Chinese and Pakistani border guards share a moment at the Khunjerab Pass. Image: Facebook

PESHAWAR – In the run-up to recent local elections, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced he had granted “provisional” provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, a semi-autonomous state that India also claims as part of the disputed region of Kashmir.

Khan’s designation was declared soon after a closed-door meeting in September between the Pakistan army’s top brass and opposition parliamentarians, and has raised widespread speculation that China tacitly supported the potentially explosive announcement.

Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed and other senior military generals apparently advised opposition leaders on the decision, which threatens to spike tensions and possibly armed conflict with India.

Significantly, most of those who met the military’s leadership are part of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which is currently spearheading a campaign against the military’s outsized role in politics under Khan’s elected administration.

While Khan’s announcement, made on November 1, did not indicate a timeframe for formally establishing Gilgit-Baltistan into a Pakistani province, potentially the nation’s fifth, the move would help to secure the US$60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which passes through the heart of the disputed region.

How India will respond is a wild card, but analysts suggest New Delhi could opt for new ceasefire-breaking surgical strikes in the territory as it did in September 2016 across the Line of Control in Kashmir, then reputedly to hit militant launch pads.

A future strike, however, would likely be on Pakistani security forces as they move to consolidate Islamabad’s control on the territory.  

Pakistani army special forces practice fighting against terrorists. Photo: Vitaly Timkiv / Sputnik via AFP Forum

Khan’s governing Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party is now poised to form a government in Gilgit-Baltistan after outpacing the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) at November 15 local polls.

Opposition politicians have since said that the issue should have been tabled and deliberated in parliament before making what they say is a hasty decision to change Gilgit-Baltistan’s status, a move some see as a counter to India’s August 2019 withdrawal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Critics say that the top brass meeting with opposition leaders, just weeks before Khan’s formal announcement, shows that the “deep state” was pulling strings from behind the scenes and that Khan’s civilian government is fronting a military-devised design. Significantly, the military is leading the China-backed, multi-billion dollar CPEC.

Predictably, India rejected Pakistan’s designation, claiming it was an attempt by Islamabad to hide its “illegal” occupation of the territory. Indian media reports have suggested that China has pushed Pakistan to integrate the region and thus consolidate Beijing’s foothold in the contested region.

Those reports have suggested Islamabad can not likely resist Beijing’s pressure at a time it seeks to roll over a $3 billion Chinese trade finance facility that Khan’s government uses to repay maturing debts.

If China does not extend the financial facility when it expires, the reports suggest, Pakistan would find it extremely difficult to repay the sum, both because of the nation’s dire finances and current poor relations with traditional rich patrons in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Selig Seidenman Harrison, an Asia scholar with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a senior fellow at the Center of International Policy and expert on South Asian affairs, has noted in his research that anywhere between 7,000 to 11,000 People’s Liberation Army (PLA) personnel have been stationed in Gilgit-Baltistan to construct railroads, the Karakoram Highway, dams, expressways and other infrastructure projects.

Harrison has written in the past that China plans to extend its hold in Gilgit-Baltistan to develop unhindered road and rail access to oil-rich Gulf States via Pakistan, thereby bypassing sea routes that could potentially be blocked in a conflict with the United States.

Map: Twitter/IndiaPost

His academic assessments have noted that Chinese oil tankers currently take 16 to 25 days to reach the Gulf, but that the travel time would be reduced to just 48 hours with the completion of high-speed rail and road links that connect Chinese-built Pakistani ports at Gwadar and elsewhere through Gilgit-Baltistan to western China.

Harrison also previously reported in the New York Times on 22 tunnels constructed by China in secretive locations in Gilgit-Baltistan that even Pakistani soldiers reputedly are barred from accessing. He has suggested that the tunnels may serve as “missile storage sites” while also providing for a gas pipeline connecting Iran to China designed to cross the Himalayas through Gilgit-Baltistan.

Harrison’s initial reports on China’s involvement in Gilgit-Baltistan were published before the birth of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the CPEC. China’s vision for the region has taken clearer shape as BRI and CPEC projects have come into view.

China has so far invested over $30 billion in energy, rail, road and early harvest projects across the country, with another $30 billion reportedly on the way. Beijing has also earmarked investment funds for Gilgit-Baltistan’s power sector, including $8.5 billion to build the world’s tallest roller compact dam, known as Diamer-Bhasha.

The dam, scheduled to produce 4,500 MW of power for the national grid, will have a 200-square kilometer reservoir that will flood as much as 100 kilometers of irrigated agricultural land and at least 32 villages, displacing untold thousands of people.

The future of China’s massive investments in Pakistan depends on political stability in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is adjacent to China’s restive Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region where it holds over a million ethnic Uighurs in controversial camps.

Compared to the Pakistani provinces of Balochistan and Sindh, Gilgit-Baltistan is less restive. However, the region has witnessed serious sectarian strife in the past, with local Sunni militants carrying out numerous attacks on the predominantly Shiite population.

A local festival in Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan. Image: AFP

Other local groups have taken aim specifically at China’s activities and projects in the semi-autonomous territory. The Balwaristan National Front, a nationalist force agitating for Gilgit-Baltistan independence, has organized several protests against the CPEC and Pakistani authorities.

Those threats could explain why China would prefer for Islamabad to take firmer control of the territory by making it a formal province. Indeed, if the CPEC proceeds smoothly in Gilgit-Baltistan the new infrastructure could greatly reduce China’s costs of trade.

A study on the CPEC’s potential cost-saving impacts on trade, jointly authored by Pakistani and Chinese experts, shows that the once related projects are completed the average transport cost of a 40-foot shipping container between China’s Kashgar and Europe would fall by $1,350 (32.9%) and $1,450 (41.4%) to the Middle East.

Other strategic analysts suggest that the unexpected explosion of China-India border tensions in May this year, resulting in an ongoing military standoff, has amplified Gilgit-Baltistan’s strategic importance while stirring Indian apprehensions of a possible two-front war in the high mountain region.

The battlefield in Ladakh where 20 Indian soldiers were killed by Chinese troops in June along the contested region’s Line of Actual Control is a mere 173 kilometers away from Gilgit-Baltistan, where thousands of PLA soldiers are deployed for building roads, rails and dams and where Pakistan now has an eye on creating its fifth province.