India has objected to inauguration of the Diamer Bhasha Dam in Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir or PoK (now officially part of the Union Territory of Ladakh). Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the hydel project on Wednesday. It is funded by China.
This is not the only dam-based power project in PoK that China is funding. This is the third major China-funded dam in PoK since May this year, when military standoff between India and China began along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh and elsewhere.
The other two dams are Azad Pattan and Kohala. These dams are on the Jhelum river network. Overall, China is developing five dams – Mahl, Karot and Chakhoti Hattian being the other three – dams on Jhelum. Diamer Bhasha dam is on the Indus river. All these dams are part of the China-Pakistan-Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Chinese activity in PoK is in gross violation of the sovereignty of India and also UN resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir. None of the UN resolutions say PoK belongs to Pakistan. Yet, Pakistan and China have signed agreements on land that does not belong to the either party.
By getting China deeply involved in PoK, Pakistan is only trying to ensure that in any possible event of India taking back PoK, China remains a force for India to deal with.
The Chinese presence in PoK is not being appreciated by the local population. Recently, protests were held with a call for saving the rivers over construction of Neelum Jhelum and Kohala hydel projects. The Neelum Jhelum project is being built on river Neelum for diverting river water to the Jhelum.
Most of the agreements for dam construction in PoK have three parties – the Pakistan government, the Chinese government and a Chinese company – to create joint venture for each of the hydel projects.
Chinese presence in PoK is not new but it has deepened in recent years despite India registering strong protests. China claimed its stake in erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir or the current Union Territory of Ladakh during 1950s and 1960s by occupying Aksai Chin and consolidating its military hold over the region during and after 1962 war.
Captured by war, China’s occupation of Aksai Chin is illegal as the India Independence Act validates Jammu and Kashmir Princely State’s borders as India’s.
Following the 1962 war, China forced Pakistan to surrender Shaksgam Valley in the name of boundary settlement. Pakistan ‘gifted’ the strategic valley to buy peace, thereby giving China a foothold in the region.
China had earlier signed agreements with Pakistan for developing an economic corridor that gives China access to western Indian Ocean, or the Arabian Sea in return for investment for infrastructure development in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Later, when Xi Jinping’s regime launched ambitious the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and included CPEC as its part in Pakistan, the overall investment on the project was pushed to $60 billion. With this came not only Chinese money but also Communist China’s professionals and troops in PoK.
Only last year, reports suggested that Pakistan had to “evacuate” dozens of Chinese nationals trapped in the region due to exchange of fire along the Line of Control (LoC). The Chinese nationals were at the construction site of Neelum Jhelam hydel project.
Some reports suggested these Chinese nationals were soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stationed in the area to guard the CPEC projects. The Chinese have been suspicious of Pakistani officials’ “ties” with terror groups and prefer to guard their economic interests on their own. These reports, however, could not be officially confirmed.
Interestingly, China has direct physical access to and entry into Pakistan while officially, their boundaries don’t meet anywhere. Pakistan-occupied Kashmir cuts India from direct physical connectivity with Afghanistan and connects China with Pakistan.
Increased Chinese air activities were observed in PoK during the military standoff between India and China in eastern Ladakh. A Chinese refueller aircraft had reportedly landed in Skardu in PoK days after violent clash in the Galwan Valley.
The Skardu airbase was expanded by Pakistan last year and it is located about 100 km from Leh airbase on the Indian side. In 2019, Pakistan had conducted a joint air exercise with China at the Skardu airbase.
A closer cooperation at military and economic level between China and Pakistan in PoK is aimed at perpetuating their illegality over the region. Both have sliced away the territories over which India has maintained official claim.