Pakistan’s Change in Political Status of Contested Region Serves Beijing’s Agenda, Experts Say

November 12, 2020 Updated: November 12, 2020

Pakistan announced on Nov. 1 that it would give “provisional provincial status” to Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed region that’s also claimed by India, and through which China is building the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor project (CPEC).

The action, which will further serve the Chinese regime’s strategic and economic plans, was made after India changed the political status of Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Gilgit-Baltistan, experts say.

“By declaring Gilgit-Baltistan a province of Pakistan, Beijing hopes to play down Indian objections to the CPEC, which runs through the region,” Bibhu Prasad Routray, a geopolitical analyst and the director of Goa-based think tank Mantraya, told The Epoch Times on a chat platform.

Gilgit-Baltistan formally began hosting the CPEC, a flagship investment of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in April 2015 after Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan. The project costs an estimated $87 billion, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and is of immense geopolitical significance, since the region shares borders with Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and China.

In the colonial Indian sub-continent, the region was a part of the princely kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir that in 1947 was acceded to India. However, over the next few decades through a series of wars and events, different chunks of Jammu and Kashmir came to be governed by India, Pakistan, and China.

Gilgit-Baltistan was ruled by Pakistan by executive fiat and was simply known as the Northern Areas until 2009, when Pakistan’s Parliament created the region’s Legislative Assembly and gave the area its present name.

While Pakistan controlled Gilgit-Baltistan, it ceded a portion of it—Shaksgam tract, a 2000-square-mile territory, to China in 1963; it’s now a part of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. However, India cites the 1947 accession and claims legal rights over the entire territory, while Pakistan considers it disputed. For these reasons, India has expressed strong objections to China about the CPEC.

Adnan Amir, a Pakistan-based journalist who has been reporting and writing about the CPEC, told The Epoch Times that Gilgit-Baltistan is the only land connection between Pakistan and China, and needs to be controversy-free for the success of CPEC.

“Pakistan believes that by making it a province, it can be relatively less controversial in the overall geopolitical chess game of Kashmir,” he said in a text message.

Epoch Times Photo
A loaded truck travels through a newly built tunnel in northern Pakistan’s Gojal Valley on Sept. 29, 2015. A glossy highway and hundreds of lorries transporting Chinese workers by the thousands: the new Silk Road is under construction in northern Pakistan. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

In Response to India

The Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir had been governed by a constitution provision, called Article 370, that gave it a special status within the Indian dominion. That was revoked by India’s Parliament after it passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act in 2019.

The reorganization divided the state into two federal territories: Jammu and Kashmir, which shares a disputed border with Pakistan, and Ladakh, which shares a disputed border with China.

Pakistan’s announcement to give provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan is a response to India abrogating Article 370, Routray said.

“It’s a desperate measure by Pakistan, whose moves to highlight what India did with regard to Article 370 of the Indian constitution have failed to evoke much interest around the globe,” he said, adding that the move implies “very little” geopolitically.

“Even though India claims Gilgit-Baltistan, it had remained under the de facto control of Islamabad. This is an attempt to turn that de facto status into de jure.”

Ian Hall, the deputy director (research) at the Griffith Asia Institute and the author of “Modi and the Reinvention of Indian Foreign Policy” told The Epoch Times in a text message that the declaration of new provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan “will irritate” New Delhi and not achieve much politically or strategically.

“This move to change the status of Gilgit-Baltistan is clearly a response to the Modi government’s revocation of Article 370 last year and the downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir to a Union Territory,” Hall said.

India’s change to the political status of Jammu and Kashmir provided Pakistan the “legal justification” to declare provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan, Aamir said.

“In the past, Pakistan has maintained the position that GB is a part of the wider Kashmir disputed region and therefore it cannot be constitutionally made a part of Pakistan. However India’s actions last August have provided Pakistan with a balancing act opportunity to grant provincial status to GB,” he said.

Routray said India’s revocation of Article 370 as a policy decision was about India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) fulfilling its electoral promise.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been seeking a provincial status and representation in Pakistan’s parliament for a long time, Aamir said.

“However, the current announcement of making GB a provincial status must also be seen in the context of elections in GB, which are scheduled to take place later this week. Therefore, people of GB are skeptical if this is just an election promise or whether the government has serious plans about granting provincial status to the region,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
Chinese laborers work on the Karakoram highway, in Gulmit village of Hunza valley in Gilgit-Baltistan on Sept. 29, 2015. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s Responses

China last year objected to the new map of Ladakh, with which it shares a disputed border and where India and China engaged in a bloody conflict and extensive military build-up this year.

The Beijing regime, however, is maintaining its “clear and consistent” position on Kashmir: that the issue is for Pakistan and India to resolve. However, China refrained from opposing Pakistan’s declaration about Gilgit-Baltistan and didn’t issue a statement.

“China has ‘noted’ the change and reiterated that the Kashmir issue is a bilateral one between India and Pakistan. Beijing, of course, settled its border dispute with Pakistan in 1963. The fact the China Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through GB is a key reason why India will not participate in BRI,” Hall said.

China’s “not-opposing” Pakistan’s move is “not new,” Phunchok Stobdan, a former Indian diplomat to Kyrgyzstan and the author of the book, “The Great Game in the Buddhist Himalayas: India and China’s Quest for Strategic Dominance,” told The Epoch Times.

“It’s mischief on GB started in 1963. It is a strategic axis that was countered by the axis between India and the Soviet Union. India-Soviet axis is gone but the former continues,” he said.

Routray said Beijing’s silence on Gilgit-Baltistan shows its “duplicitous position” and also its “tactical policy convergence” with Pakistan.

“It is highly likely that Pakistan’s move has been initiated in consultation with Beijing as both have been hand in hand regarding their policies with regard to Kashmir. By declaring Gilgit-Baltistan a province of Pakistan, Beijing hopes to play down Indian objections to the CPEC, which runs through the region,” he said.

Epoch Times Photo
A Pakistani cyclist (R) rides past the Pakistan-China Khunjerab Pass, the world’s highest paved border, in Gilgit-Baltistan on June 30, 2019. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images)

Special Economic Zone

China and Pakistan are building the Moqpondass Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Gilgit-Baltistan as part of the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor Project; Routray said the change in Gilgit-Baltistan’s status will provide this zone legality.

“Moqpondass in GB is bordered by Afghanistan to the north, China to the northeast, and the PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] to the south. It is one of the nine SEZs to be set up under the CPEC. The change in GB’s status will accord legality to the strategic SEZ,” he said.

“It will facilitate the land acquisition by the Pakistani government and help it to suppress local dissent against the Chinese projects in the region.”

Stobdan sees a larger Chinese gameplan behind the special economic zones.

“Moqpondass zone is a new addition to CPEC since last year. Some economic activities have been noticed there since. But it seems to be linked to a larger geopolitical game—essentially to make GB as a new province as a first step in order to counter India’s move and second to gradually loosen Pakistan’s control over GB and eventually fall into China’s lap. But then it will marginalize Pak’s overall position on J&K,” Stobdan said.

Aamir said the Moqpondass Special Economic Zone is facing the same problems that other CPEC economic zones are facing.

“The progress is slow due to the bureaucratic problems and the overall direction of the scheme. If and when this SEZ becomes functional, it will generate jobs and economic activity for GB, which now pretty much depends on tourism. However, the successful operation of this SEZ is a long-term project and it can’t magically be operational in the next year or so,” he said.

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