Return of “The Great Game” in Gilgit-Baltistan

By Muhammad Raza  

In the current scenario, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan has acquired a significant amount of geo-strategic and geo-economic importance because of its historical context, its location, and its resources. It is in such a place that connects Central Asia, South Asia, and Middle Asia. Moreover, it has border connections with all key regional giants like India, china, and Pakistan. Above all, GB is the gateway of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of One Belt, One Road initiative of China. This region is rich in natural resources like water, mountains, minerals, and lakes. It has enough potential for hydropower generation (according to News International, an estimated hydropower capability of 60,000 MW, Gilgit-Baltistan ranks among the world’s most hydropower-rich areas). It also has huge potential for tourism, according to The Express Tribune, “Tourists have contributed Rs300 million to the local economy in the past few years. Moreover, the tourism boom in the region was expected to increase to 2.5 million visitors in 2018 and contribute more than Rs 450 million to the economy”. These all factors make this region considerably important for neighboring countries especially Pakistan. Additionally, all powers regional and international have special interest in this region. English Historian and Poet, John Keay called Gilgit-Baltistan a “Crow’s Nest” because of its unique position. During the chaotic and horrible division of Sub-Continent in 1947, this Crow’s nest became the territorial part of Pakistan. At that period of time, local Army Officers from Gilgit-Baltistan revolted against the Maharaja of Kashmir and liberated the region from the clutches of Dogra Raj. After that, the local administration joined the state of Pakistan unconditionally. Unfortunately, the state of Pakistan through Karachi Agreement made the liberated territory of GB, once again, the part of disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Consequently, GB was turned into some sort of colonial territory and local people were told by Pakistan that it cannot be integrated as the legal part of Pakistan until the issue of Kashmir is resolved through plebiscite.

Recently, we witnessed the reversal of this long traditional state policy towards the status of GB. Because the former prime minister of Pakistan announced, “the Provisional Provincial Status for Gilgit-Baltistan”. Many analysts believe that, it was a reaction to the abrogation of Article 370 and 35-A of Indian Constitution by N.Modi-led Hindutva inspired BJP government in India. This sudden policy shift of Pakistan towards GB is because of multiple factors. Firstly, Pakistan has realized the fact that GB is surrounded by various rising regional powers like China, India, and Russia and they all have a special vested interest in GB particularly India and China. Secondly, both China and Pakistan have recognized this fact that for the success of CPEC, GB should have a legal constitutional status. Otherwise, global rivals like USA and India will raise objections on the legal status of GB plus the credibility of CPEC. Since the inception of CPEC in 2013, GB is getting special attention from various global and regional players and actors.

First, if we analyze the interest of Pakistan in GB, it shows us it is the only land route which connects Pakistan with its time-tested friend China. In addition to that, the flagship project of CPEC is passing through GB and its success is significantly important for both China and Pakistan. Thirdly, GB has the 2nd highest number of glaciers and clean water reservoirs. Besides, it also has huge potential for tourism. Fourthly, it also provides only land access to Central Asian resources rich countries. The federal government of Pakistan is, currently, doing its paperwork, for the construction of road between GB and Tajikistan.

On the other hand, GB is critically vital for China because CPEC is passing through GB. Without the legal status of GB, CPEC corridor loses its credibility in the international arena. For China, the worst part of it is that it will cause considerable dent to the global rise of China in the global power struggle. Therefore, China covertly or overtly wants Pakistan to make GB a legal constitutional territory. Going ahead, another significance of GB for China is that it provides safe and short route for Chinese exports and imports. It is an alternative route to Strait of Malacca in South China Sea. Further, China also needs GB to strengthen its relations with Pakistan and Afghanistan to outweigh Indian regional dominance and to counter India from accessing Central Asian states. In this whole debate, one cannot ignore the Indian strategic interest in GB. It is the only region through which they can access Central Asia. An Indian thinker describes the importance of GB in this way: “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 3 great civilizations described, in another age, as the point “where 3 empires meet”. Gilgit-Baltistan was traditionally both India’s and China’s gateway to central Asia and beyond, into the heart of Europe”. Since 2013, India has been raising voices against the Chinese investment in the various sectors of development in GB.

In the furtherance, Russia under its grand foreign policy wanted to access to Gawadar Port through BRI. In 2019, during a speech at BRI forum, Putin said that Eurasian Economic Union members will coordinate and participate in BRI. To, counter and balance the rising influence of China and USA. Another important thing is that given the Russian-Ukraine war, Russia has lost most of its European trade members. To balance, this business loss, Russia needs new business partners in South Asia who will buy its exports.

Lastly, how can we skip the USA in this whole discussion? The US administration is in strong opposition of CPEC because they believe that it (CPEC) passes through a disputed territory (GB). US Defense Secretary said:” the One Belt, One Road initiative also goes through disputed territory, and I think that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate”. American analysts have this apprehension that Chinese may use the Gawader Port for their military advantage in the Arabian Sea. Therefore, they have established a military alliance known as QUAD.

This was a brief analysis of the interests of external players and actors. Now, what we must discuss is the interests, rights, and grievances of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Currently, GB is going through a series of protests and sit-ins against the various decisions taken by the Federal government. The people are demanding a reversal of decision, the increment in the prices of wheat subsidy. Furthermore, the elected provincial has failed to negotiate with the Awami Action Committee. There is some sort of resentment in the local people against the federation. They believe that the federal government unilaterally takes decisions related to the people of GB. The protesters are also against the GB Finance Act, 2023. Through this Finance act the central government wanted to raise taxes for GB. The people of GB have rejected this act because they believe that there should be no taxation without representation in the National Parliament. Another major issue raised by the protesters is the landing grabbing by provincial government under the colonial law known as “Khalsa Sarkar” (the state’s property). The people of GB demand that the status of the region is disputed, then how is it possible that the region’s uncultivated and barren lands are the state property. Since January 2024, the protests started to intensify and now they have acquired the status of whole movement. All the districts of GB are protesting the above-cited issues under the leadership of Awami Action Committee. The AAC has presented its 14-point agenda of demands. The most prominent demands are to freeze wheat subsidy at 2022 rates, cancellation of GB Finance Act, 2023, and an agreement with the federal government to get financial resources for GB. Moreover, provision of ownership of uncultivated and barren lands to the residents, free electricity for GB from Diamer-Basha Dam, and construction of Shounter Tunnel in district Astore, to promote tourisms in GB. So, after all said and done, it is not possible for Pakistan and China to continue the operations of CPEC without addressing the grievances of local people. If they continue to do so, it’ll be another Balochistan in the Northern parts of the country. Additionally, the state of Pakistan should not ignore the fact that such mass level protests are providing an opportunity to India to destabilize the region through fake anti-Pakistan propaganda in social media. We as state cannot afford a hostile and unstable GB because of its geostrategic importance. Lastly, it is hoped that the concerned authorities will address the demands of the locals in the forthcoming table talks between AAC and government.

The contributor is a student at GC University, Lahore. 

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