GILGIT BALTISTAN (G-B): In the Eye of Storm

    27-Dec-2020
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Lt Gen Dushyant Singh
 
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● Strategic importance of GB needs no elaboration. Situated on the gateway to Central Asian Republics (CAR) along the Wakhan corridor (WC), it provides unfettered access to China to Gwadar port through China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) a $66 billion venture. CPEC seeks to provide a solution to the Malacca dilemma of China. Further, due to favorable Sino-Russian partnership, China may also enhance its benefits from the vast energy and mineral resources of the CAR after development of the Wakhjir Pass, which if developed will allow China to have a direct say in internal dynamics of Afghanistan. Pictures speak a thousand words and the maps below highlight the strategic salience of Wakhan corridor and GB.
SALIENCE OF WAKHAN CORRIDOR (WC): DRIVER OF CHINESE AGGRESSION
 
● GB and WC act as the pivot of a great game being played since the last two centuries. Initially between the British Empire, the Russian Empire and China subsequently between the US, Russia and China. Two major developments are affecting the great game in this part of the world. First is the CPEC which emanates from China, runs through GB onto Gwadar port. An important constituent of the CPEC is the reconstruction and upgrading of the Karakoram Highway, a 1,300 km paved roadway across the Karakoram Mountains connecting Kashgar to Gwadar. The highway serves as an important trade and transit corridor between China and Pakistan. It has shortened the distance between China and West Asia from 15,900 km via the Malacca Strait to a 3,700 km land route through the Khunjarab pass.
● The second development is the proposed construction of a road through Wakhajir Pass located 5000 m above sea level in the Wakhan corridor by China. Despite the difficulty in construction of the road through Wakhjir Pass once completed it will be the most economical route between China and Central Asia. It will fulfill twin Chinese aims of first enhanced economic and military presence in the region surpassing that of the USA and Russia. Second, shorter pipeline routes for transportation of energy will benefit the Chinese energy needs and also fuel the growth of Central Asian Economies. Afghanistan has already signed a 30-year lease for the copper mine to the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) for $3.5 billion, making it the biggest foreign investment and private business venture in the history of Afghanistan. In return, China has offered to build a power plant and a railroad from China to service the mine, which could nearly triple the investment. The WC has a major implication on the geo-politics and geo-economics of the entire region, especially the four countries bordering the WC i.e., Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.
 
NEW GREAT GAME
 
● The US and to some extent Russia will be marginalised by the new great game being played silently by China. While the Russians may still have some say in the region due to their proximity to the place and close Sino-Russian relations, the US stands to lose influence substantially following the withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan. In fact, there was a time when Obama wanted access to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor and had requested the Chinese to develop the road to Wakhjir Pass as an alternative to Pakistan. However, the Chinese had refused to oblige Obama. But oblivious to the whole world China has been developing a road connectivity to the most treacherous Wakhjir pass in WC. The region is important to Russia, China, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and India but China has been extending its control in the W-C by undertaking unilaterally cross border patrolling in the region.
● Also, there are confirmed reports that the Chinese are in the process of developing a military base a fact that has been formally denied by China, but contrary to this in January 2018, Afghan General Davlat Vaziri said, “Afghanistan would build a new military base in Badakhshan — adding that it is being paid for by China.” One of the reasons for China to extend its military influence into Afghanistan, GB and Tajikistan is to prevent the influence and support of the Muslim population residing in the border areas of these countries to support the Uighur Muslims of Xinjiang. As per South China Morning Post, in 2016, China detained around 50 Uighur women married to people suspected of having links with “The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP)”. TIP is separatist group founded by militant Uighurs. It has been blamed by China for violent attacks in Xinjiang along with Al-Qaeda. Some reports suggest that approximately 200 to 250 TIP militants are active in Badakhshan province of Afghanistan.
 
