Significance of the Gilgit–Gwadar Corridor
The ominously rising strategic salience of the Gilgit–Baltistan region was made sharply apparent by Selig Harrison’s startling disclosure in 2010 that some 7,000–11,000 Chinese troops had entered the Gilgit–Baltistan area, ostensibly for flood control. The Chinese version claimed it was for repair of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). Indian military sources later reported that some 3,000–4,000 Chinese military engineering personnel were engaged in repair/widening of the KKH, construction of hydroelectric projects and building of tunnels (which could serve to hide missiles). A Chinese civil company (China Mobile) is also constructing cell towers for mobile networks in this region.
For the protection of this workforce, initial media reports had indicated that a Chinese infantry battalion was deployed at the Khunjerab Pass but was later withdrawn due to the international uproar in May 2010. Reportedly, some permanent Chinese logistical infrastructure is now coming up at Challas that is indicative of a long-term stay. This is further reinforced by media reports in the Pakistani press of Pakistani plans to lease the Gilgit–Baltistan area to China for the next 50 years.
These are ominous developments, especially when one sees them in the context of the significant shift in China’s stand over J&K, from a studied neutrality during the Kargil War to a markedly hostile stance that not just underlines J&K’s disputed status (only in as much as it pertains to the positions held by India) but also marks its outright support for Pakistan’s claims over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the Gilgit–Baltistan area. Its forays into this sensitive region are merely a follow-up to its shift in stance. Enough indications of this paradigm shift have been available earlier, especially in China’s insistence on stapling visas for J&K resident passport holders and then, in a surprise move, its denial of visa to GOC-in-C Northern Command on the grounds that he was the commander of this disputed region.
Amazingly, the same yardstick has not been applied to India’s eastern army commander, who looks after the disputed Arunachal—thereby implying a new level of Chinese hostility over the J&K issue.
The physical move-in of the Chinese military personnel into the Gilgit–Baltistan area now adds an ominous dimension to these pinpricks. Like Baluchistan, this area is restive. The hapless Shias of this region have been the victims of repeated Sunni pogroms and massacres. A Balwaristan freedom movement flickers here. The most recent massacre of the Shias took place here in February and April this year and have led to large-scale rioting and arson. The climactic event was the snow-cum-mud avalanche in Siachen that wiped out the 6 NLI HQ and Adm. Base at Gyari. Some 140 Shia personnel were wiped out in this major avalanche. Despite help from U.S., Chinese and German rescue teams, not a single body of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) troopers was recovered. Apart from personnel casualties, the avalanche wiped out the road link, several helipads and the entire Adm. base. This has put the Pakistani troops deployed in the Central Glacier below our Soltoro Ridge positions in the areas of Ali Brangsa and Bilafond glaciers in dire straits. Even the helicopters of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans division had to be pressed in for the relief and rescue efforts.
Actually, what makes it worse for the Pakistan army is the fact that the NLI, which has borne the brunt of the casualties in Kargil and Siachen, has 49% Shias, 23% Ismailis and just 18% Sunnis. 55% of the Shias hail from the Gilgit area and 35% from Baltistan. The Shias have been facing relentless persecution. In 1989, General Pervez Musharraf had brought in the blood-thirsty Sunni Pathans to terrorise the Shias into submission. In the Kargil conflict, the Pakistan Army disowned the dead Shia troopers of the NLI and over 600 had to be buried by the Indians. The anti-Shia pogrom continues. On 28 February this year, 18 Shia pilgrims were pulled out of buses and massacred in the Pashtun Khwa province. On 3 April, 15–20 Shias were killed in Chilas and 50 were wounded. This led to riots where more Shias were killed. The avalanche on 7 April, therefore, came as a climactic finale that shook the Shia troops. The legend of Teram Shehar, a town which was wiped out in a terrible avalanche, lives on in the folklore of Baltistan. The Shia troops are uneasy and restive, and their Sunni commanders are deeply worried. That is why General Kayani was unnerved by the recent avalanche and the impact it has had on the unfortunate Shia troops of the NLI. That explains his smart moves to use the Indian desire for peace to get the Indian army off the Saltoro Ridge, which it had secured at such heavy cost in blood and treasure.
