Selig Harrison loses no opportunity to show that Pakistan's disintegration is only around the corner and prove that Sino-Pakistan relations threaten US interests.
Northern Areas were never officially treated as part of Kashmir that is under Pakistan’s control. Ever since the Muslim population of this remote mountainous region liberated itself from the controversial Dogra ruler of Jammu & Kashmir through an indigenous revolt in November 1947 and opted to cede to Pakistan, it had been insisting that it should be treated as a separate entity and not as part of the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir. These people argued that they were ethnically and linguistically different from the Kashmiris and historically their region was never part of Jammu and Kashmir, except for a short time when the Sikh ruler of Kashmir annexed it against their will. The area was later taken over and ruled directly by the British, but was annexed again by the Dogra ruler in early 1947 against the advice of Mahatma Gandhi who on August 2, 1947 called for Gilgit to be awarded autonomy and allowed to govern itself in order to preserve its traditional ways. The people, therefore, could not be faulted for their demand for an autonomous province of Pakistan.
But the Pakistan Government desisted from heeding the demand for provincial status for the Northern Areas owing to a concern that it would justify future attempts by India to absorb two-thirds of Jammu and Kashmir. Since India showed no intentions of settling the Kashmir dispute and the people of Northern areas were anxious to go on with their lives, Pakistan responded by promulgating the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 in August 2009 that granted self-rule to its people by creating, among other things, a new province called Gilgit Baltistan with a 33-member elected legislative assembly. “You are getting your identity today. It is your right and has been your demand, and today we are fulfilling it”, said Pakistan’s prime minister to the people.
The Pakistan government also unveiled a multi-billion rupee development package aimed at socio-economic uplift of the people in the areas of education, health, agriculture, tourism and the basic needs of life. Recent elections have installed the assembly and a political government and the people rejoice in the recognition of their political identity. But nowhere can the discontent or the rebellion be seen that Mr. Harrison is talking about.
The autonomy package has obviously angered India, drawing its criticism. India claims this area to be also its integral part along with the rest of Jammu & Kashmir. Pakistan promptly rejected Indian criticism. It is this Indian sentiment that is reflected in Mr. Harrison’s story.
The region has proved pivotal in providing a solid foundation for Pakistan’s friendship with China and has borne rich mutual dividends. But India has always looked with suspicion at the deep ties of friendship and cooperation between them owing to its own strained relations with both countries. Not only have China and Pakistan proven to be good neighbors and all-weather friends, they have forged a stable, strategic partnership that serves their common interests and is conducive to peace and prosperity in the region. China has always stood by Pakistan in every crisis and has, as a trusted ally, an abiding interest in Pakistan’s security.
Over the past five decades, China has helped Pakistan in several large projects vital for Pakistan’s economic development, notable among which are nuclear power plants, Karakorum Highway and the landmark Gawadar Port in southern Balochistan. Sino-Pak economic, trade and technological cooperation continues to expand.
To improve land transportation between the two countries and promote centuries old border trade through the ancient Silk Road between Gilgit Baltistan and Xinjiang, the two countries jointly constructed the most difficult all-weather 808 miles long highway connecting Kashgar in Xinjiang province of China to Islamabad, passing through Khunjerab Pass at an altitude of 4,693 meters (15,397 feet). Called Karakorum Highway, or KKH, it is known to be the highest paved international border and as an incredible feat of engineering it is recognized as the “Ninth Wonder of the World”. The highway was chiseled out of a treacherous terrain of the Karakorum Mountains. The graves and memorials constructed along the road in the memory of 810 Pakistani and 82 Chinese workers who lost their lives during the 20-year construction period, speaks volumes of this lasting symbol of Pak-China friendship. It has opened up the traditionally landlocked Gilgit Baltistan region to trade and development.
Upgrading of 600 kilometers of KKH to make it suitable for heavy container traffic and linking it to Gawadar Port is now underway with the Chinese help. China and Pakistan are also working to link Gawadar port and Xinjiang through the new Chinese-aided railway network. This will, on the one hand, turn Gawadar Port and KKH into a trade corridor for China and other Central Asians states and also create in Gawadar an energy transport and industrial hub providing direct and economical access to Arabian Sea for both China and resource rich Central Asian states. On the other hand, this will generate billions of dollars in revenues for Pakistan and likely create about two million jobs.
Pakistan and China have also recently signed agreements to help energy starved Pakistan to utilize the hydel potential offered by the area by constructing Diamer-Bhasha and Bunji dams. China also has an interest in importing gas from Iran by joining the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that will also pass through Gilgit Baltistan.
The repairs and expansion of KKH, the new rail link, the hydel projects, the gas pipeline and the industrial projects that will take years to complete should explain the need for long-life accommodation for Chinese workers, as well as the 22 tunnels in Gilgit Baltistan region, which Mr. Harrison is so concerned about and which he fears could be used for missile storage. Given Mr. Harrison’s claim about geopolitical expertise, one would like to know from him who would choose to store missiles, and why, in this difficult mountainous terrain, so far removed from the point of usage, particularly when the area is prone to frequent and massive landslides and road blockages? Why will China come all the way south to another country or Pakistan go north to such remote location to store critical weapon systems from where their timely and urgent retrieval cannot be guaranteed?
In the backdrop of the wide ranging and publicized cooperation between China and Pakistan, the presence of Chinese workers in Gilgit Baltistan and Balochistan should not be surprising to the Indians. But because they abhor Sino-Pak collaboration and must prove complicity of both countries in endangering Indian security, as if in tandem with the Times article, India lost no time in declaring its readiness “to face the Chinese threat”. The Hindustan Times, in a story dated August 29, quotes military sources as saying that in view of Chinese having escalated their aggressive designs on the country’s border areas, “The Army has activated its airfields along the Line of Actual Control and enhanced its military presence and capabilities in the area. The roads to these airfields have been upgraded.” Upgraded? Really? In just 3 days following Mr. Harrison’s story? Efficient indeed!
In an environment of rocky Pakistan-US relationship, Mr. Harrison did not miss the opportunity to add fuel to the fire. He has opined that, 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”. Interesting conclusion! Perhaps in Mr. Harrison’s political jargon an ‘ally’ is supposed to mean a ‘vassal’. He forgets that by being an ally of the US, Pakistan has neither surrendered its freedom, nor has it forfeited its right to pursue its national interests. It has the same right to maintain relations with other powers as the US has in choosing to strengthen its relations with India, despite Pakistan’s concerns about the latter posing a threat to Pakistan’s security.
And despite being an ally of the US, which is a seasonal relationship at best, why should Pakistan not leverage its Arabian Sea port by providing shipping and transit facilities to the Chinese or the Central Asian countries and attain long term economic benefits that will assure self reliance and freedom from poverty? The West and this includes the US, neither share Pakistan’s geography nor its values. Why should Pakistan ever think of abandoning its old and trusted Chinese friends?
Who is Mr. Harrison trying to fool?