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Understanding the geo-strategic significance of Gilgit Baltistan

The region of Gilgit Baltistan has immense geostrategic importance due to its geographical location, economic potential, and essentiality. To explain the issue better, Urooj Jamal argues that the entire world knows about the geostrategic implications of Gilgit and India is also yet to conceive its importance. This can be a concerning factor for Pakistan.

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The past couple of years have seen quick shifts of events and, with them, significant alterations in the geopolitical landscape of South Asia. All these events deeply influence the future policy discourses about GB and must be looked into in close connection with their impacts on the future of GB.

The August 2019 abrogation of Article 370 on the status of Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir (IIJ&K), the following hawkish statements from Indian polity about GB being the “endgame” of India, Indian attempts at building infrastructure in Ladakh parallel to the part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in GB, the consequent violent clash between China and India, the unceremonious US-withdrawal from Afghanistan and the swift Taliban takeover—all point to the fact that GB is going to be the center of the Great Game once more. And as it has already begun, Pakistan needs to be extra vigilant.

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Why India has set its sight on GB?

After illegally altering the status of IIJ&K, the short-sighted and bellicose policymakers of India have set their eyes on GB. The BJP-led and RSS-guided government of India follows an expansionist agenda despite appeals of a cooperative and development-oriented foreign policy from the moderate Indians. There have been voices of ‘reclaiming’ the GB region in order to provide India a land-based connection to Afghanistan, and ultimately the vast energy reservoirs of Central Asia. However, these myopic ideologues fail to see the catastrophic consequences of any such misadventure.

74 years ago, the people of GB made a decision, they fought for and won their freedom from the decades-long oppressive Dogra rule all by themselves and willingly merged with Pakistan for they knew that their security and progress can be best served with their country.

Despite its formal annexation with Pakistan, GB still remains in political limbo. Gaining full-fledged constitutional status has been a decades-long aspiration of the people of GB. A strong constitutional status for GB is also crucial for the prosperity of the region and the success of multilateral developmental projects such as CPEC, and hence must be provided. The withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan has also opened new avenues for GB to become a transit point between South Asia, Central Asia, and China.

Of course, the success of this possibility will depend upon the internal dynamics of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. However, if Afghans become able to attain internal stability, Pakistan and China should take no time in taking Afghanistan on board on CPEC and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The inclusion of Afghanistan in CPEC will be a win-win-win situation for Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan.

Read more: Gilgit Baltistan govt to nominate Ali Sadpara for civil award

Why is GB important?

GB is the entry point for CPEC, the flagship project of China’s vital BRI. CPEC provides an alternative route for China’s exports and imports, helping it to bypass the chokepoint in the Malacca Strait near the South China Sea, arising due to the intensifying US influence there. The founding father of the People’s Republic of China Mao Tse-tung once said, “When the enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue”.

Acting upon the words of its revolutionary leader, China has adopted a policy of ‘pursue’ in Central Asia and Afghanistan from where the US appears to be ‘retreating’, in an attempt to avoid the Indo-Pacific bottlenecks where the American ‘advances’ have enhanced in recent years. Indeed, Afghanistan has been a missing piece in the puzzle of China’s BRI policy towards Central Asia, and that too seems to be resolved now that the US is leaving. This changing geopolitical situation has much to offer to Pakistan, particularly the GB region.

In the present geopolitical setup, even a cursory look at the map of Asia shows how significant GB is for various geostrategic and geo-economic reasons. It lines with the KPK province of Pakistan to the west, the strategic Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan to the North, the rising global power China to the northeast, Azad Kashmir to the southwest, and Indian Illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir to the East and Southeast. The Wakhan corridor that lies in its north is the only land-based route for South Asia to connect with Central Asia—a region that some analysts consider as the future of energy security for the rapidly growing economies.

Hence, GB is located at the confluence of three strategically extremely important regions—Central Asia, South Asia and China. This highlights the vitality of GB for providing Pakistan a linkage with China and Central Asia that is extremely important for the geo-economic future of Pakistan.

Read more: 50 rare Himalayan Ibex spotted in Gilgit Baltistan in video

As for the landlocked Central Asian republics and Afghanistan, GB provides the shortest route to the Arabian Sea through the warm-water ports of Pakistan, notably the port of Gwadar. Both the Central Asian states and Afghanistan can gain enormously from the connectivity that CPEC and BRI have to offer. Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan generate hydropower in abundance in summer while suffering shortages during winters. While in Pakistan, electricity demands peak in summer and decline in winter.

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan can, thereby, sell their surplus electricity to Pakistan in summer and use the revenue gained to manage winter shortages. Furthermore, the success of the 1.6 billion dollar electricity transmission Central Asia-South Asia 1000 (CASA 1000) project and the Trilateral Transit Trade Agreement between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan also depends upon the success of connectivity between these three countries with GB being at its center. In addition, GB also provides the landlocked, terrorism-stricken and militancy-prone nation of Afghanistan a chance to enhance its infrastructural development and uplift its economy by increasing and diversifying its trade base.

Pakistan’s move in GB: What does it mean for India?

GB has the potential to become a transit point for trade -flows into and out of Pakistan, and such a model must be put to work for GB without unnecessary delays. Any challenge to this prospect arising from Pakistan’s eastern side can be countered by making the CPEC project as inclusive as possible. This can be done by inviting as many actors as possible to be a part of CPEC, including Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and countries from South Asia and Central Asia.

India too should be asked to consider a win-win instead of sticking to its traditional zero-sum politics. As any attempt to forcibly wrest GB on the pattern of ancient expansionism against the will of its people and norms of the international community would trigger a catastrophic, unwinnable and multi-front war among nuclear-armed countries.

The geostrategic location of GB, situated along major trade routes that link regions with each other, plays the role of a catalyst boosting not only trade levels of Pakistan but also the aggregate trade volume of Asia. This land inhabiting some of the world’s tallest mountains and stunningly beautiful valleys has the potential to serve as a gateway for prosperity to flow in the form of increased trade, business, and tourism into Pakistan, the rest of Asia, and even beyond.

Read more: Will Gilgit Baltistan elections reshape Pakistani politics?

It offers development opportunities to all. It has served this purpose in the past as well when traders, tourists, and peace-promoting preachers traveled into and out of South Asia via the Ancient Silk Road. Seemingly, it is prepared to assume that role yet again.

The writer is based in Gilgit-Baltistan and a Nuclear Scholar Fellow at The Centre for Security Strategy and Policy Research (CSSPR). She writes for e-newspapers and magazines and is currently working as the associate editor of The Karakoram Monthly Magazine. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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