EFFORTS TO CHECKMATE INDIA
 
● India is one of the major stakeholders in the region which has resisted the efforts of China to systemically grab territory and make India tow its line. Legally India is one of the players of the great game even after the end of the British Raj. However, India has been deprived of its right over G-B by some strategic lapses initially made by India when we did not pursue the capture of Gilgit and Baltistan in 1948. As per all legal documents and physical control of G-B pre 1947 – 48 war, it was and is part of Ladakh region under the J&K state. Halting the Indian operations after capture of Kargil was definitely a monumental blunder, especially when we had the Pakistani Army on the run. One should also take into account that the people of Western Ladakh bordering GB have similar ethnicity and are predominantly Shia Muslims, although due to orchestration of Pakistan the Shia’s are gradually losing their majority status to the Sunnis. This is a dangerous trend. Abrogation of Article 370 and reorganization of J&K into UT of J&K and UT of Ladakh has further hardened the attitude of the Dragon towards India. They feel that the Indian elephant has finally woken up from its slumber and is eyeing to be part of the New Great Game in the Pamirs. Multiple intrusions into Ladakh, Galwan violence and subsequent information war campaign being waged by it against India all add to explain the current Chinese approach to India. The days of co-existence through cooperation and competition have given way to Conflict by salami slicing. China-Pakistan collusivity is now more forthright and visible as evident from some recent actions by Pakistan such as attempt to change the status of GB, conduct of illegal elections that too reportedly rigged, publishing farce of a map of J&K showing Ladakh and Junagadh as part of Pakistan. Actions by Pakistan and even China are being taken with utter disregard to past treaties and international laws. What should India do to remain in the game?
 
