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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands

September 1, 2010

SELIG S. HARRISON
The New York Times
August 26, 2010

While the world focuses on the flood-ravaged
Indus River valley, a quiet geopolitical crisis
is unfolding in the Himalayan borderlands of
northern Pakistan, where Islamabad is handing
over de facto control of the strategic
Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China.

The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of
Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to
Azad (Free) Kashmir in the south is closed to the
world, in contrast to the media access that India
permits in the eastern part, where it is
combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency. But
reports from a variety of foreign intelligence
sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani
human rights workers reveal two important new
developments in Gilgit-Baltistan: a simmering
rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx
of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

China wants a grip on the region to assure
unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf
through Pakistan. It takes 16 to 25 days for
Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When
high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and
Baltistan are completed, China will be able to
transport cargo from Eastern China to the new
Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar,
Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.

Many of the P.L.A. soldiers entering
Gilgit-Baltistan are expected to work on the
railroad. Some are extending the Karakoram
Highway, built to link China’s Sinkiang Province
with Pakistan. Others are working on dams, expressways and other projects.

Mystery surrounds the construction of 22 tunnels
in secret locations where Pakistanis are barred.
Tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas
pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the
Himalayas through Gilgit. But they could also be
used for missile storage sites.

Until recently, the P.L.A. construction crews
lived in temporary encampments and went home
after completing their assignments. Now they are
building big residential enclaves clearly designed for a long-term presence.

What is happening in the region matters to
Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its
support for the Taliban, Islamabad’s collusion in
facilitating China’s access to the Gulf makes
clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. “ally.” Equally
important, the nascent revolt in the
Gilgit-Baltistan region is a reminder that
Kashmiri demands for autonomy on both sides of
the cease-fire line would have to be addressed in a settlement.

Media attention has exposed the repression of the
insurgency in the Indian-ruled Kashmir Valley.
But if reporters could get into the
Gilgit-Baltistan region and Azad Kashmir, they
would find widespread, brutally-suppressed local
movements for democratic rights and regional autonomy.

When the British partitioned South Asia in 1947,
the maharajah who ruled Kashmir, including Gilgit
and Baltistan, acceded to India. This set off
intermittent conflict that ended with Indian
control of the Kashmir Valley, the establishment
of Pakistan-sponsored Free Kashmir in western
Kashmir, and Pakistan’s occupation of Gilgit and
Baltistan, where Sunni jihadi groups allied with
the Pakistan Army have systematically terrorized the local Shiite Muslims.

Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military
rule. Democratic activists there want a
legislature and other institutions without
restrictions like the ones imposed on Free
Kashmir, where the elected legislature controls
only 4 out of 56 subjects covered in the state
constitution. The rest are under the jurisdiction
of a "Kashmir Council" appointed by the president of Pakistan.

India gives more power to the state government in
Srinagar; elections there are widely regarded as
fair, and open discussion of demands for autonomy
is permitted. But the Pakistan-abetted insurgency
in the Kashmir Valley has added to tensions
between Indian occupation forces and an assertive
population seeking greater of local autonomy.

The United States is uniquely situated to play a
moderating role in Kashmir, given its growing
economic and military ties with India and
Pakistan’s aid dependence on Washington. Such a
role should be limited to quiet diplomacy.
Washington should press New Delhi to resume
autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists.
Success would put pressure on Islamabad for
comparable concessions in Free Kashmir and
Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan, Washington should
focus on getting Islamabad to stop aiding the
insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and to give New
Delhi a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan.

Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is
so important to China, the United States, India
and Pakistan should work together to make sure
that it is not overwhelmed, like Tibet, by the Chinese behemoth.

* Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia
Program at the Center for International Policy
and a former South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post.
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