China’s Stance towards Pakistan Occupied Kashmir: Recent Developments
Dr Teshu Singh, Research Fellow, VIF

Background
Given its geo-strategic location, China has been keenly interested in the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) for long. The Chinese plan, to use Pakistan card against India dates back to the 1950’s when Zhou En Lai

suggested to Ayub Khan that Pakistan should prepare for a prolonged conflict with India instead of short term war. A more calculated plan was provided by Chairman Mao after the Sino-Indian war of 1962.1 After the war, according to the border settlement agreement of March 1963, Pakistan conceded 5,180 km of Indian Territory to the Chinese. In the late 1960’s, China began constructing the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to link Kasghar in Xinjiang Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China with Abbottabad in Pakistan, through the Khunjerab Pass. Pakistan has been in illegal occupation of parts of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir since 1947. China has always treated Kashmir as a disputed territory between India and Pakistan and doesn’t consider Kashmir as an integral part of India.

In fact, Chinese presence in POK has added a new dimension to the Indo-Pak dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. This has transformed the Kashmir dispute into a trilateral dispute. Any military action by India in the region will amount to aggression. Clearly, China in its policy towards POK is tilted toward Pakistan. China considers Kashmir as disputed territory between India and Pakistan and straight away rejects Indian claims. Earlier, in the past, China had issued stapled visas to the residents of Jammu and Kashmir but did not issue the same to the POK residents.

Some Recent Development: Joint Patrolling

The first China-Pakistan joint patrolling in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) took place in the border region on 21 July 2016. Nevertheless, Chinese troops had been patrolling this region since 2014.2 The patrol in the Gilgit-Baltistan region was undertaken by the defence regiment of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and border police force of Pakistan. The official mouthpiece of the CPC, the People’s Daily, had released several pictures of this development.3 The People’s Daily describes the region of the joint patrol as the “China-Pakistan border”. This is the area that China refers to as “Pakistan-administered Kashmir” (and Jammu and Kashmir as “Indian administered Kashmir”) which is essentially “Pakistan Occupied Kashmir”. XUAR borders Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and does not share a border with Pakistan. China started calling this area as Pakistan as early as 1980’s.

The region is included in the sphere of the PLA’s new Western Theatre Command that also includes Afghanistan, POK, India, Nepal, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, the Central Asian Republics and part of Mongolia. The immediate reason cited for the patrolling was fleeing of Uyghur’s from the Xinjiang province to join the ISIS. The joint patrol may have been an attempt to deter Chinese from joining ISIS but we cannot overlook the larger picture. The fact that joint patrolling was done in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) has raised concerns for India.

Karakorum Highway

Another related area connected with the issue is the Karakorum Highway. Officially it is known as N-35 in Pakistan and China National Highway 314 (G314) in China. Built in 1978 with Chinese assistance, it is the only overland route connecting China to Pakistan. The KKH is about 1280 kms long and connects Havelian rail-head near Abbottabad in the Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan with Kashgar in the XUAR. The Pakistani section of KKH is around 800 km and much of it runs through Gilgit-Baltistan of POK. It also cuts through the sector between Asia and the Indian subcontinent bringing China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan within 250 km of each other. The KKH is emerging as a relatively viable transit route.

During the landslide of 4 January 2010, the highway was blocked at more than a 100 locations. The problem of the submergence of a 20 km stretch of KKH under a huge artificial lake triggered by a landslide was overcome by September 2015 when PM Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the tunnels over Attabad Lake constructed to restore the KKH. The tunnels are part of a 24 KM long portion of the reconstructed KKH.4 Major efforts are underway to upgrade the highway. The restoration of KKH is directly linked with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). However, given its terrain and high cost of transit, the KKH is unlikely to become a major trade and energy corridor as billed; its value will be more strategic and military, than commercial. China’s partial objective with reference to KKH is to gain direct access to the Gulf through POK by constructing highways, railways and ports. Interestingly, if Gwadar has to become a reality the only land connection it has with China is the KKH.

During July 2013 meeting, Premier Li Keqiang and PM Nawaz Sharif signed a pact on economic corridor from Kashgar to Gwadar. It included the establishment of a joint committee to speed the up gradation of KKH. Many of China’s infrastructure projects for China will only be possible if this highway is in good condition. It provides China with a window to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Taking into consideration, the difficult terrain of the highway, the expansion of the KKH remains a challenge for China.