Now that we have mastered the logistical and environmental problems, we can stay on, if need be, forever. If the Pakistani army has had it, they can withdraw, and Indians will not interfere with their retreat in any way. Pakistani spokesmen have claimed that Siachen has no strategic significance whatsoever. What then prevents them from staging a unilateral withdrawal? The problem is their over-cleverness and lack of sincerity and the quest to gain an upper hand in Afghanistan by encouraging peace noises on the eastern front. Unfortunately, this is a tactical gambit and not a sincere desire for peace.
The Malacca Bypass Strategy
What explains the Chinese moves in to the northern areas and their sudden change of stance over J&K? This move, in fact, is dictated by the compulsions of China’s energy security strategy. Some 50% of China’s energy/oil demand is met by the Middle East and another 30% is sourced from Africa. This entire energy flow has to perforce pass through the naval choke point of the straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda. Any navy worth its name could seriously disrupt the Chinese energy supply lines via Malacca in a conflict. This is the Chinese energy security nightmare, and they are feverishly engaged in trying to create a bypass that will help them to overcome their Malacca choke point vulnerability.
In layman terms, the Malacca passage from Iran or Africa takes 16–25 days for the Chinese tankers to complete. Once the KKH Kara Kuram Hwy) , rail and energy pipeline corridor comes through, this could be done in just 48 hours from the port of Gwadar. This explains the tremendous significance of the emerging Gilgit–Gwadar corridor for China.
China had completed the KKH as far back as 1978. The KKH, which traverses over the Khujerah Pass, now extends up to the rising port city of Gwadar. Since 2006, work is on to widen the KKH. This will increase its operating capacity for heavy vehicular traffic some threefold. This six-lane highway is being complemented by a railroad. The Kashgar-Havelian rail link will be constructed by the Chinese Dong Feng Electric Company and will traverse a distance of 700 kilometres, from the Khunjerab Pass to link with the Pakistan rail network at Havelian, near Rawalpindi. Kashgar is being made into a special economic zone (SEZ), and the Chinese plan to establish a consulate in Gilgit.
The third leg of this energy/trade corridor will be completed by the construction of an oil pipeline. As far back as in 2008, Chinese foreign minister Yang Jeichi had proposed that China should join the India–Pakistan–Iran (IPI) pipeline project. U.S. pressure did not let this aspiration materialise.
The Chinese now have plans for a 2,000-kilometre pipeline that will follow the KKH railroad alignment. It could have a pipeline 1 metre in diameter with a flow rate of 8 metres per second and a pumping station every 120 kilometres. This would give it a capacity of 590,000 barrels per day (bpd) or an ability to carry virtually 9.8% of China’s oil imports. This pipeline project from Gwadar to Xinjiang would cost around $12 billion. Currently, the Chinese problem is the security concerns about this pipeline’s long passage through Baluchistan and then Pakistan’s jihadi mafia–infested territory.
Once this triple energy-cum-trade corridor with its high-capacity rail and road link and oil pipeline is completed, it will shorten the oil/trade transit from Gwadar to just 48 hours instead of the 16–25 days passage via Malacca Straits. In real terms, the Persian Gulf passage will be reduced from 6,000 nautical miles (nm) via Malacca straits to just 680 nm to Gwadar. The African passage via Malacca will be reduced from 10,000 nm to just 3,000 nm. The most vital aspect is that the crucial naval choke point of Malacca Straits will be bypassed altogether. This is a choke point that the U.S., Japanese or even Indian navy could easily throttle in the event of a major conflict.
