CHINA- PAKISTAN ECONOMIC CORRIDOR AND SHAKSGAM VALLEY: A QUAGMIRE

Brig J.S Rajpurohit, Ph.D.
May 19, 2019
Image Courtesy: defenceupdate.in

Chinese interest in Pakistan is no secret and by now everyone at the strategic stage understands the big game Asian giant is attempting to play. The game is  similar to the Battle for Hastinapur where King and the courtiers knew about slimy cards played by Kauravas and yet all decision makers chose to remain quiet, waiting for sanity to prevail. Unfortunately, complex diplomacy was call of the day and Mahabharata was the outcome. Are we waiting for a similar situation to arise in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) {Mandarin: – 中国-巴基斯坦经济走廊; Urdu: – پاكستان-چیناقتصادیراہداری } Well, yes! My argument over the issue is categorical and specific. The present-day Kashmir inclusive of POK is Hastinapur. China and Pakistan are Kauravas where Pakistan is Duryodhana and China is Shakuni. Northern Areas of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) is the Draupadi who is humiliated. India is on back foot awaiting to be christened as Pandavas and waiting for an unknown Krishna to set the stage for its victory. Game is played by Pakistan to show down India at every possible international forum. Will a battle be the answer; will Krishna appear on the stage or will India not take cognizance of the seriousness of the case?

China has invested over $60 (US) billion in Pakistan in its overall scheme of $3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative to connect three continents and 70 countries. Direct physical means of surface communication between Asia, Europe and Africa is indeed a visionary step in the foreseeable future. Whether Communist China is withering away like the former USSR or flourishing the capitalist way under the rule of Communist Party will be decided by the strategic moves of the players in a multi-polar world, as once articulated by Morgenthau. However, Chinese interests in Pakistan are not only to seek a surface transport communication from Xinjiang to Arabian Sea but also to achieve strategic space to counter other competitive players in the region. In the bargain, China achieves durable strategic relations with Pakistan for its commercial and defence objectives. China gets proverbial ‘ek teer do shikar’ (one arrow two targets).The road also provides employment to large number of Pakistani locals in Northern Areas, Pakistani Punjabis in the north and Sindh, and Baluchistan in the south east and south west Pakistan.  The road will traverse along entire length of Pakistan meandering around River Jhelum and from north to south.

Another master stroke was played by China back in March 1963 when India was still licking wounds of 1962 war. Pakistan ceded 5180 square km of area to China apparently for no strategic reasons. Why did China took the area in 1963 , is a strategic puzzle for India? Did China think of something similar to China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 1963 is not known. Was it Sun Tzu or Mao Tse Tung strategies at play? The answer is unknown. Now with the coming of CPEC and China’s programmes of  taking tourists, trekkers and mountaineers to Shaksgam Valley raises hackles among strategic thinkers. China is constructing road along River Shaksgam in the Shaksgam valley from west to east attempting it to close on to Mount K2 or Edwin Austin and Siachen glacier from northern side, which sends vibrations through defence and strategic circles in India. With this Chinese forces can have access to the southern part of Siachen glacier into Shyok valley from the only available approach along Urdok glacier. Once the road along River Shaksgam is connected to Urdok glacier, several options would open up for the Chinese. This road in the north will get connected to Western highway in Xinjiang province and in the West to CPEC. Thus, in due course of time, Shaksgam Valley will be easily accessible by Chinese forces from all directions in times of need. Though difficulties of high altitudes and complex mountain ranges will pose challenges, China has been preparing itself for it and has built appropriate infrastructure in Tibet in recent past. Big game is in place around Siachen glacier to be played by the Chinese strategists. Analysis of the situation raises more questions than solutions.

People of Northern Areas in Pakistan are unlike other Pakistani Muslims. They are of a separate race and have lived nomadic life in the areas of Gilgit, Hunja, Baltistan and Skardu ever since. They were ruled by Mir of Hunja and Shaksgam valley was their grazing area. Chinese and British domination ended their independent nomadic life. Today, they are oppressed under ruthless Pakistani army. Their struggle against Pakistani rule and violence has become their way of life. The expanding Chinese influence through CPEC is yet another intrusion into their social fabric. Everyday unrest has become a norm. China and Pakistan have economically and militarily controlled the area to make it more inaccessible for India. Recent developments in POK against government of Pakistan and CPEC by some Jehadi groups and local leaders have raised questions over success of the economic corridor.

Is this a signal for India to take clue from? Indian efforts since independence to resolve POK imbroglio has not resulted in any positive outcome. In fact, Pakistan has strengthened grip over the area through its army. Deprivation and repression of the people has led to daily violence on the streets of Gilgit and Baltistan.  In such a situation when the area is fully under control of Pakistani forces and Pakistan government colliding with China for CPEC, a case for peaceful resolution of POK becomes a big question mark. Will India and Pakistan’s boundaries realign? If yes, then how the boundaries will realign is a moot point of discussion? Presently, Track II diplomacy is at its best. Neemrana Dialogue of 2018 was one of major attempts made to resolve issues pertaining to Indo-Pak relations. Outcomes and decisions of boundaries between countries take time to materialize, especially when the issue is over seven decades old, resolution in a sooner time frame is difficult to achieve. Yet, national and international boundaries are living organisms that change with the changing times. Will it be so in case of Shaksgam Valley and CPEC? Let’s wait and watch.

Mahabharata should not be repeated in Kalyug and Hastinapur is restored to rightful rulers.

*** The author is Brigadier in Indian Army and is serving as Group Commander, Group HQ NCC, Gorakhpur (UP) ***