Time and time again, Indian leadership has raised issues regarding Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK). Recently, Indian Defence minister Rajnath Singh once again reiterated Indian claims over POK. In the past, several cabinet ministers, including external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, have also reinstated the goal of Indian repossession of POK. India has never fully given up its claim over POK, and it is possible that one day, the Indian flag will be unfurled once again in the city of Skardu.
Unfortunately, much of the existing research published by Indian and foreign scholars covers only the Indian side of Kashmir. The POK has somehow escaped a careful and critical analysis due to lack of initiative by the mainstream media and the narrative of Indian aggression built and sustained by external powers. The only news channel broadcasting any information concerning the conditions in POK is the India Meteorological Department, and still, it only relays the weather forecast. The atrocities, human rights violations, ethnic cleansing and annihilation of Indian culture have all been swept under the rug, and have ultimately failed to raise alarm concerning the actions of the Pakistani military.
The Strategic Significance of Gilgit and Baltistan
The region of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) connects the Xinjiang region of China to Pakistan, providing China with easy access to the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This scenario weakens India’s position of power in both maritime and continental affairs. With presence in Gwadar, a port city that is “strategically located at the apex of the Arabian Sea and at the mouth of the Persian Gulf,” China will not only be able to monitor the area, but will also severely limit India’s retaliation options during wartime. The modern day economic progress only sustains due to large scale manufacturing and impeccable human capital, and Pakistan has neither. Hence, Gwadar is unlikely to become a trading hotspot, or even a significant cargo hub..
Furthermore, the GB region has historically fallen on the Silk Road trade route, by which Indian culture reached Central Asia and beyond. Not having a physical presence in GB imbibes a parochial mindset and limits India’s political influence to South Asian geopolitics. Currently, Indian trade with Central Asia is minuscule due to a variety of reasons, but the most significant inhibitor is a nonexistent land route. This is also the primary reason why Indian involvement in Afghanistan was so minimal, even though India’s concerns in the conflict were much more immediate than other countries who intervened.
The GB region is also home to a treasure of glaciers which sustain Pakistan’s surface water-based economy. This region is also home to massive hydropower potential due to the presence of the Indus River and its many tributaries. The controversial Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 negotiated under the World Bank awarded a whopping 80% of water rights to Pakistan, robbing India of any edge when it comes to the hydrography of the subcontinent. These losses are of extreme importance, given India’s dependency on the area as a vital water source.
China’s Long Game Strategy
In May 2022, China announced that it plans to connect the Chinese city of Kashgar with Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and the largest city in Central Asia, via railways. This strategic development is meant to ensure China’s continued rise as a global superpower. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is of the opinion that its presence in the Pacific is not enough to replace the US as global leader. Hence, China is actively connecting its hinterlands to more industrial areas. Using these new railways connecting Kashgar to Tashkent, China will be able to reach Turkey and Europe more easily by avoiding its vulnerability in the IOR. For these reasons, the GB region is critical to Chinese expansion.
China is also aware of the fact that, notwithstanding their quest for expansion, the geography of the IOR cannot be defied, and will remain the primary economic and geopolitical theater of warfare for the eastern side of the continent. In the words of 19th century naval thinker Alfred Mahan, control over the IOR is “the key to the seven seas.” As of today, the new land routes being constructed are not designed to carry large amounts of cargo. This means that for now, China will continue to conduct trade via routes in the IOR.
China is actively executing a twin strategy in the GB region. Its first goal is to establish a connection with Persia, and its second, more long-term goal is to encircle India, denying it any strategic depth. As part of this strategy, the “25 year pact” created between China and Iran plays a very important role.
China’s push into West Asia is driven by its need for energy security as well as its long term quest to replace the US as global hegemon. A land route, via GB, is the most profound way of asserting its global role. Indeed, there are other factors at work in China’s persistent push towards Iran; however, China’s avid quest to increase land-based connectivity suggests that the main intent of the Chinese is to perturb India.
The Chinese are also looking to use Pakistan as a base to extract resources out of Afghanistan, and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a vital part of that strategy. The BRI, the developing modern version of the Silk Road, intends to connect China to all major economic centers of Asia, Africa and Europe via maritime and land routes. It broadly defines five priority areas of investments in connectivity, policy coordination, unimpeded trade, financial integration and connecting people.
Several Chinese scholars believe that “India is set out to replace China,” and thus must be mitigated. Within the GB region, China sees an opportunity to ensure that India is weakened and less likely to take action against China’s continued threat.
Unsurprisingly, Chinese investments in Pakistan are above $60 billion, providing China with a major influence in Pakistan’s administration of the GB region. According to several reports from June 2022, Pakistan was seriously considering the lease of the GB region to China to pay off its “mounting debts.” However, Pakistan’s primary hesitation in finalizing this agreement is the fear that after empowering China, the United Nations (UN) will discontinue all financial assistance being provided to Pakistan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). For all of these reasons, it is imperative that India prevent the fate of the GB to be decided by such avaricious powers.
War on the Horizon?
