India has, finally, expressed its displeasure at the Sino-Pak Economic Corridor project intended to link the Pakistan port of Gwadar in Balochistan on the Arabian Sea with the Chinese city of Kashgar through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. This came after Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a 46 billion dollar deal to create an Economic Corridor connecting the two cities.
The deal has been described as a “strategic game changer”. India will rue the failure do something to stop the project or inveigle a concomitant facility that will allow Indian access to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics across the Amu Darya as suggested by STRATEGIC AFFAIRS in one of its editions. The logic was that there could be regional connectivity favorable to all stakeholders till such time that a peaceful resolution of the disputed territory occurs. Thus India would be allowed easy, untrammeled access to Afghanistan even as Pakistan and China utilize the Economic Corridor for their own and the region’s benefit.
Even as Indian Navy Chief Admiral Robin Dhowan talks of monitoring all surface and subsurface foreign presence including Chinese in the Indian Ocean littoral, India is about to be presented with a dangerous fait accompli on land it has hitherto laid claims to but did nothing to enforce those claims.
In about three years the Sino-Pak project will have road, railway and gas and oil pipelines traversing Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, effectively blocking Indian access to its traditional allies in Central Asia and beyond- Indian reference to sharing a border with Afghanistan (the Wakhan corridor in the Pamirs connecting the princely State of Jammu and Kashmir to Kabul in Afghanistan). That bit of territory in the Shashgam salient had been ceded by Pakistan to China in 1963-soon after China attacked India. The reference to the Wakhan segment of the Indo-Afghan border makes little sense given that nothing has been done to date to secure the vacation of the joint Pakistan-China occupation of the territory belonging to the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir which had acceded to India. There is a legalese that says that “possession is nine-tenths the law”.
The Sino-Pak Economic Corridor replicates what China is doing in the Pacific Ocean-South China Sea littoral where it has been constructing landing and berthing strips on deserted atolls and islands for operations by aircraft and ships/submarines to affirm its irredentist claims. Vietnamese, Filipinos and Malaysian claims are being ignored and no attempt is being made to resolve the issues through bilateral or even multilateral dialogue with the Association of South East Asian nations (ASEAN). India supports Vietnam’s claims on offshore oil reserves and is helping Vietnam exploit the reserves lying on the seabed of its continental shelf. When push comes to a shove as has happened between a US reconnaissance aircraft and the Chinese Navy in disputed waters, it will be difficult for India to match naval forces with China in support of Vietnam.
Much the same kind of military buildup is taking place along the Karakoram Highway and across the whole alignment of the Economic Corridor. Among the first of the tasks allotted to Pakistan was the raising of a new Division of the Pakistan Army specifically intended to deal with any local resistance to the Chinese presence on their land and violation of their way of life and means of livelihood. It is not surprising that the raising of this Division was the first act in the emerging scenario. It was raised and ready long before the signing of the deal itself. The reason was that in the hydroelectric projects where Chinese engineers were deployed several of them had been kidnapped and killed as at Gomal Zam.
Also, along the Karakoram Highway wherever reconstruction or maintenance work was underway, the local villagers would boycott the project and refuse to work. That is why the Chinese had to deploy several thousand Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel to protect their work force. The troops were camouflaged as engineers and workers. Their numbers varied from 9,000 (American Intelligence assessment) to 4000 (Indian Intelligence assessment).The analysis was that Pakistan was preparing to hand over a large chunk of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir for China to administer even as the Economic Corridor was being surveyed and finalized on the ground. For that Chinese troops were a necessary ingredient.
Already there has been some heartburn among the provinces about the alignment of the Economic Corridor from its source in Gwadar to its culmination in Kashgar. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party of former cricketer Imran Khan which leads the coalition ruling the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (former NWFP) province had agitated against reports suggesting that the alignment would be changed to manage the security threat posed by the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan insurgency in KP. Also, it raised the age-old fears that the Punjabis would get away with the cream in the project by diverting it over a larger stretch of Punjab. That was soon contradicted by the Central Government.
Fears of the security of the Economic Corridor in Pakistan are very real. For years the Balochistan nationalists have been blowing up the gas pipelines leading out of the Sui gas fields in their province. This frequently leaves large parts of Sindh and Punjab bereft of gas-fired energy. More recently, the embattled Pakistan Taliban has issued a directive to its cadres to capture and kill the Chinese wherever they are found. This, in support of the Uighur rebellion against the Chinese in the Xinjiang province.
Options for India
As far as India is concerned there is little room for complacency. It could create a circuitous route via Chabahar port in Iran to reach Afghanistan and beyond. It should also resurrect the undersea gas/oil pipeline for supplies of Iranian and possibly Tajik gas as an alternative route for its energy supplies. It could yet turn out to be a more secure linkage than the Sino-Pak Economic Corridor which, given former General Pervez Musharraf’s brainchild, is clearly intended to cut India off from Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics.
There is a new line of diplomacy that India should pursue. Given the great tectonic pressures that the Himalayan region is experiencing as evidenced by the Nepal earthquake, India should stoke international concerns about the environmental feasibility of laying oil and gas pipelines across the Himalayan landscape. Pakistan has not yet been able to resurrect the Karakoram Highway from the landslide that created a huge 20x10km lake in north Jammu and Kashmir. For long there had been an apprehension among geologists that a massive earthquake was building up beneath the Himalayas. Was the 7.5 intensity quake in April the big one that was expected? Or is the big one yet to come?
Under such seismic conditions the laying of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines could result in an environmental disaster of truly Himalayan proportions. Lakes of spilled oil can happen even when no earthquake takes place. A landslide could have the same effect.
Sino-Pak attempts to bypass India or create roadblocks against its requirement of connectivity with Afghanistan and beyond has to be countered with greater diplomatic finesse than has happened in recent times. If diplomacy does not work other options should also be set in place.