Why Gilgit-Baltistan is about to become a geostrategic jewel once again – Part 2

Read Part 1 here.

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Pakistan

For Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) provides the only ground link to its ‘all-weather’ friend China. For a long time the region has been desperate for foreign investment. Misplaced priorities, a perpetual civil-military power tussle, and the scourge of terrorism have made it difficult for Pakistan to seek investment in the country. Pakistan’s top trade partners, America, the European Union (EU), while opening their markets for some Pakistani products, have shown no interest in making investments of the kind Pakistan desperately needs. The United States (US) has historically funneled military aid to the country to the detriment of the social sector. That aid has also dried up after the falling out between the two countries following the operation aimed at killing Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, and disagreements over Afghanistan. Pakistan is anticipating a sour turn in their relationship after US forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

This in turn makes the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) more important than ever. G-B also provides Pakistan with a gateway into Central Asia. Plans are afoot for the construction of a road between G-B and Tajikistan. Central Asian countries are Pakistan’s historic allies, and their rich natural resources are needed by Pakistan. They in turn are keen to access the Arabia Sea.

China

China’s interests associated with G-B are clear cut. It has economic, strategic, and prestige interests attached with G-B. China’s multipurpose venture CPEC – the Belt Road Initiative’s flagship (now pilot project) – enters Pakistan through G-B. CPEC is an investment of more than $60 billion, and China’s strategic alliance with Pakistan is based on its need to find an alternative short overland route to the Middle East and beyond to evade potential problems in the disputes of the South China Sea. China’s search for overcoming its strategic bottlenecks in the Strait of Malacca continue to make G-B a vitally important region. China also needs G-B to foster deeper ties with Pakistan to use it as a counterweight against India in South Asia.

India

An Indian think tank mourning the loss of G-B to Pakistan and describing its salience states that the,

“…Gilgit-Baltistan region – is an area that has historically been of pivotal strategic importance, and so remains. This is the ancient ‘axis of Asia’, where South, Central and East Asia converge. Poised at the crossroads of three great civilizations – described, in another age, as the point “where three empires meet” – Gilgit-Baltistan was traditionally both India’s and China’s gateway to Central Asia and beyond, into the heart of Europe, along the ancient Silk Route that contributed so much to the wealth and civiliaation of the many peoples it touched.”

India was late in understanding G-B’s strategic importance. It fought three wars over the Valley of Kashmir, when the real strategic prize was G-B. India needs G-B to abort China’s advance to the Indian Ocean through CPEC, and having a claim recognised by the INSC resolution is quite helpful in this regard. Secondly, India has been desperate to have access to Central Asia. In its desperation, India went for a doomed to fail route through Afghanistan, starting at Iran’s Chabahar port, which it developed.

But since the launch of CPEC, India has been raising its claims on G-B in a manner which has not been seen before. Traditionally India only spoke of Pakistan Administered Kashmir in its policy pronouncements. Now India has upped the ante on G-B by calling on China to stop investments and infrastructure development in the region, including blocking financing for the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam at the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. India promptly condemned Pakistan’s decision to turn G-B into a province last month.

Russia and Central Asia

Vladimir Putin’s grand foreign policy is his connectivity model called the “Greater Eurasian Partnership”, which is essentially dovetailing the already existing Eurasian Economic Union and CPEC. In his speech at the BRI forum in 2019, Putin said there is unanimity among all members of the Eurasian Economic Union to coordinate with the BRI. This makes CPEC and the G-B region very important to Russia.

Additionally, G-B’s importance to Russia and Central Asia is also due to the fact that it provides them with a link to the Gwadar port and crucial access to the Indian Ocean. Russia’s enhanced awareness on the need for balancing China and the US in South Asia makes Russian integration with the region more possible. Also, it’s traditional ally in the region, India, is becoming more allied with the US; hence Russia needs new partners for the protection of its interests and is thus seeking an enhanced engagement with South Asia.

America

The US is opposed to CPEC because it thinks it passes through the ‘disputed’ G-B. Speaking before the Senate Armed Relations committee, General James Mattis, US Secretary of Defence, said,

“The One Belt, One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate.”

Some US analysts have even termed the Gwadar Port – which is the end point of CPEC in the Arabian Sea – as a potential Chinese naval base in its string of pearls in the Indo-Pacific. A CSIS brief also urged the Quad to counter such an outcome by networking with like-minded groups. 

As a recent Carnegie-Tsinghua report states,

“For China, CPEC remains both a closely watched test case for the export of China’s development model and a prestige project for Xi.”

AG Wells, senior US diplomat for South and Central Asia, criticised China for offering predatory loans, for a lack of transparency around CPEC projects, the higher profits for Chinese firms, and a flawed bidding process. Both China and Pakistan reacted to this sternly, terming the criticism US propaganda against CPEC.

In summation, global power shifts have restored G-B’s geostrategic importance. That explains Pakistan’s volte face and hurried decision to give G-B provincial status. The fact that Pakistan is risking military escalation from India by making such a move only goes to prove how important such a step would be for Pakistan. India is sure to contest the move as a provocation or as a disproportionate response to its merger of Kashmir. Ordinarily, India would have escalated the situation through a military response, but given its simmering borders with China, it remains to be seen if it takes that route. The China-India conflict actually opens up an opportunity for Pakistan to be even with India for its actions on August 5, 2019. Some even suggest a degree of collusion between China and Pakistan to make the move, and it’s possible that this has factored into Pakistan’s decision-making.

Pakistan may also have realised the need to highlight G-B’s strategic importance by telling its ally, China, that it knows what it has to offer in return for its generous CPEC investments in Pakistan. In order to secure those investments and an overland route to the Indian Ocean for its time-tested ally, Pakistan is now jumping at the opportunity to make G-B a province, even if it may come back to bite Pakistan almost instantaneously. In a sense, CPEC politics are the 21st century iteration of the 19th century’s Great Game, with some new states thrown into the mix, and with uncertain outcomes for all of them. This will be the long new great game in G-B.