical bargaining posture. After accomplishing the objective of  merging Gilgit-Baltistan region legally with Pakistan, China would be forth coming for half way adjustments at the transgressed area. 

India has to assume that it will be on the receiving end of China-Pakistan joint aggression — overtly and covertly — and has to be prepared for any eventuality. Beijing’s diplomatic and political gestures, overtones to resolve the issue are not matched by the PLA’s action on the ground. There is a total disconnect between the PLA’s actions and political-diplomatic engagements.

This writer fully endorses the views expressed by Geostrategist Mr. Brahma Chellany, that the “Indian governments have been putting more faith in diplomacy than the armed forces in achieving security objectives. The diplomatic blunders of 1948 (Kashmir), 1954 (Panchsheel), 1960 (Tibet), 1966 (Tashkent), 1972 (Simla) have imposed tremendous enduring costs  and yet India is not learning from past mistakes. Now, the Indian Government admits that China has trashed all those agreements with its aggression, yet is playing into China’s hands by clinging to past accords and is even willing to enter into a “new confidence building measures agreement.”

China has mastered and fully understands the weakness of Indian politicians to enter into new agreements for glorification. Otherwise where was the need to sign so many pacts on the same issue repeatedly? Diplomacy is unlikely to deliver the status quo that India is seeking. The latest round of Commander’s Level Talks (6th) has achieved nothing and in fact the PLA has used the cover of diplomatic and military talks to crank up its military logistics and troop strength. It is unlikely that anything tangible would be achieved before making Gilgit-Balistan as part of Pakistan. Till then Beijing will be buying time to prevent any Indian attack in the region and the possibility of anything tangible in forthcoming bilateral talks is also bleak. 

China’s recent reference to the once rejected 1959 LAC shows its reluctance to disengage, hardening of position and any resolution of the dispute even more difficult. The Indian government has made its stand very clear. The Indian Defence Minister has categorically and in an unambiguous manner stated, “India will always patrol in its traditional areas and will not allow unilateral change in LAC.” … “India will respond to any aggression on LAC and will never let China have what they want” …. “India will match China’s build up at LAC. “This has been conveyed to Chinese leadership both at military and political levels”.

 India’s consistent unambiguous stand should be ‘No New Agreements,  Maintain April Statuesque ante with China withdrawing first, Speed up efforts to resolve the border issue peacefully and no interference in the Gilgit-Balitstan region, historically an integral part of the Jammu and Kashmir State of India. 

It appears that the outcome of the dialogue with China is directly dependent on how soon Pakistan is able to merge Gilgit-Baltistan into a province. China could also use the US’ preoccupation with elections in November to carry out the second stage of this plan with a surprise, quick, localized strike against India without seeking to start a war to regain the strategic peaks overlooking its defense lines and secure the new shorter link road access to GB region via the Karakuram Pass. 

India has to maintain utmost vigilance particularly during the dry month period of October/November against this Pakistan-China Nexus. China’s recent reference to 1959 LAC as well as its upfront rejection of the map of Ladakh is a challenge that needs to be countered both politically and militarily.

*Prof Ashok Tiku, Senior China Analyst (45 years of experience). A version of this article was published in The Asian Community News 

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