Prime Minister Imran Khan’s move to convert Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in the occupied northern areas into Pakistan’s fifth province at China’s behest has provoked a pushback within the country. This week, Imran Khan’s fierce rival Maulana Fazlur Rehman joined the ranks of opposition leaders who have spoken out against Imran Khan for implementing Beijing’s agenda.
The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) chief underlined that turning the Gilgit-Baltistan area into a full-fledged province would end up validating India’s August 5 decision to treat Jammu and Kashmir as a centrally-administered territory.
“A deal has been made over the blood of Kashmiris… Business is being done in the name of Kashmir diplomacy,” the firebrand cleric told reporters on Tuesday in Athmuqam. He pledged “not to allow the partition of Kashmir”.
Nearly 70 km away, Latif Akbar, president of the PoK unit of Pakistan Peoples Party told reporters in the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir capital Muzaffarabad that the federal government’s move to treat Gilgit-Baltistan as a province was not acceptable to them.
Pakistan has traditionally claimed that parts of Kashmir it controls are semi-autonomous and not formally integrated into the country in line with its position that a referendum should be carried out across the whole region.
Gilgit-Baltistan’s assimilation into the Islamic state is widely considered as an implicit recognition from Islamabad’s perspective that the Line of Control (LoC) is the border between India and Pakistan, a proposal that had been floated by Pakistan’s National Security Adviser Moeed W Yusuf a decade earlier.
Expenditure on some CPEC key projects (million $)
- Gwadar East-Bay Expressway 141
- New Gwadar International Airport 230
- Construction of Breakwaters 123
- Dredging of Berthing Areas and Channels 27
- Development of Free Zone 32
- Pak-China Friendship Hospital 100
- Pak China Technical and Vocational Institute at Gwadar 10
- Cross Border optical Fiber Cable 44
- Thakot-Havelin Section Karakoram Highway Phase II 1,386
- Multan-Sukkur Section Peshawar-Karachi Motorway 2,980
- Khuzdar-Basima Road N-30 80
- Upgradation of Dera Ismail Khan-Zhob Phase I195
- Karakoram Highway Thakot-Raikot 719
- Expansion, Reconstruction of Karachi–Peshawar Railway Line 8,172
- Havelin Dry Port 65
The Imran Khan government has, however, made it clear that it has no intention to go back on its plan for GB and has proposed as the first step, to hold an election for the legislative assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan on November 15.
Pakistan watchers in India link Imran Khan and Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s anxiety to ramrod through the change in GB’s status to mounting pressure from China to secure the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that Beijing wants to expand under Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI.
It is a plan that has been in the making for four years, long before Imran Khan came to power on the back of populist assurances to root out corruption and reduce poverty.
Indeed, it was after Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in 2016 that the first reports of a plan to upgrade the constitutional status of the Gilgit-Baltistan region emerged. A report by news agency AFP in January 2016 quoted an official: “China cannot afford to invest billions of dollars on a road that passes through a disputed territory claimed both by India and Pakistan.”
This statement made four years ago, a Pakistan watcher in New Delhi said, explains the Imran Khan government’s push to change GB’s status in 2020. And there is nothing that Khan can do about it. “He doesn’t have a choice and has to go along with Beijing”, he said.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – like much of the Belt and Roads Initiative conceived by Xi Jinping – is essentially designed to serve China’s interests rather than the participating countries. This explains the focus on development of Gwadar port, often described as the crown jewel of CPEC that has proven to be a tax haven for China and helped cut costs of its exports.
Former Pentagon official Dr Michael Rubin recently described the pact with China on CPEC as a devil’s bargain, partnering with a country that has been responsible for the incarceration in concentration camps of one million Muslims and thinks nothing about killing Pakistanis and humiliating Pakistan.
For China, Pakistan can be a major market, provide land links into West Asia, and build a strategic port at Gwadar that would help Beijing reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait, he said.
The money that Beijing has poured into Pakistan’s CPEC leg has already gagged the Islamic country from commenting on the brutalisation of muslims in Xinjiang province. Beijing does also use Islamabad to keep India engaged with its terror camps.