The building of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is considered vital to the two countries’ relationship but it is also beset by controversy. Tom Deegan looks at the politics behind the project.
China and Pakistan are going ahead with the construction of their much-touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which will run from Kashgar in China to Pakistan’s coast at Gwadar Port through territory that belongs to neither country. Both obstinately ignore the interests of the people most affected by the development, those of Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, who are the real owners of the lands in question.
In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan, India is the sovereign authority because the ruler of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Maharaja Hari Singh, signed a document of accession to the Indian Union in accordance with the rule that empowered the princely states to join the state of their choice at the time of the partition of the sub-continent in 1947. This document of accession in favour of union with India was accepted as democratically valid by Lord Mountbatten, the Governor-General at that time.
This is the first episode of the post-independence history of the ancient Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, which included Gilgit-Baltistan as part of its sovereign territory. The Pakistani regime launched an invasion of Kashmir in October 1947 in an effort to annexe the Princely State. The rulers of Kashmir called on India for help and the resultant war between India and Pakistan continued until a United Nations ceasefire came into effect in January 1949. The UN Security Council’s Resolutions (UNSCRs) called for the withdrawal of Pakistan’s forces from Kashmir and for a plebiscite to give the people of Kashmir a choice between union with India or with Pakistan. Pakistan agreed to abide by the UN ceasefire but withdrew only from those parts of Kashmir under pressure from India’s forces. Their forces retreated from areas they could not hold militarily but they held on to what is euphemistically called Azad (Free) Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan has remained non-compliant to this day and continues to occupy these regions of Jammu and Kashmir illegally. It should be noted that, while calling for a plebiscite, the Security Council’s Resolutions neither negated nor challenged the legality of Kashmir’s accession to India. In effect, the legality of Maharaja Hari Singh’s Document of Accession was accepted by the UNSC.
In the light of these facts about Kashmir’s post-independence history, there is, therefore, no dispute regarding the status of the former Princely State. The word ‘dispute’ is a distortion of the matter by Western Cold War strategists who, through their excessive influence over the UNSC, mischievously transformed Pakistan’s violation of a sovereign state’s territory and India’s opposition and resistance to that violation as an India-Pakistan ‘dispute’ over Kashmir.
India did not want to join any military bloc or take any side in the Cold War and its ‘non-alignment’ policy angered British and American interests. They maintained only cordial relations with India, regardless of the fact that India was, and still is, the world’s largest democracy. But they saw successive fascist military rulers in Pakistan as important allies against the Soviet Union and favoured these undemocratic military dictatorships. Distorting the truth and legality of the situation was one way they could help their new Cold War ally and punish India for its non-alignment and so they intentionally muddied the waters regarding the Kashmir problem. The post-independence history of Kashmir is very clear about who did not comply with the UNSCRs. No plebiscite could take place while Pakistan’s forces continued to occupy a significant portion of Kashmir illegally and while they persisted in promoting terrorist attacks inside Kashmir and India.
The facts given above have, of course, been repeated umpteen times over the past six decades. But today there is a new urgency to re-emphasise them because of the Pakistani-generated euphoria surrounding the CPEC. The so-called ‘dispute’ about Kashmir invented by Western powers during the Cold War to help their favoured ally is today being exploited by communist China so that they can take effective control of parts of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It is ironic that China, against which the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) were created by the USA, has now become the sole beneficiary of the original Cold War mischief in failing to condemn Pakistani aggression in Kashmir. The Chinese are using Pakistan much more effectively as an international stooge of a greater power. The only tangible benefit ever gained by the West from Pakistan was their collaboration during the anti-Soviet Afghan War when they created the modern Islamic mujahideen. What happened after that is common knowledge. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the US created the modern jihadi ideology that is now terrorising Western countries—a classic case of Frankenstein’s monster returning to plague its creator.
