China’s Growing Interest in Gilgit-Baltistan

Recent agreements between China and Pakistan during the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Beijing on July 4 reflect China’s growing interest in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan.

baltistan-chinaOne must greatly admire China for making optimal use of geography to promote her economic and strategic interests. Instead of conquering lands, China decided to befriend her South Asian neighbors and this interdependence resulting from economic and security partnerships, is often claimed as a diplomatic victory.

The situation allows China to obtain the natural resources required to sustain its economic and industrial growth, and extend her sphere of influence to deny the potential adversaries strategic depth in the region. In short, China has achieved with friendship what the USSR failed to do by force and gained comfortable access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Today many of the South Asian neighbors have become a point of reference and transit route for China to enhance her influence in the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and Africa.

However, China’s present relationship with South Asian neighbors is entirely different compared to when the communists initially took control of the country. For instance, the intrusion into Tibet and Gilgit-Baltistan; border skirmishes with Pakistan; suspension of diplomatic relations with Nepal; land disputes with Bhutan and India; and the refusal to recognize Bangladesh and blocking its bid for UN membership were some of the incidents reflecting on the volatile political situation of that era.

It was after the Sino-India War and the subsequent Indo-Soviet agreement that China accepted Pakistan’s offer to establish the strategic partnership.

Following the ancient Chinese proverb, “To Get Rich, One Must Build Roads,” the communist regime has since focused on improving road connectivity with the southern neighbors. Recent agreements between China and Pakistan during the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Beijing on July 4 reflect China’s growing interest in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. China will spend approximately US $18 billion to construct tunnels through the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan which will enhance her strategic and economic capability and quick access to Pakistani and Iranian ports.

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The developments have helped enhance regional trade as well as giving China access to mineral wealth in those countries. Today, many of these countries are seeking China’s human, financial, and technological assistance in developing ports, naval bases, military and nuclear installations, civilian industrial development, hydropower, and information and telecom facilities.

Despite the lingering border dispute, Indo-China trade has surpassed the seventy billion dollar mark. This shows that China didn’t choose to keep her people hostage to border disputes and adopted liberal trade relations with her rivals; an economic model that Pakistan and India could also replicate to help eradicate poverty in their own countries.

China’s development projects have provided benefits to hundreds of thousands of people

However, such ventures also lead to human rights violations in the host countries and complicate the life of the indigenous and minority people in the affected regions by undermining their decision-making right over resource management and revenue sharing.

The indigenous communities expect both Chinese and their host governments to review the policies that adversely impact their ethnic and religious demography, sustainable livelihoods and weaken the centuries-old connection with their land and resources.

China’s development model has left a longer lasting mark on the indigenous cultural identities. Dam building and resource extraction has hurt the ecosystem and climate, which should remain under scrutiny of international rights and environmental organizations. Showing more respect to human rights, challenging the culture of impunity and enhancing accountability can help attain a balance in developmental goals, protecting indigenous rights and mitigating environmental concerns.

Senge H. Sering is the President of Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies and hails from a Tibetan speaking region called Baltistan (Baltiyul), which has been declared a disputed area between India and Pakistan by the United Nations. There are about 600,000 Balti people residing in India and Pakistan who profess Islam and speak archaic Tibetan. Read other articles by Senge.