The insurgency BPO

What are the implications of the reported presence of an “estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers” of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Gilgit-Baltistan? Formerly known as the Northern Areas, Gilgit-Balt­i­s­tan was till 1947 part of the ki­ngdom of Jammu and Kashmir. India claims it as its territory — impracticable as the establishing of that claim may be — and its status will be decided in the final settlement of the Kashmir dispute, whenever that may happen.
Pakistan has preferred to see Gilgit-Baltistan as distinct from Jammu and Kashmir. Over the years, it has tried to spin it off as a separate entity, arguing it is culturally and geographically distinct from the core Kashmir region. More important, the Northern Areas offer a window to Central Asia, bordering China’s Xinjiang province as well as Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor and Pakistan’s very own north-western Pashtun badlands. This is Great Game country, a part of the world where imperial and neo-imperial manoeuvres never end but only get renewed.
Chinese troops have been active in Gilgit-Baltistan in the past few weeks, ministry of foreign affairs sources say, ostensibly for flood relief. There is some reason to believe the Chinese are looking for a more permanent settlement and planning to build high-speed rail links from their country, through Gilgit-Baltistan, right down to Chinese-built dual-use ports such as Gwadar (in Balochistan).
Literally and otherwise, these rail tracks could parallel the Karakoram Highway, built by China to connect Xinjiang to Pakistan and also running through Gilgit-Baltistan. As such the PLA presence is as much about disaster management — landslides and inundation are said to have blocked part of the Karakoram Highway itself this summer — as about long-term infrastructure augmentation.
China is building railway links with other South Asian countries as well. Trains will soon run from Tibet to Nepal. Train tracks originating in China will travel through Burma and end their journey in Cox’s Bazar (Bangladesh). In addition, China is upgrading infrastructure in Sri Lanka, where it is constructing a naval base in the southern coastal city of Hambantota. Obviously the city is being revitalised because Hambantota is bidding for the Commonwealth Games of 2018. No doubt it will look at the Beijing 2008 rather than the New Delhi 2010 organisational model.
The Chinese entry into Gilgit-Baltistan is, therefore, part of a strategy to hem in India, to leave a footprint on its borders, to have a Chinese voice, however thin, in its Kashmir problem and to give more and more of India’s neighbours a stake in the Chinese economy. This will make India’s neighbourhood that much more difficult for New Delhi and will dampen its great power projections. To borrow Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s words, it will “keep India in low-level equilibrium”.
However, the Chinese also have internal security concerns. Gilgit-Baltistan has been restive in the near past. There have been anti-Islamabad sentiments among the locals. A degree of Islamism has been evident as well and cross-border munitions transfers between Al Qaeda affiliates on the Pakistan side and Uighur rebels in Xinjiang have been detected. To Beijing’s mind, the Karakoram Highway has become a corridor of logistical support for the “splittists” in Xinjiang.
At one level this mirrors India’s concerns about Lashkar-e-Tayyaba training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and in Pakistani Punjab. It is not far removed from American and Afghan concerns about Al Qaeda and Taliban safe houses in Pakistan’s Pashtun areas, in southern Punjab, Quetta and Karachi and elsewhere. It is similar to Teheran’s apprehensions about sanctuaries for Iranian Baloch militia within Pakistani Balochistan.
There is one compelling difference. Indian troops don’t cross the Line of Control or the international border in hot pursuit. Iranian forces, for the most part, have respected the Pakistan-Iran border. Incursions from Kabul have largely been limited to drone attacks by the American military. In the case of China, the PLA has actually walked in and occupied Pakistani territory. In a sense, Islamabad has outsourced its Gilgit-Baltistan insurgency challenge to Beijing, and willingly surrendered sovereignty. As for China, it has begun the scramble for Pakistan even before that country has fallen apart!
This is extremely unorthodox diplomacy — if that word could be used at all — and betrays a lack of confidence on China’s part as to Pakistan’s medium-term stability and unity. Any good, patriotic Pakistani in Islamabad or Rawalpindi cannot be celebrating.
On the other hand, China’s fears and sheer desperation on the Xinjiang front are also apparent. They have exposed Beijing’s big vulnerability, its very own “soft underbelly”. Why is Xinjiang so crucial to China? It is a massive province, occupying a sixth of the country’s land mass. With 5,400 km of international frontier, Xinjiang — or the Xinjiang Uighur Auto­no­m­ous Region to give it its official name — is China’s porous zone. It shares borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India (Ladakh), Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Tibet.
Xinjiang has enormous gas and oil reserves. Lop Nor, China’s nuclear testing site, is located there. Most important, this province keeps China in the reckoning in Central Asia. In 1949, Xinjiang was dominated by Uighurs (a Central Asian people who speak Turki and claim a kinship with Turks), with only a sprinkling (about five per cent) of Hans. Today, the ratio is roughly 50:50. Over 60 years, China has massacred populations, brutalised cities and communities and resorted to large-scale demographic transformation. A year ago, bulldozers drove into Kashgar’s old city, allegedly to make its landscape earthquake resistant. Kashgar is a heritage city, an ancient trading post on the Silk Route.
The goal of the Uighurs is a free Turkestan or East Turkestan. This is broadly a secular Muslim movement but the influence of Al Qaeda affiliates has been rising in the past decade. To quote one senior diplomat, it has made Xinjiang a “tinderbox”. The Uighur struggle is unusual. It is the rare pan-Islamic cause that is not aimed at the West or Western-style democracies, or at the “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu” triumvirate.
For China’s competitors it represents an opportunity. Under a more clear-headed President, the United States will inevitably exploit it. On its part India — which regrettably denied a visa to Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uighur Congress and the best known Uighur leader now living in exile, in 2009 — too needs to wake up to the po­tential of the Xinjiang question.

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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