Today, Chinese interest in the POK has gone beyond strategic and diplomatic interest. Against the backdrop of One Belt One Road (OBOR) the region has become very important for China as the ‘China Pakistan Economic Corridor’ (CPEC), flagship project of OBOR passes through this region. The 3000 km CPEC route will connect Kashgar in Xinjiang region to Gwadar port in Pakistan. China is building transport and energy corridor linking Pakistan and China. Notably, it has started investing in the economic stability of Pakistan. This project will give China access to Arabian Sea that is facing India’s west coast. Evidently, the OBOR is important because it allows China to maintain its presence in the POK near India. Recently, on 12 November 2016, the first ship left docked at Gwadar. 5 The Pakistani PM described the arrival of the fleet as the “break of a new dawn” and “a watershed event”, emphasising that the vision of shared prosperity that underlies the CPEC is badly needed in a world torn by conflict.

Chinese Companies in POK

Apart from the strategic importance, POK is rich in resources. It has vast deposits of precious stones, abundant water resources, Indus and its tributaries flow through POK. Growing Chinese investment and presence in POK and its involvement in the infrastructure development in the area further underscore the strategic value of POK for China.

The growing presence of Chinese companies in POK cannot be overlooked. In 2009, Pakistan Railways and China’s Dong Fang Electric Supply finalised an agreement to build a rail link between Havelian in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Khunjerab Pass over Manshera district and the KKH. The China Road and Bridge Corporation (CBRC) and Pakistan National Highway Authority are jointly working on the KKH project. The Gilgit-Baltistan region is rich in both metallic and non-metallic minerals, energy minerals precious stones. Chinese companies are deeply interested in taking up projects in these regions because of Pakistan’s relaxed procedures in obtaining mining licenses and exemption from paying taxes.6 Shahzad International is coordinating with Chinese investors for digging uranium and gold in Gilgit-Baltistan. Chinese miners have also obtained lease in Astore district for the extraction of high quality of copper. Reports state that a $6 million investment proposal was submitted by Pakistan Surpass Mining Company, a subsidiary of China’s Xinjiang Surpass Mining Company Ltd, for mining in POK. It is also working towards setting up a hydropower station and Molybdenum processing plant in Chupurshan Valley.7

The Uyghur Issue

The POK region is connected through the XUAR in China, which is infested with the problem of Uyghur separatist movement. Pakistan has continuously failed to curb the activities of Islamic fundamentalist groups who have been involved in the XUAR. China is also concerned about the possibility of networks in the POK serving as conduit for the movement of Islamist terrorist elements that could establish links with separatist movement in XUAR. There are various instances to prove that there are linkages between the Uyghur’s and Pakistan. On 1 March 2014, Uyghur’s used knife to hack around 30 people to death and injured more than 100 in Kunming. It was during this time that the links between Pakistan and the actions of Uyghur was evident. Earlier in 2012, Chinese Foreign Minister told his Pakistani counterpart to take action against ethnic Uyghur Islamic militants present in Pakistan’s tribal area where they said the fighters are being trained before they cross into Xinjiang to carry out militant attacks.

In order to tackle the problem, on 15 June 2015, Zarb-e-Azb military operation was launched by Pakistan in NWA of Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) targeting in particular foreign soldiers who were assembled over the years by the Pakistan Taliban. Nearly 500 Pakistani soldiers and 3500 militants were killed during the two year long operation Pakistan claims that after the Zarb-e-Azb it has eliminated all the Uyghur’s from its territory. However, it is still continuing and there are linkages with the ISIS.

All these issues along with the CPEC and OBOR initiative have raised the importance of the POK for China. Today, XUAR is important for China as it forms the gateway for OBOR initiative. The National Development Reform Commission (NDRC) in its policy document has identified Xinjiang as ‘geographic advantage and its role as a window of westward opening-up’ as paramount for the success of OBOR. Hence, a lot is at stake for China in the region and any anomaly in the region might prove detrimental for the CPEC success. Until now, the Chinese government has not issued any formal statement on the issue. There is no formal Chinese policy on POK. They have tried to maintain ambiguity on the subject. China has often stated that it is neutral towards toward the issue of Kashmir but the tilt is very obvious. The joint exercise has also given China an excuse to familiarise itself with the disputed terrain. The increasing activities of China in the POK, establishes the fact that it is bound to affect larger Indian interest.

Endnotes

  1. http://www.idsa-india.org/an-oct9-3.html
  2. http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-international/china-pak-conduct-joint-patrol-along-pok-border/article8883511.ece
  3. http://en.people.cn/n3/2016/0721/c98649-9089345.html
  4. http://tribune.com.pk/story/956452/pm-inaugurates-tunnel-over-attabad-lake-in-g-b/
  5. http://www.dawn.com/news/1296262/first-ship-leaves-gwadar-amid-fanfare
  6. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KL22Df02.html
  7. http://www.claws.in/images/journals_doc/2075983250_AditiMalhotra.pdf

Published Date: 28th November 2016, Image Source: http://chinawatchcanada.blogspot.in

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