How to reduce/obviate the Malacca choke point threat to China’s energy flows has always been a primary concern for China. Her recent forays into the Gilgit–Baltistan region stem from this clearly articulated Malacca bypass strategy that is fast becoming a lynchpin of her overall grand strategic design in Asia. Unless we understand these larger Chinese concerns and compulsions, we will fail to read the designs behind the Chinese forays into the Gilgit–Baltistan region.
The Gwadar Terminal: Reaching the Critical Mass
The entire Gilgit–Baltistan energy corridor from Xinjiang funnels over the Khunjerab Pass and terminates on the seaports of Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara. Of these outlets, the China–Pakistan axis is working feverishly to develop Gwadar as the hub of a new land-cum-sea-based silk route to Xinjiang and western China. This fishing village of Gwadar had a population of some 5,000 as far back as in 2001. Today, it is emerging as a bustling city with a population of 125,000. An international airport and steel and cement plants are planned. Crucial are a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal and a massive oil refinery that are primarily being planned to cater to the Chinese energy inflows.
Work on the Gwadar port had commenced in 2002 and was completed in 2007. The port was operationalised in 2009.
- It has a 12.6-metre dredged channel and three multipurpose berths that give it a wharfage of 6.2 metres.
- In Phase II, the Chinese will add nine additional deep-water berths.
- So far, some $248 million has been spent on Gwadar. Of this, some $198 million has been spent by China.
- Pakistan’s defence minister, Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, recently invited China to establish a naval base in Gwadar. The Chinese were understandably coy about acknowledging this fact so brazenly.
Renting Territory for Strategic Gain
The simple fact, however, is that Pakistan is desperate to rent its territory and port facilities to seek a new alliance and strategic embrace with the Asian giant China. Relations with the United States have reached a breaking point as the high-risk and duplicitous policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is increasingly becoming untenable. Pakistan’s military–ISI complex has been desperately wooing Beijing with offers to rent its territory to gain an extra regional ally to counterbalance arch-rival India. Pakistan has been extremely successful at renting its territory to the United States for the Cold War and then for the Afghan War against the Soviets. It gamed enormous amounts of military and economic aid, which has enabled it not only to seek parity with India but also to keep India destabilised and off balance for the past three decades by unremitting asymmetric assaults—first in Punjab, then in J&K and now in almost all major cities of India. Pakistan is determined to replace the U.S. alliance by now renting its territory to China. Gwadar has already been offered as a naval base, and Gilgit–Baltistan is about to be given on lease. This indicates the level of desperation in Islamabad.
J&K: Theatre of the Next War
What are the implications for India? With the tremendous strategic significance of the Gilgit–Gwadar transport-cum-energy corridor, the entire strategic calculus about J&K has undergone a paradigm shift of monumental proportions. China has ominously altered its stance on J&K and has moved in a big way into the northern areas.
Chinese military engineers have entered the Gilgit–Baltistan region and are feverishly engaged in widening the KKH and surveying the rail alignment to Kashgar. With this major Chinese move into Gilgit, J&K may well be the focus of the next major war in South Asia. This is the theatre where the China–Pakistan nexus is preparing logistically to take on India in a two-front war whenever the opportunity presents itself. All Chinese talk of Arunachal Pradesh appears in hindsight to be a grand strategic deception plan.
Comment: Since such major oil pipeline will be running close to the CFL opposite the Kargil and Leh Sectors, China would like to ensure its safety. It would have anti aircraft assets and even its own troops in case of operational situation to ensure the safety of this pipe line and the rail road communications between Pakistan and China. The US and may be India would like to disrupt the oil flow if chips are ever down. Gilgit, Baltistan region assumes great operational significance, no doubt. HS
It is increasingly becoming evident that J&K is the place where China and Pakistan can launch massive coordinated attacks in a limited war designed to pries this state loose from India. This entire paradigm shift has to be factored into any discourse on internal and external security in J&K. All narratives that leave these major developments out of the strategic calculus are seriously flawed.