Accommodating China in Kashmir

While the presence of India, Pakistan and US in the region may be curtailed, it is a challenging thought to comprehend as to how authoritarian Chinese presence in the region could be controlled

The anti-totalitarian sentiment that has swept North Africa is such a focal point of global discussion, so much so that reverberations of mass protest have been felt in Beijing too.

Whilst it is clear that the great Chinese behemoth is in no mood to relent to democratic aspirations amongst its citizens, it is equally clear that it has delivered economic opportunity, education and healthcare on a scale much greater than any of it’s immediate neighbours in South/Central Asia. Therein lies one of the many conundrums that characterise the ascent of China as a major global power.

After more than a century of external interference and intrigue into its affairs, the region that had historically enjoyed high volumes of trade with the rest of the world, re-merged as the People’s Republic of China on the 1st of October 1949, under the chairmanship of Mao Zedong. China’s relationship with India and Pakistan since, hasn’t resembled a straightforward, linear curve.  

The appellation of brother, though now firmly attached to the China-Pakistan friendship was initially invoked to describe the relationship between India and China. That changed during the 1962 Indo-China War that resulted from China’s incursion into Aksai-Chin, ostensibly to build a highway. It should be elaborated here that though the territory cited above (14,380 sq miles) was a part of the erstwhile Dogra State of Jammu and Kashmir, the Chinese had never accepted the British-negotiated boundary in the 19th century. This loss of territory by India seemed to have a positive impact on Sino-Pak relations subsequently, to the extent that Pakistan decided to unilaterally cede further Kashmiri territory to China in the shape of the Trans-Karakoram Tract (2,239 sq miles) in the following year viz. 1963. Needless to add, the accompanying border agreement between China and Pakistan wasn’t recognised by India. Even less needless to add, is the absence of consultation with the Kashmiri public.

The 1960’s had further intrigues in store that affected the India-Pakistan-China triangle. For example, in the 1965 Indo-Pak War, China is reported to have gone as far as threatening to open a second front against India. Earlier, there is evidence to suggest that China had made ‘diplomatic’ efforts to woo the Kashmiri political leadership on either side of the LoC, to militarily oust India from the Kashmir Valley. In separate instances, the Chinese conducted talks directly with Sheikh Abdullah, with a representative of K H Khursheed and directly with Sardar Qayoom and Abdul Khaliq Ansari. The idea was to send batches of youth to China for training, once a batch had been prepared, it would be followed by another. Apparently, the reason cited for breakdown of talks on this side of the LoC was that contrary to Chinese insistence not to involve Pakistan in the scheme, at least one of the members decided that seeking advice from Pakistan was unavoidable.

As time moved on, India and China’s rivalry became increasingly pronounced. The 1970’s witnessed American support for China while India allied itself with the Soviets. India’s traditional support for the ‘One China’ policy has also fallen victim to the dip in relations between the two countries. India’s decision to grant asylum to the Dalai Lama was a reversal of India’s initial stance of recognising Tibet as a part of China. More importantly perhaps, post Cold-War India’s relationship with the US is seen by many to be a form of bulwark against the rise of China.

On China’s part, they inevitably saw increasing strategic mileage in bolstering Pakistan and making efforts to constrain India. Redressing the balance of power by aiding Pakistan in its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and missile technology was a move in this direction. China has also- almost-managed to deftly utilise soft and smart power to achieve what Soviet Russia couldn’t do with a military juggernaut in the 1980’s. Namely to access the warm waters of the Gulf by taking the burden of infrastructure building from the Pakistanis. This move also complicates if not stutters American interests in Pakistan. The Sino-Pak relationship also enjoys the blessings of the right-wing ‘Islamist’ brigade that in normal circumstances wishes to disrupt any relationship between Muslims and Non-Muslims.

How does all the above relate to Kashmir?

Noticing that there is a grand conflicting interplay between two emerging economic powers (India and China) combined with the dilemma of a superpower (USA) that has invested so much in the region and not forgetting the tussle between arch-rivals India and Pakistan, this has all the ingredients of a major conflagration at some point. The starting point of potential conflagration would be the region of Gilgit Baltistan. It is highly unlikely that India and the US would be comfortable with a road and possible rail link between China and the Arabian Sea. It is little wonder that the Pakistanis (and Chinese) are nervous about current discussions taking place in the US about increasing Chinese ‘encroachment’ into the Gilgit Baltistan region and a rumour that activists – hailing from this region in exile – have been given the green signal by the Americans to move for an independent State.   

Judging from comments made by various Pakistanis on the issue, it seems they still have trouble linking the denial of constitutional and economic rights to the people of Gilgit Baltistan, in relation to how they perceive Pakistan’s presence. That matters little to China but if Pakistan considers itself a democracy, it has to relent to the collective decision of the people in the region. It cannot simply assert what it perceives to be its national interest and expect the public of Gilgit Baltistan to simply adhere.

Pakistan hasn’t felt any compulsion to ask the Chinese to employ maximum local labour and transfer technology wherever it is building roads, tunnels and bridges in the region.  That would not suit its interests. The Pakistanis are happy to enjoy royalties – shared by a corrupt few – for the simple task of allocating work and territory to the Chinese. If the people of Gilgit Baltistan had constitutional and economic rights (by extension – independence) the scenario that is emerging would be difficult to imagine. Similar arguments can be made with reference to Chinese infrastructure work being carried out in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. 

While the governments of India, China, Pakistan and the US for that matter, continue to trade, conduct infrastructure-building agreements and apply self-fulfilling policies: the rage and bubbling lava that emanates from the absence of a clear, constitutional and self-determined existence for the territory bounded into the ‘Kashmir Issue’, continues to rise incessantly. While all the aforementioned sovereign countries continue indulging in their strategic calculations minus the aspirations of the people that reside in these territories, the concept of a neutral Kashmir becomes increasingly rational.

China’s increasing water shortages and rapid desertification give further explanation for their forays into the 3rd pole. Their incursions into Ladakh have gained further momentum as they secure an increasing share of territory in Gilgit Baltistan. While the presence of India, Pakistan and the US in the region may be curtailed – at least in theory – using democratic means of resistance, it is a challenging thought to comprehend as to how authoritarian Chinese presence in the region could be controlled. Engaging the international community would be imperative as engaging the Chinese in one’s experience has thus far proved to be futile.

For those in our region who see the beneficial aspects of China’s relationship with Pakistan (be it economic, to counter America and/or India) and praise China’s tactic to issue stapled visas to travellers from the Kashmir Valley, should understand that though in the short-term, it may appear as if China’s role in Kashmir is benevolent, it is highly unlikely that a country that doesn’t respect the freedom of it’s own people is going to subscribe to the aspirations of freedom of it’s neighbours.     
Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at