Burma Times -By Mike Joseph
In order to forge better relations with China, Pakistan has virtually leased the region of Gilgit Baltistan to the Chinese governments for a period for 50 years. The decision to lease Gilgit Baltistan to China, which was taken by General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani in January of 2012, has been a matter of debate ever since. China is aware of the unlimited natural resources available in this disputed region, and therefore immediately embarked upon the policy of establishing their military and social control. This however has caused a great deal of havoc for the locals living in this area, since the Chinese approach has been nothing less than aggressive and disruptive.
China’s basic interest has been in wanting to gain access to the Gwadar port through the Gilgit region. The Chinese efforts to access the Arabian Sea through Gwadar Port by developing road and railway links have raised concerns especially after media reports since 2010 that the Chinese are stationing their troops and building critical infrastructure for strategic use. The two sides have also agreed to expand the width of the historic Karakoram Highway, which connects Gilgit-Baltistan with the neighboring Xinjiang region in China, from 10 meters to 30 meters and triple its transportation capacity. The official Chinese agency Xinhua reported at the time that the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation would be in charge of the designing and reconstruction of the highway. Upgrading the Karakoram Highway is of critical significance to China, since this region offers Beijing a window to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Chinese firms are also working on six other mega power projects in Gilgit-Baltistan that include hydro power projects at Dasu (US$ 7.8 billion), Phandar (US$ 70million), Bashu (US$ 40.01 million), Harpo (US$ 44.608 million) and Yulbo (US$ 6 billion). China is also investing an additional amount of US$ 300 million in housing and communication sectors.
The ulterior motives behind increasing Chinese involvement in Gilgit Baltistan are related to its spreading its influence in its neighborhood and encircle India, potentially its biggest rival in South Asia. This was established beyond doubt when there was a disproportionally high minimum of 7,000 Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) personnel stationed in the Khunjerab Pass on border of Gilgit-Baltistan to protect the Karakoram Highway construction crews. With the reported stationing of a unit of PLA soldiers near the Khunjerab Pass and Chinese military officials frequenting the Field Command Office of Gilgit, which happens to be Pakistan’s military headquarter in the region, a pervasive Chinese intent of establishing a military edge in India’s northern sector cannot be negated.
Moreover, large military and civilian presence of Chinese personnel under the pretext of infrastructure development has raised broader security concerns for local communities as well as regional neighbor. Chinese activities have also raised huge environmental risks for the region. Construction of mega dams and building of roads and tunnels in the geographic landscape is likely to lead to increased seismic activities and intensify the glacial melt, the two phenomena that are already occurring in the region.
Further, through its involvement in Gilgit Baltistan, China is providing Pakistan with more than just military and diplomatic support. It wants to be a major player in the regional control and Kashmir dispute talks. Analysts point out the possibilities of Pakistan swapping roles to take the backseat and China exerting itself as a major player in the Kashmir issue. This will significantly increase China’s standing in the South Asian region. It needs to be noted that by issuing stapled visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir, rather than stamping the visas on their passports, Beijing’s crass move is aimed at questioning the status of J&K vis-à-vis the Indian Union, thereby providing diplomatic support to Pakistan unambiguously. China is also using its presence in the Gilgit-Baltistan area as a deterrent to India’s opposition to its territorial claims to border areas with China.