Tensions between India and China have not even cooled down and experts have already warned that Kashmir could emerge as the next big flashpoint between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. And this time, India and China would be joined by the third claimant to Kashmir – Pakistan.
India has vehemently objected to the construction of multibillion-dollar Diamer Bhasha multipurpose dam in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. As earlier reported by EurAsian Times, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is a 4,500-megawatt project with a presumed value of $15 billion and would be one of the biggest dams in the world once completed.
The Water and Power Development Authority recently announced that the contract of the development of the Diamer-Bhasha dam had been awarded to a joint venture between Power China and Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) on a 70-to-30 ratio.
India and Pakistan have been claiming Kashmir as a part of their own since the partition in 1947. India has denounced the project calling it a violation of its territorial sovereignty. China rejected India’s concerns calling them misplaced and asserting that the economic partnership between China and Pakistan are directed at enhancing development and the welfare of people.
“These moves will bring one more tension point to an India-China relationship that is already more strained now than it has been for several decades,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the Asia program of the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center.
Kugelman was referring to the violent clash that broke out at the ‘unrecognized’ Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Aksai Chin, a flashpoint that saw China’s aggression in 1962. He sees the growing Chinese investments in Pakistan-administered Kashmir a big blow to India.
China has invested about $29 billion in Pakistan, including direct investment, soft loans and grants, which has been or is building power plants, roads, rails, the new deep-sea port of Gwadar and an adjoining international airport in Balochistan province.
Border and Road Initiative (BRI) launched the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) programme in 2015 intending to connect Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Gulf region, Africa and Europe with a network of land and sea routes.
The program was launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping. After completion of key projects in the first phase, “the second phase will focus on the development of Special Economic Zones (SEZ), strengthening trade and cultural ties through joint ventures and exchange of delegations,” said Yao Jing, Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan.
“Exploiting India’s vulnerabilities is an essential element of China’s “contain India” policy,” said Mohan Malik, a professor of strategic studies at the National Defense College, UAE.
Even though the dam isn’t a part of the CPEC project, such Chinese investments in Pakistan have worried critics in Pakistan and outside as well who have expressed concerns and scepticism in the wake of the financial crisis looming over the country. The US has also been critical of the bilateral agreement between Pakistan and China.
Analysts believe that this could be a part of China’s debt-trap strategy against India through its ally, Pakistan. China is able to gain influence across the world and grab considerable power in India’s neighbouring countries, by dispensing billions of dollars in the form of concessional loans to developing countries and then asking for geopolitical support in exchange for debt relief.
The latest example is the Island nation neighbouring India. Sri Lanka had relied heavily on China to construct $1.5 billion port in Hambantota in the country’s south. After the port was operating at a loss and couldn’t generate enough revenue to repay the loan to Beijing, the port was leased to China for 99 years in return for $1.1 billion which eased its position.
This allowed China to control over a key port positioned at the doorstep of its regional rival India and a strategic foothold along a key commercial and military waterway.
China has followed a similar approach in several African countries as well. “Beijing’s debt diplomacy has caused both economic and political sovereignty problems that are now threatening some African countries,” said Muhammed Tandogan, who holds a PhD in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University.
Alice Wells, who recently retired as the Trump administration’s senior diplomat for South and Central Asia, had been publicly warning that Chinese investments under the CPEC could become a debt trap for Pakistan in the long run, indicating relatively high costs and alleged lack of transparency in contracts, among other concerns.
“Hopefully, not at the cost of Pakistan’s sovereignty, environment, the sustainability of debt or corruption. This is a good time to renegotiate BRI terms that, in hindsight, were disadvantageous or one-sided,” Wells had tweeted.
Amid already strained India-China relations, it is only a matter of time that China’s expansionist strategy in Kashmir is more visible and India will have no option but to challenge Chinese belligerence just like they did in Doklam, North Sikkim or Ladakh.