Director of the Asia Programme at the Centre for International Policy Selig H. Harrison’s report on the recent deployment of Chinese troops in the Gilgit region of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) has caused concern in South Asia. By way of denial, Pakistan and China haven’t refuted the presence of the troops but their purpose. Pakistan claims they were there to assist in “flood control”. Zhao Gang Cheng of the Shanghai-based Institute of International Studies stated that the purpose was for considerations of economy and energy and not to pose a threat to anyone.
The Chinese are conscious of the vulnerability of their Sea Line of Communications (Sloc) to disruption by any hostile navy in the event of a conflict. China’s dependence on imported oil is now to the tune of 56 per cent. By 2015, it will go up to two-thirds of China’s energy needs and by 2030 it would touch four-fifth. Hence the Chinese paranoia over the vulnerability of its energy imports. To achieve a supply chain that is less vulnerable to disruption from outside factors, China has devised a ‘Malacca Bypass Strategy’ that seeks to re-route its oil inflows via overland routes and pipelines. A key component of this strategy hinges upon its investment in the Gwadar Port of Pakistan and the frenzied construction/upgradation of a triple-tier rail and road highway along with a gas pipeline that will carry Iranian gas to China’s Western Provinces. This will reduce a 16,500-km journey to just 2,500 km. This Chinese oil and gas artery via Pakistan and the Shia rebellious province of Gilgit in PoK has become a core Chinese interest.
But China has an ingrained habit of defining core interests and vital communications arteries. Over time it becomes prepared to launch ‘self defence’ counter attacks to ‘safeguard’ these arteries. For example, in the 1962 India-China war, a key Chinese concern was its perceived threat to the Aksai Chin highway that connects Tibet with Xinjiang. It perceived India’s ‘Forward Policy’ (of establishing its claims by token posts in disputed areas) a threat. If Pakistan persists with its terrorist provocations, a limited war between the two nations could erupt. China could view it as a threat to Gwadar–Karakoram energy lifeline and intervene militarily.
This is not mere conjecture. There has been an alarming shift in the Chinese stance over Kashmir. From complete neutrality in the Kargil war of 1999, China now assertively claims J&K as disputed territory. It’s even rejecting visas to Indian citizens from J&K. It has now deliberately escalated the level of provocation by denying a visa to Lt Gen. B.S. Jaswal (Army Commander Northern Command) on the plea that he commands troops in J&K. The same logic didn’t apply to the Eastern Army Commander, who commands our forces in Arunachal Pradesh. This is not a minor shift of stance or nuance. It’s a major, and deliberate, provocation.
The Chinese troops in Gilgit are reportedly involved in the upgradation of the existing Karakoram Highway to double-lane status and adding a new railroad and a gas pipeline. What’s most baffling is the construction of 22 tunnels to which even Pakistani troops are not allowed. One speculation is that these are designed to store the new aircraft carrier killer Dong Feng 21 anti-ship missiles, which can move down the Karakoram Highway to attack America or Indian aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf. If true, then it would be a strange way for Pakistan to repay its American patrons for their generous aid. The positioning of the missiles will also have a significant impact on our naval operations in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf.
China’s moves have long-term implications that we can’t afford to overlook. There is an urgent need to speed up our arms acquisition process. We can’t postpone them to a distant date in 2025, the date line being based on the presumption that we must complete our economic reconstruction first and then build up our military muscle by 2025. Will our adversaries patiently wait and watch till then? This decade could be critical in terms of sudden and non-linear changes. The reports of a sizeable Chinese military presence in Gilgit and its change in stance on the status of J&K are an ominous shift of pattern that is cause for serious disquiet.
G.D. Bakshi is a retired Major General of the Indian Army
The views expressed by the author are personal