By Brig Anil Gupta (Retd.)*
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.
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.
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.
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.
*Brig Anil Gupta (Retd.) is a Jammu-based security and strategic analyst. He can be contacted at [email protected]