Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan was most worried about Chinese reaction when India announced abrogation of Article 370, which altered Jammu and Kashmir’s status in August last year. After all, Pakistan had lured China into its fold under the pretext of showing Jammu and Kashmir as part of its territory.
Pakistan does not have territorial contiguity with China; it is only through the Occupied Kashmir and Northern Areas, precisely through the territories of Gilgit-Baltistan that Pakistan has been able to link with China. Earlier, Chinese interest in the area was limited to Shakshgam Valley as it wanted continuous connectivity through the area to its Xinjiang region. Pakistan was only too happy to comply with the Chinese request and handed it over 5180 sq km of its territory in 1963.
This was the first reality check of the so-called ‘love and affection’ of Pakistan for the people of Jammu and Kashmir it has continued to project for decades now.
Right from the beginning, Pakistan tried to project Northern Areas, as they were then called, in different light. It abrogated many of the privileges associated with erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir in the region, including abolition of state subject law in 1974, and making the home of Shias into a Sunni majority area. The people of G-B still do not have even the most basic rights and privileges. They cannot elect their leaders freely as all the leaders are first screened and allowed to contest only after they swore allegiance to Pakistan.
Pakistan got China to construct Karakoram highway in order to have a backup plan for the region. The ecologically fragile region witnessed the folly of human intervention when in 2010 in Hunza, a landslide killed 20 people and blocked the flow of River Hunza. The resultant flooding displaced more than 6,000 people and inundated about 20 km of the Karakoram highway.
Undeterred by the tragedy, Pakistan again approached China for the construction of a realigned road. China, by this time flush with funds and carrying the impression of an emerging power, had realised the potential of the route which could have provided it alternate access to the Arabian Sea and through that to the Middle East and other countries.
This would have not only provided it an alternate trade route, but also acted as a backup plan should its access through the Malacca Strait is choked in any eventuality. China realised the value in having a friendship with Pakistan, which in any case would never be in a position to oppose Beijing’s desires and decisions. The Chinese thus sold them the idea of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan, misgoverned right from the inception, did not have the capacity to evaluate the pros and cons of the Chinese intentions. In any case, it did not have an alternative development plan to show to the people and therefore lapped the offer. However, Chinese were adamant that the legality of the area through which the corridor would pass should not come into the question.
China realised the precarious legal position Pakistan has over these territories when international lending agencies backtracked from financing the Diamer Bhasha Dam project, located in Kohistan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Diamer in Gilgit-Baltistan, based on Indian opposition. The project for which the foundation stone was laid in 1998, has suffered innumerable delays on account of the untenable legal position of Pakistan in the territory. However, China under Xi Jinping decided to come to the rescue of Pakistan and the Imran Khan government entered into an agreement with China Power in May, 2020.
It is interesting to note that not so long ago, in 2017, Pakistan had dropped the idea of getting the project financed under CPEC framework as China had placed strict conditions including the ownership of the project. Going by experience, China has always thought of undertaking construction projects in other countries as those fulfilling its own interests, as the investment potential of these are neither evaluated nor realised. It is not difficult to imagine what conditions China would have imposed to an even more desperate Pakistan in 2020 while agreeing on Daimer Bhasha Dam.
China has other interests in the Gilgit-Baltistan region as well – the projects financed and undertaken by it include Sust Dry Port, upgradation of Karakoram Highway (KKH), 820 km OFC project connecting Khunjerab to Rawalpindi and Jaglot-Skardu road. All these projects can be seen to be actually catering to the Chinese interests, a fact gradually sinking into the minds of an average Pakistani, who does not see any opportunity coming his way. The Chinese banks finance the projects undertaken by their companies involving their engineers and machinery and even labour. The markets in Pakistan are flush with Chinese goods and the Chinese people never deny an opportunity to snub a local in Pakistan.
Shops selling pork have become the mainstay in the majority of Islamic Republic of Pakistan’s towns to cater to the Chinese demands. There is so much mistrust between the Pakistanis and Chinese community that in a recent advertisement for renting out an upscale house in Islamabad, the owner specially mentioned that the offer was not for the Chinese.
It was in this background that when India decided to abrogate Article 370, the Chinese sensed threat to their strategic as well as investment plan and put pressure on Pakistan to find a way out. Imran Khan visited Gilgit-Baltistan on the so called 73rd Independence Day of the region on November 1 to announce provincial status for the state. Interestingly, Khan visited the region last year also on the same occasion when, going out of sync, he announced that Gilgit-Baltistan has always been the bridge between Pakistan and China. It is worth mentioning here that previously at no point of time in its entire history, the day had been celebrated with Pakistan PM’s visit to the region.
People of Gilgit-Baltistan are apprehensive not only about Pakistan’s intention but China’s too. Some of the pro-independence parties, including JKLF, have opposed Pak government decision to grant provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. So called PM of Azad Kashmir, Farooq Haider Khan, along with local units of the mainstream parties of Pakistan have also opposed the move, fearing it may be overtaken by the Chinese.
The Emir of Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir, Khalid Mahmood, rejected Khan’s announcement of giving provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, saying this is direct interference in the region’s elections. He added that it weakened Pakistan’s stand internationally and is a violation of United Nations resolutions. His fellow party leader and convener of the All Parties Kashmir Coordination Council, Abdur Rashid Turabi, said that before making Gilgit-Baltistan a province broad based consultations must be held.
People of the area have already been expressing their resentment against Chinese projects. Residents of Chilas organised a protest (September 18) against non-payment of compensation for the land acquired for the construction of the Diamer Bhasha Dam. Earlier, under the banner of Graduate Alliance and Geologists Association Diamer, the residents had staged a protest (on September 9 and 11) asserting their claim on the jobs and opposing inadequate employment of the local youth.
People have also been vehemently opposing Islamabad’s decision to lease pasture land to Chinese companies for mining.
Mirza Hussain, a member of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, had alleged in 2019 that 300 mining leases were awarded to Chinese companies without consulting people. Pakistan, at the behest of China, introduced web-based customs duty at Sust Port in 2018. Despite protests by the local traders that this will lead to loss of jobs for the local population and threat to boycott the trade, Pakistan did not relent. It is interesting to note that when a number of girl’s schools were burnt in Tanger and Darel region in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2018, Pakistan had shown complete apathy for the people of the region. Lt Gen Nadeem Raza, Commander of the 10th Corps, while addressing a public gathering at Chilas, completely ignored the importance of the education of girls, and instead chose to caution that such incidents negatively impact the implementation of CPEC.
In Pakistan, it is well known that the establishment calls the shots. It is for this reason that the Chinese, instead of relying on the political leaders, wanted that the Army should be spearheading the CPEC. It pressurised the Pakistan government to establish CPEC Authority and appoint an army officer as its head. Accordingly, Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa was appointed as the Chairman of the authority in 2019. It is also interesting to note that despite the plethora of allegations regarding corruption by him, the Pakistan government has not been able to take any action against him. Moreover, there is also a proposal to exempt the CPEC from the purview of the National Accountability Bureau.
The present political structure of Gilgit-Baltistan suits Pakistan to undertake such decisions about it. With no political representation and no opposition, it is free to do whatever it wants with the territory. It is this relationship that permits Pakistan to play the role of a client state to the Chinese, a job it has always been willing to undertake.