The West’s support for the idea that Kashmir is ‘disputed’ territory rather than being the victim of a Pakistani invasion has turned out to be a gift to an expansionist China. Not only has China taken full advantage of the description of ‘disputed’ Kashmir to grab parts of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, it is also on its way to gradually controlling Pakistan’s foreign policies. In 1963, China started its ‘higher-than-the-Himalayas-and deeper-than-the-oceans’ friendship with Pakistan by taking away 5000 square kilometres in Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan. Now, large parts of Gilgit-Baltistan are under Chinese control, supposedly for laying rail tracks and roads in connection with the CPEC. This year Chinese President Xi Jinping inaugurated the project when he visited Pakistan. He pledged US$46 billion to build transport and energy infrastructure. Xi declared that the CPEC would open up a new section of the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and ensure all-weather land connection between Pakistan and China. In addition, Xi declared that the CPEC is a flagship project of his Silk Route plan. He will, therefore, not bother about any legal hurdles in the way of the development of the CPEC. In furtherance of China’s traditional ‘might-is-right’ philosophy, he illogically dismisses India’s objections by saying that the CPEC is purely a commercial project that has nothing to do with the India-Pakistan ‘dispute’ over Kashmir.
As a result, a lot of Chinese activity is taking place in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. They are building hydroelectric power projects to produce 2,569 MW of power in the next five years or so. A Chinese company has made five tunnels under Attabad Lake in Hunza Valley to open up a new section of the Karakoram Highway and to ensure an all-weather land connection between Pakistan and China. There are also reports that colonies for Chinese workers and families have appeared in the region. The Chinese also intend to open a consulate in Gilgit-Baltistan, thus recognising Gilgit-Baltistan as a province of Pakistan.
But the local people are not happy about the Chinese presence in their country. In 1974, when Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto went to Gilgit-Baltistan, local people complained to him that the Chinese were engaged in spying work under the pretext of working on the Karakoram Highway. Bhutto, a blind votary of Chinese leaders who claimed to be the architect of Sino-Pakistan relations, snubbed the locals by saying that they should not talk so disparagingly of a friendly country like China. Even now, locals complain about the looting of their natural resources and the fact that Pakistan and China decided to build the CPEC without taking them into consideration. They also argue that this project cannot be built in an occupied territory given, at least, its ‘disputed’ status. Pakistan has no sovereignty over Gilgit-Baltistan and therefore legally it cannot take such a decision. The rest of the world recognises the history and the World Bank and Asian Development Bank are hesitant about helping Pakistan in any projects in Gilgit-Baltistan without there being a No-objection Certificate from India.
However, Xi Jinping appears to be unconcerned about what India or the world says about the legality of this whole project. His eyes are fixed on Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea to realise his dream of reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. But he fears terrorism and threats to Chinese workers’ lives in Pakistan. In order to assuage Chinese fears, Pakistan has taken two actions: (1) they have launched a campaign to try to win the people’s support for the CPEC by telling them that once the project becomes a reality, rivers of milk and honey will flow into the country; and (2) they are seeking to eliminate all perceived threats to the project by military force. It should be noted that the Pakistan Army launched its ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ operation against militants in North Waziristan and subsequently extended it to other parts of the country in June last year, immediately after the return of Army Gen Raheel Sharif from China. The Chinese had remonstrated with him about terrorist threats to Chinese workers. It is also possible that the Chinese may have financed Pakistan’s Zarb-e-Azb operation. It should be noted that the Pakistani Army intriguingly fought shy of specifically identifying its targets. The real targets were the Muslims of the Chinese province of Xinjiang who were receiving training in terrorist activities from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in North Waziristan. The cat was let out of the bag when Pakistan’s President Mamnoon Hussain proudly announced to Chinese leaders in Beijing that Pakistan had exterminated the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) of Xinjiang.
It is quite obvious that the Pakistani government did not take the people of the most affected regions—Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan—into consideration nor involve them in the process when the deals were done with China. Now, angry local people keep attacking Chinese workers and sabotaging the projects. Pakistan has already assured China that a special force will be deployed to protect its workers. But two very pertinent issues persist: (a) the illegality of the entire project from a historical point of view; and (b) a growing awareness of colonial-type injustices and assertions of the regional identity and aspirations of the local people, especially in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan through which the CPEC is projected to be built. These factors represent a serious future threat to the smooth passage of commerce and must be a main source of worry for both Pakistan and China.