China hosted India for the first-ever bilateral strategic dialogue this February, an institutional platform where key issues were discussed. Notwithstanding the unresolved disputes between the nations,
the dialogue was no less than a victory in that India and China successfully established a platform for discussing issues that concern the strategic stability of Sino-Indian relations.
However, there was a visible consternation displayed by New Delhi over a few irritants which it believes hinder the development of healthy ties. Issues like China’s opposition over India’s entry to
the Nuclear Suppliers Group and China’s non-cooperation in the UN Security Council over Masood Azhar, the mastermind behind the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, are indeed matters of concern. But there is a need to take a relook at India’s opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for this may run the risk of derailing bilateral ties, which is already burdened with numerous irritants.
China’s invitation to India to be part of the Silk Road summit to be held this May did not go down well with New Delhi given the CPEC factor and as expected, New Delhi declined to be a part of the
summit. “CPEC is part of this particular initiative ... CPEC violates Indian sovereignty because it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK),” India’s Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar conveyed to the Chinese during the dialogue.
India’s concerns are justified since the CPEC happens to pass through Gilgit-Baltistan, the northern part of PoK. But they would not make any difference. The roots of the Sino-Pak détente lie in the
1962 India-China war, which provided Pakistan an opportunity to upgrade its lukewarm ties with China following which both the nations decided to forego their territorial disputes over the Gilgit-Xinjiang border and negotiated a border agreement in 1963.
Bilateral ties were cemented further when Pakistan, aided by China, undertook the construction of the Karakoram Highway linking Havelian (near Islamabad) to Xinjiang. The 1,300 km highway which
crosses into China via the 4,700 m high Khunjerab Pass became the sole link connecting the nations directly. The highway was opened for public use in 1978 and has also been secretly used by China to transport missiles and arms to Pakistan. With the construction of several other feeder roads branching out of the highway and linking other towns and villages of Gilgit-Baltistan, the region’s economy has witnessed positive changes. But the Pakistan Army continues to be the major player in the region’s infrastructure and communications sector; Chinese investments and its FMCG products also have a dominating presence.
The CPEC links Pakistan with China via the Karakoram highway. Though India has repeatedly voiced its concerns against the corridor citing its passage through occupied territory, a glance at the projects
to be set up under the CPEC shows there are hardly any sanctioned for Gilgit-Baltistan out of the $54 billion worth of allocation. The highlight for the region is the revamp of the Karakoram highway and its connecting roads aimed at allowing heavy cargo traffic to ply smoothly once the corridor starts functioning in full swing. There has been talk of establishing Special Economic Zones and industrial parks in the region, but the details are yet to be unveiled. Gilgit-Baltistan forms the basis of
Sino-Pak cooperation and the Chinese have been highly active in the region, decades before the CPEC was announced. Thus New Delhi’s late opposition is futile.
Unfortunately, India has rarely attempted to engage with Gilgit-Baltistan beyond a superficial level. Unlike what strategic thinking and diplomacy demands, India has neither raised its voice against
the sectarian crisis the region’s Shia community faces, nor made any attempt to reach out to the region’s exiled leaders. Rather, the Indo-Pak dispute over Kashmir has got tied around the issues in Kashmir. The recent re-emergence of violence in the Valley clearly shows India is far from tackling the situation there. At the same time, it has been drawn into a diplomatic conflict with Pakistan which has raised the issue at all major international platforms. On the contrary, episodes of violence in Gilgit-Baltistan, notably the sectarian crises of 1988, 2004 and 2012 when the region’s indigenous Shias were
targeted, have been of scarce concern to India.
India continues to turn a deaf ear to the people of Gilgit- Baltistan, unlike Islamabad which has utilised every opportunity to target India over its Kashmir policy. While India could continue to lodge its protests over the Chinese Silk Road, the reality remains that it is no more than a token protest which only elongates the list of irritants that characterise Sino-Indian ties.
In a recent article, former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar makes an interesting point analysing the futility of New Delhi’s rigid stand over CPEC which is taking it nowhere. Taking a cue from the his
analysis which cited the recent example of Japan attempting to reset ties with Russia despite the ongoing dispute over Kuril Islands, India could enter into negotiations with China and see if a trilateral cooperation could be worked out over Gilgit-Baltistan.
This is not to say that India needs to change its Kashmir policy, but rather that it should look towards a
constructive engagement over the landlocked Gilgit-Baltistan. Movement of people and trade continues across the LoC despite the Kashmir conflict, and adding Gilgit-Baltistan may turn out to be a step towards more stable Sino-Indian ties and even de-escalate Indo-Pak tensions. Constructive cooperation on the politico-economic status of Gilgit-Baltistan and its people should be included in the next bilateral strategic dialogue.
(The author is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University