by Anna Mahjar-Barducci
China has been deploying thousands of soldiers in the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan, a mountainous area in northern Pakistan, and a region historically contested by Pakistan, India and its inhabitants.
Although cooperation between Pakistan and China is not new -- it was China in the 1970s that supported Pakistan's attempts to acquire its nuclear capability -- the deployment of Chinese troops in Pakistan, however, indicates a worrying alliance for the US. The US would do well to monitor these developments before a catastrophic scenario, especially for its troops, takes place.
The presence of the Chinese People's Liberation Army [PLA] in the contested Gilgit-Baltistan region, where a nascent revolt against the Pakistani rule is taking place, constitutes the direct involvement of Beijing in the dispute over Kashmir, making any future understanding between Pakistan and India more difficult, and can only arouse a new and serious rift between New Delhi and Beijing.
According to Mumtaz Khan, director for the International Centre of Peace and Democracy in Toronto, many Western analysts who view China's stance merely as a bargaining chip against India will unfortunately soon realize that China is redefining its priorities and interests in South Asia and beyond. "The current involvement of China in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan administered Kashmir consists of more than just providing military and diplomatic support to Pakistan. Soon, Pakistan will swap its role to take the backseat as China exerts itself as a major player in the Kashmir issue" and maybe also in Afghani one.
The Gilgit-Baltistan region borders Afghanistan to the north; China to the northeast; the Pakistani administrated state of Azad, Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) to the south, and the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast. Recently, the New York Times reported that two major developments are taking place there: a rebellion against the Pakistani rule, and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the PLA.
China's Grip on Pakistani Strategic Area
"China wants a grip on the strategic area to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan," stated the NYT. Beijing intends to create a corridor from the Indian Ocean up to the Chinese province of Xinjiang. The first cornerstone of this grandiose project has been the construction of the Gwadar Port, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and outside the Strait of Hormuz. It is near the key shipping routes used by the mainline vessels that have connections to Africa, Asia and Europe, and it enjoys a high commercial and strategic significance.
The port was financed and built by China and inaugurated in 2007 by the former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. At present, it takes a Chinese tanker about 16 to 25 days to reach the Gulf. Once high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit-Baltistan are completed, however, China will be able to transport cargo to and from Xinjiang to Gwadar and to other Pakistani port facilities, within 48 hours.
PLA's soldiers in Gilgit-Baltistan are also expected to work on the infrastructure in the region. According to reports, China is planning the construction of roads and bridges; a high-speed rail system, and nearly two-dozen tunnels. As the whole area is closed to foreign observers, news can only be obtained through intelligence information, as well as satellite imagery that shows construction activities are underway throughout the region.
Many of the PLA soldiers are supposedly currently building the railroad. Others are extending the Karakoram Highway, which connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, and engaged in activities for constructing dams, expressways and other projects.
Their presence is also apparently meant to deter any possible disturbances from the local population, within which are simmering rebellious sentiments against the Pakistani rule.
China and Pakistan's Common Interest is India
The presence of Chinese soldiers on Pakistani soil is not an ordinary matter. If all Pakistani governments have always objected to the deployment of U.S. troops in the country, why is there such openness towards the Chinese army?
The alliance between the U.S. and Pakistan appears to be becoming less and less sound. The U.S.-led war against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan is quickly deteriorating into a growing open conflict with Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)., which represents the core of Pakistani military power and can also act independently from Pakistan's government. The agency is responsible for the creation of the mujahiddin movement in Afghanistan during the war against the USSR; and later, for the movements for the "liberation" of Kashmir, as well as the first attack on World Trade Center, and the attacks on hotels and a Jewish Habad Cenmter in Mumbai. . The main ISI's concern, however, is India's rule in Kashmir. This is why the ISI, in order to confront New Delhi, is providing help and shelter to Islamist groups ready to fight for the "Muslim" Kashmir.
China and Pakistan share many common interests: both have territorial disputes with India. China and India, whose populations, combined, make up slightly less than 40% of the world population. They are also both striving for strategic regional supremacy. By linking its western province to the Indian Ocean, China will not gain just a strategic stronghold and access to the Persian Gulf, but also could significantly influence the geopolitics and trade in the Indian Ocean Region, as well as in Central Asia.
A Possible War Between Pakistan/China and the US
The possible scenarios coming out of the present situation are also dangerous. A deterioration of the relations between the U.S. and Pakistan over the war in Afghanistan could lead to a direct confrontation -- in which event, the involvement of the giant China, as Pakistan's ally, might be inevitable. The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reports that already a delegation of the Chinese Army visited the Pakistan-Afghan Border last October.
The same MEMRI's analysis also predicts that in a possible war between Pakistan/China on the one hand and the US on the other, Russia would be on the side of the West. Russia's First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergei Ivanov, has said that Russia does not want the international troops to leave Afghanistan. Moscow, concerned about development in this region, has begun strengthening the Afghan police forces by supplying weapons and ammunition.
In the meantime, the relationship between Pakistan and Russia are marred by the Cold War legacy, and will take a long time to get normalized. MEMRI reports that the Urdu-language Pakistani daily Roznama Nawa-i-Waqt has warned that "another enemy of Pakistan" –. Russia – has been added to the list of the countries influencing Afghanistan; and that the presence of Russian troops in Afghan will reinforce anti-Pakistan forces in Afghanistan.
Before apocalyptic scenarios become a reality, it would help if Washington exerted exert maximum efforts -- and firmness -- to convince Pakistan not to continue on such a dangerous path. Two new war fronts seem rapidly to be opening: Afghanistan on one side, and Kashmir on the other.. The explosion of a possible war could involve both fronts, the Afghani and the Kashmiri, where the US ally, India, might pay a heavy price, finding itself between two enemies: Pakistan and China.
The US will admittedly have a hard role, given the fact that relations between the Washington and China are already fragile, especially since the "Star Wars arms race" launched by China in 2007, but it is urgent that serious efforts be made.
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