In June 2020, reports indicated the presence of Chinese transport and fighter aircraft at the Skardu air base, increasing fears of a possible two front war along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh, an Indian union territory. These reports however, were not verified by the Indian government or military.
Considering Chinese investments in Pakistan, it is likely that China will station its troops in the GB region at Skardu airbase even during peacetime. The Galwan Valley dispute of 2020, in which Indian and Chinese soldiers fought using fatal hand-to-hand combat, also sparked concerns of impending war. Even more alarming are reports that Pakistani soldiers have been spotted consorting with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops in Tibet, indicating a worrisome synchronization between the two hostile nations.
Many speculate that if India had not lost control of the GB region, the region would not have become a breeding ground for terrorism, and could have prevented thousands of casualties. Furthermore, India would have had a convenient land corridor to Afghanistan, sitting just 20 km away from Central Asia. It is also possible that the Sino-Indian War of 1962 could have been averted, or at least could have had a different outcome. India’s past mistakes will continue to haunt the nation in next two decades if the subcontinent’s political map remains the same.
India has tried to establish alternative routes to Central Asia via Chabhar, an Iranian port city, by joining it with a railway line to Afghanistan and then crossing into the Central Asian Region (CAR). However, Afghanistan’s volatile history threatens the security of these routes, and India cannot afford to become dependent on a regime as brutal as the Taliban. Therefore, India’s best alternate route still lies in the GB region, a region of immense strategic value involving three nuclear-armed powers.
India’s potential for economic stability relies on its access to critical materials, including precious stones and rare earth minerals. The CAR is full of critical materials, enough to sustain a global transition from fossils to clean energy. Between 1850 and 2015, India has contributed only 3% of global carbon emissions. However, India’s expected economic boom will undoubtedly contribute to a rise in per capita and historical carbon emissions, both consequences which the CAR offers solutions to.
Another vital resource that is abundant in the GB region is the availability of freshwater. The Indus river system, Pakistan’s primary source of water, has major tributaries located in the India-controlled territory of Kashmir. This region also has some of the largest glaciers on the planet outside of the polar regions. The Upper Indus Basin (UIB), situated in Gilgit, is home to many small streams that flow from the melting glaciers, and have the potential to generate 50,000 GW of hydroelectricity. Access to this incredible power source provides a colossal advantage to whichever nation controls the region at the time.
For India, water security is likely to become a major issue in upcoming decades. Several reports by the UN and Indian government agencies have concluded that India is likely to face severe water shortages in the upcoming decades. The mismanagement of major bodies of water in Indian cities, rapid and poorly planned urbanization and uncontrolled population growth is only adding fuel to an already dire situation.
In 2019, the Indian government’s public policy think tank, NITI Aayog, found that nearly 60% of cities in India have already run out of ground water. Even more threatening to the impending water crisis in India are China’s plans to construct dams over the Mabja Zangbo, the main tributary to the Ganges River. India is currently facing many major threats to water security – but will this increasing tension escalate into a full-blown water war?
India and China are poised to have an increasingly competitive relationship in the upcoming decades, and Gilgit and Baltistan will indeed be a recurring aspect of contestation. China will do everything in its power to ensure its control over Gilgit and Baltisan. For India, I believe that the most prosperous future lies in the reintegration of the upper Himalayan region, which has water, navigable land routes and strategic significance far beyond any other region of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).
In 1963, Pakistan ‘gifted’ to China the Shaksgam Valley, an area ofJ&K rich in water potential and other resources, in an effort to secure a powerful ally in future conflicts. The Shaksgam Valley is home to 242 glaciers, and is known as the third most glaciated region in the world, after the North and South poles.
In 2021, China unveiled plans to construct the world’s largest polysilicon manufacturing facility in a green oasis of the Taklamakan Desert, located in the western part of China. It is estimated that the production of a single 30 cm silicon wafer (used to make valuable microchips) requires approximately 10,000 liters of fresh water, for which China will rely on the oasis. When completed, China will reap great benefits from the facility as they cheaply manufacture microchips for itself and the rest of the world. While China also faces water scarcity, its occupation of Tibet provides it with control over much of the liquid veins throughout Asia.
In the next few decades, India will need Central Asia to source energy and other resources more than ever before. China is already taking advantage of these resources, as it has been in the process of building a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Xinjiang since 2010. If India intends to become a truly influential power over the POK,including the regions of the GB and the Shaksgam Valley, it must take critical action to regain access to much -needed resources.
As early as 1904, British geographer Helford Mackinder underlined the importance of Eurasia and the CAR. Perhaps it was India’s strategic blindness, bureaucratic hassles, nonexistent national security measures, or isolationist attitude as a result of repeated invasions which culminated into the loss of the GB region. Whatever the reasons were, India’s neglect of the resource-rich region was a critical mistake that has haunted the nation for decades.
India must shed its habit of disregarding national threats until the damage has been done. In order to right our past mistakes, we need to prepare to use all means possible to reintegrate the region of Gilgit Baltistan. [Hannah Gage edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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