UNHINGING THE GREAT GAME OF THE DRAGON
 
 
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Dislocating the Dragon, the Sole Player in the Great Game
The new great game currently is done and dusted with only a semblance of opposition by India. The US is virtually out of it with Trump announcing unilateral withdrawal ignoring even the NATO allies; unless the Biden administration decides otherwise. Russians seem to be consistently towing the line of the Chinese which is evident from the approach of Russia vis - a - vis China in the Galwan crisis and during the Nagorno-Karabakh war. In the GB – WC region too, it seems to be satisfied with the role of a marginal player not keen to cross swords with China. We cannot expect much from Russia. This leads to the Indian Dilemma: what should India do to unhinge the game being played by the Dragon as the sole orchestra master?
  1. The option could be to bring in the other big player in the region, Russia in the Chinese Checker. Can we convince Russia to do so? The current geo-political scenario seems unlikely. The only hope India has is to play on the desire of a former Super Power to regain its rightful place in the world order. Russia would be loath to play second-fiddle to China for long. The vacuum created by the likely withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan can be worked upon by India to convince the Russians to step in the game as equal partners in the region. But can India swing it? Putin backing India in the GB-WC region is a very remote possibility but there is no harm working on it. For example, India could take a more ambivalent position towards Russia wherever the Russian interests are involved such as its confrontation with the West over issues such as Crimea, Ukraine, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh. Selectively, continue defense procurements with Russia despite US objections.
  2. Roping in the US into the great Game- Can we get the US into the new great game? Trump was determined to withdraw from the region. However, ISAF is not in favour of a premature and unplanned withdrawal without ensuring a secure arrangement to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a region to mount terror attacks in Europe and other Western Countries. With Presidency now shifting to Biden in January 2021 the chances are that withdrawal will be delayed. If we take note of a recent statement by Leon Panetta former Director CIA and Secretory of Defense of USA during Clinton administration US is likely to delay its withdrawal. However, this is no guarantee that the US under Biden will pander to specific Indian interests in GB-W-C dynamics given the consistent criticism of India over human rights issues by even a semi – Indian origin US Vice President Designate Kamala Harris. But Biden should be reminded about China’s ulterior motives when it denied access to US troops in Afghanistan via the Wakhajir pass (WC) during Barack Obama’s presidency. NSA designate Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken should consider this aspect while advising the President designate. The USA super spy CIA should by now have picked up the development of the road through the Wakhan Corridor. Impunity with which China disregards international agreements needs to be brought center stage by India to swing the world opinion against China. A number of agreements have been broken unilaterally by China, be it India, Japan, Australia, Taiwan, Hogkong, or International Laws of the Sea in South and East China Sea. The narrative of Biden administration must go beyond terrorism to opposing countries with hegemonic policies. Recent statements of restoring US to old ways by its NSA designate Jake Sullivan may not be enough to deter China from its expansionist designs. His statement that economic security is national security will only further embolden China. The stated intention by future Biden administration that they will implement policies that ensure return to multilateralism, global cooperation and fighting climate change sounds too idealistic.
  3. Economic measures to hurt China as is being taken by the Government of India should continue-Steps such as banning of 267 apps from China which threaten national security like PUBG, Tik-Tok, Weibo, Ali Express etc. Although in the short term, banning of low-end Chinese products may pinch the citizen but in the long-run, it will help in making India Aatmnirbhar. As per Mr. Piyush Goyal Union Cabinet Minister of India, trade deficit with China declined to $5.8 billion in the April-June 2020-21 period from $13.1 billion in the same period due to the effort of the government to reduce its dependence on China. This is a welcome development but while doing so the Government should also focus on finding alternatives to its dependence on China. The country’s decision to stay out of the RCEP may appear incorrect economically but given the Chinese behavior it is unlikely that India would have benefitted from the RCEP. It may be worth noting that China has banned a number of Australian products such as barley, sugar, red wine, timber, lobsters and cooper despite Australia signing the RCEP and its PM Scott Morrison approaching China for reconciliation. Given the highly antagonistic attitude of China towards Australia, it is most unlikely that India would have been treated any better as we are currently locked in an even more hostile situation with China than Australia. However, these developments in the Indo – Pacific should give us a glimmer of hope of creating an RCEP minus China by weaning away countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines and Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.
  4. New NATO, India must take the lead to build a new NATO (QUAD plus France and UK) with Indo-Pacific as the central focus. This assumes even greater importance as the changed ruling dispensation in the US under Biden may not push for the QUAD the way it was being done by the Trump administration. However, to do so we need to exploit and play up the anti-Chinese sentiments in a shuttle yet firm manner. Attitude of China towards Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and its scant regard for International laws of the Seas, all need to be played up in global forums. The role of India in the UN Security Council as a temporary member will be pivotal in this regard. The days of ambivalence need to be jettisoned. Adequate reasons exist to promote a New NATO for the Indo-Pacific call it as QUAD Plus or by any other suitable name. Hard power projection in the Indo-Pacific is necessary to unhinge China from the GB – WC towards the Indo-Pacific. The fact that barring USA and to some extent Australia, India is the only country which has stood up to the Chinese expansionism and belligerence needs to be cashed in amongst the comity of nations.
  5. Development of comprehensive national power (CNP)- A credible hard power capability through a mechanism of short-term foreign procurements and mid to long term indigenization initiative to develop India’s defense capability has to be undertaken. In the short-term procurement of niche technology effect-based weapon systems and equipment on AI, platforms must be made on priority. Simultaneously, where feasible indigenization initiatives need to be worked on to create a sustainable military capability.
  6. Discard ambivalence- The strategy of ambivalence needs reconsideration. We need to take a firm position on China. The current global geo-political environment appears highly polarized between pro-China or anti-China stance. India due to recent events has no choice but to go with anti-China alignment. It is time to call spade a spade and not cloak it in a velvet box. China has unsettled borders only with India and Bhutan. For how long will we be back stabbed by China through its strategy of Unrestricted Warfare and 3 Wars strategy? Sun Tzu now has to be responded by Kautilya and we have the current winter season to think through the possible Chinese intention and likely actions that they may take against India in the forthcoming summer season.
  7. Discredit Pakistan- One of the most significant players of the new great game in absence of GB not being with India is Pakistan. It has twisted rules, ceded territory, and given unfettered access to China in perpetuity. India must not miss any opportunity to discredit it. It recently conducted elections in GB which is legally an Indian territory. It further disregarded the aspirations of the people of GB when Imran Khan’s party PTP blatantly rigged the elections. There are reports that people of GB have staged demonstrations against the Government of Pakistan. DIG Waqas Ahmed of Pakistan commenting on the elections had said that PPP workers termed the results rigged and held a protest. Demonstrations were also staged in several areas of Gilgit-Baltistan, including Skardu and Chilas. India must further shed its cloak of idealist policy and wage the war against Pakistan and China in grey zone by taking a leaf out of the Chinese strategy of 3 W’s (Psychological Warfare, Influence Warfare and Legal Warfare), on them itself.
We also need to play up various dissenting voices in GB, Pakistan occupied J&K and rest of the peripheral states of Pakistan through diplomatic, social media, and international public opinion campaigns. For example, we have failed to exploit the statement of Barrister Hamid Bashani, a native from Pakistan occupied J&K and a Human Rights Advocate on demographic changes in GB in a seminar. He had said that people of GB have been agitating against the abolition of state subject law by Pakistan which has adversely affected the demographic character of GB. These changes, he said, can be gauged by observing Shias who constituted more than 80% of GB population in 1948 have now been reduced to less than 40%. Such demographic orchestration has been attempted by Pakistan even in the POK area. With such a track record, Pakistan has no locus-standi to object to India on any of its actions in J & K, which are more just and will stand the scrutiny in any international court of law. In summary India must wage an unrestricted 3 W strategy to discredit Pakistan and encourage peripheral border population to rise against the government and the Pakistan Army. The aim should be to let Pakistan wither under its own contradictions – win the war with Pakistan without fighting.
 
