Friday, September 17, 2010

Under the Shadow of the new Great Game

Amin Baig

Is Gilgit Baltistan a new pot for cooking a mix of chinese, south asian and continental cuisines by the Yankee and the asian dragon with hot spices from the south asian vultures? Or is Gilgit-Baltistan coincidentally wedged between the devil and the hard rock or is it only a corridor for the exchange of flood waves?

While the first/old great game that was played by the British Empire and the Tsarist Russia ended in the division of Badakhshan in Central Asia along the Panj River into Afghan and Tajik parts, and later when the sun set on the British empire in subcontinent, we found that it left Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan divided as a bleeding wound between the asian dragon and south asian vultures. At the height of the cold war, when USSR entered Afghanistan and the US and allies fought back through proxies and denied the polar bear access to the warm waters, it ended in a devastated, high and dry Kabul, which still continues to bleed. What will happen this time, when the uneasy, but rising asian dragon meets the naked American imperialism at its very borders in Afghanistan and Central Asia for the first time, and when New Delhi darbar's greater ambitions and Pakistan’s’ sense of state insecurity-and notions of strategic depth, and internal anomalies of misgovernance oscillate courting between the two poles? while Tehran continues to pinch the US-Israeli-Saudi nexus in the Gulf, what new order is in the making in this region? Is Gilgit-Baltistan another pawn in the chess game along with Afghanistan and Kashmir in the new great game?

On August 26, 2010, Selig S. Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a former South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post published an opinion in the New York Times entitled as, ’ China's Discreet Hold on Pakistan's Northern Borderlands’.

Building his arguments around the increasing Chinese strategic investments in Pakistan in term of providing men, money and machine, especially in building the Gawadar Port (which the author called Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases in Gawadar, Pasni and Ormara), widening of the Karakoram Highway and projects related to construction of small and large dams and ‘construction of 22 tunnels in secret locations’ in the Karakoram and Himalayas, the author has termed it as, ‘influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army-PLA.

Why China would take this gigantic step? In the author’s own analysis, because, ‘China wants a grip on the region to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan as it takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours’.

And why build 22 tunnels? Because, the author goes on, ‘tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Himalayas through Gilgit’. Why build these in secret locations?, because, ’ they could also be used for missile storage sites’.

Why has Pakistan reportedly agreed to cede ‘de facto control of Gilgit-Baltistan region to China’, which the author claims was part of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir? The author offers two lines of arguments; first, ’ What is happening in the region matters to Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabad’s collusion in facilitating China’s access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. “ally.”, second, ‘Equally important, the nascent revolt in the Gilgit-Baltistan region’...’where Sunni jihadi groups allied with the Pakistan Army have systematically terrorized the local Shiite Muslims.. ‘Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military rule. Democratic activists there want a legislature and other institutions without restrictions like the ones imposed on Free Kashmir’.

What is the author suggesting to stop China to 'engulf' Gilgit-Baltistan and what are the next steps for the Yankee- the United States of America:

“The United States is uniquely situated to play a moderating role in Kashmir, given its growing economic and military ties with India and Pakistan’s aid dependence on Washington. Such a role should be limited to quiet diplomacy. Washington should press New Delhi to resume autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. Success would put pressure on Islamabad for comparable concessions in Free Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan, Washington should focus on getting Islamabad to stop aiding the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and to give New Delhi a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan. Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is so important to China, the United States, India and Pakistan should work together to make sure that it is not overwhelmed, like Tibet, by the Chinese behemoth”.

This op-ed by Harrison was taken by many Indian, Pakistani, Russian, European, south Asian newspapers, online blogs etc., and opinions, analysis and comments were made some condemning Pakistan and China for taking over Gilgit-Baltistan others, including foreign office officials in Peking and Islamabad rejecting the op-ed as baseless, absurd and provocative. Some analysts in India went on to say that it was actually China’s internal problems in Muslim majority Xinjiang that prompted it to work closely with Pakistan to secure its border region from infiltration. Gilgit-Baltistan being the frontline region for making or breaking peaceful co-existence between Pakistan and China. Therefore it is in the interest of China and Pakistan to keep Gilgit-Baltistan terrorist-free and free of jihadi groups and create an island of economic prosperity and peace in this poverty stricken and sensitive region.

What is in this story for us, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan?

Many people here in Gilgit Baltistan are of the view that renewed closer economic ties with China and the Xinjiang province will benefit the people of Gilgit Baltistan and also create deeper strategic relations between China and Pakistan which is in the interest of regional peace and security and shall promote regional economic integration between South and Central Asia.

China is also seen as a stabilizing factor in the region. However, Islamabad also shares Chinese concerns about what it calls the three evils; separatism, fanaticism and terrorism in Xinjiang. Both countries agree that counter-terrorism, counter-separatism and counter-fanaticism strategies are required both at local, national and regional levels between Pakistan and China. However, in doing so it is also important for both countries to protect, promote and deepen local self governance, local autonomy and strengthen empowerment of local people and guarantee the fundamental rights of the local people to use and own their own resources on their own homelands through fairplay and internationally accepted principles.

In the new great game for access to the oil and gas reserves of Central Asia, controlling trade corridors and reaching out to the warm waters of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, any regional strategy and frameworks must underline the aspect of self rule, alleviating the sufferings of the mountain people in these strategic nodes, and protecting their fundamental rights guaranteed by international conventions rectified by both Islamabad and Peking.

At the same time, the local people in Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang must rise above petty internal conflicts and schism and accept plurality of views, adopt progressive ideas and embark on social modernization and educate their children to benefit from the new opportunities.

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