     8. Promote current Afghanistan Government. Afghanistan will be the key to the alternate land silk route of China’s mega BRI project if the WC road is successfully constructed through the Wakhajir. China is hoping to keep Afghanistan on its side through Pakistani support. Simultaneously, it is strongly backing the ongoing peace talks between the US, Government of Afghanistan and Taliban with mediation also being sought from Pakistan. China has already started cozying up with Iran. We need to ensure that the current government retains a major say even after withdrawal of the US forces. We must wage a focused information warfare to convince USA to stay as long as possible and keep Afghanistan relevant so that China and Pakistan are prevented from marginalizing India from the great game.
Enhance Presence in CAR especially Tajikistan. India has to extend its influence in the CAR for which its access to the region has to have multiple options either via Afghanistan or Iran or GB-WC. This can only happen if the twin conditions of weakening of the Chinese influence in the GB – WC and decoupling the China-Pak nexus. Towards this end the Chinese presence in Tajik territory along the Wakhan corridor poses a serious concern to Indian ambitions and interests in TAR. India’s air base at Farkhor, Tajikistan- lacks punch as it does not have any combat squadrons operating from the base which was established in 2002 with the tacit support of the Russians. With no active combat squadrons, the airbase does not provide India with an alternative attack route against China and Pakistan or the ability to affect militant operations in Kashmir. The base’s main function is to transport India’s relief and reconstruction supplies into Afghanistan. If India has to pose a serious challenge, then it has to strengthen its presence in the CAR especially in Tajikistan. This will pose a caution to the Chinese as well as the Pakistanis however, for this Russians have to be worked upon and taken on board. India must counter the Chinese great game by dual presence in Afghanistan and Tajikistan in the West and North and by its own domination from the South.
 
PARTING SHOT
 
● What emerges loud and clear from the above discussions is that unless we convince the global community to take an anti-China stance, we will be unable to secure our national interest in the GB-WC. We have to work towards creating a militarised QUAD plus 2 and strengthen our military presence in Tajikistan. We have to engineer a split in the OIC by weaning away most of the OIC countries from Pakistan and form an alternative trading mechanism to RCEP by like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific. We need to keep the US away from China – Pak – Turkey axis and keep attempting to retain Russia on the side of India or even neutral. And finally, without a credible military capability incorporating niche technologies, waging a warfare in the grey Z and holding on to our gains in Ladakh we will be able to influence the new strategic game in GB – WC and secure the interests of the country.