China plans Karakoram rail link to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea

After bringing a rail line close to the Indian border with Tibet, China is gearing to push a rail link across the Karakoram into Pakistan through the Gilgit-Baltistan region that is part of the original state of Jammu and Kashmir.

According to reports from Pakistan, Beijing and Islamabad are likely to sign an MoU for a feasibility study on building the trans-Karakoram railway line during President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to China starting Tuesday.

As the first train track across the Great Himalayas, the line running nearly 700 km from Kashgar in Xinjiang province to Havelian near Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan through the Khunjerab Pass, will transform the geopolitics of western China and the subcontinent.

Given its claim to sovereignty over the entire state of J&K, India has naturally objected to the Chinese economic and infrastructure projects, including the Karakoram highway, in parts of the state under Pakistan’s control.

Over the longer term though, India will have to think more strategically about the consequences of the emerging connectivity between western China and the subcontinent through projects sponsored by Beijing.

For, China has a plan to expand its Tibet rail road into Nepal. It is expanding roadways between its Yunnan province and northern Myanmar and exploring the prospects for a rail link. Afghanistan too has been pressing Beijing to develop transportation routes between the two nations through the Wakhan corridor. Meanwhile, there is growing support in the region and beyond for trans-Asian road and rail networks.

The proposal for a rail link between landlocked Xinjiang in China’s far west and the Arabian Sea through Pakistan has been under discussion for some years. Chinese companies have apparently completed a pre-feasibility study on a rail project that must cross one of the most challenging terrains in the world.

If the two sides take the political decision to go ahead with the project during Zardari’s visit, a consortium of Chinese companies is likely to be constituted to explore in detail the engineering and financial aspects of the project.

While the technical aspects of the trans-Karakoram rail link are daunting, there is no denying the Chinese audacity in embracing projects that are grand in conception, challenging in their execution, and consequential in their impact.

During the 1970s, long before China had become rich, the People’s Liberation Army had built at great cost the Karakoram highway between Xinjiang and northern Pakistan. The self-assurance of Chinese engineers and the geopolitical ambition of Beijing’s security establishment have grown manifold since.

While India’s objections have not had much impact on either China or Pakistan, other developments have cast a shadow over some of the trans-Karakoram projects. The unstable terrain of the Karakorams demands costly upkeep of the highway, repeatedly damaged by landslides and formation of temporary lakes.

At the political level, China has been concerned about growing links between Islamist and separatist movements in the Xinjiang province on the one hand and the terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other.

As a result, China had to often shut down the Karakoram highway. In recent months, Beijing has been pressing Islamabad to crack down hard on anti-Chinese extremist groups taking shelter on Pakistani soil.

Chinese rail plan in PoK worries India
NEW DELHI: India has expressed concern over China’s plans to build a rail link through the Karakoram ranges in Pakistan. The trans-Karakoram rail link will go through the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

The Indian government reacted with concern to the rail-link plan, but also said that it was taking counter measures. “It is definitely a matter of concern. But we are taking our counter measures and we are doing our own preparation,” minister of state for defence M M Pallam Raju said. The rail link will give China access through PoK and comes on the heels of the Tibet rail link, which comes close to the Indian border.

Noting the many areas where China and Pakistan are collaborating, Mr Raju said that both China and Pakistan had made it “very apparent” that they were “working closely together and cooperating closely” on defence and strategic issues.

The Chinese plans, according to reports, is to build the rail link to Pakistan and reach the Arabian sea through the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pak-occupied Kashmir. The MoU for a feasibility study on building the Karakoram railway line is expected to be signed between Beijing and Islamabad during President Asif Ali Zardari’s current, ongoing visit to China. According to reports in the Pakistani media, Pakistan’s General Manager Railways (operation) Ishfaq Khattak has joined Mr Zardari’s delegation.

Reports also said that a pre-feasibility study has already been completed by two international consulting companies. The railway track is expected to be 682 km and would connect all major cities on the Pakistani side. The plan to build the railway has been around since 2004, but there now seems to be some movement on going ahead with the project. Reports said that an international consortium would be set up for the feasibility study once the MoU is signed between the two sides.

Indian concerns also centre around the fact that the rail link is envisaged to go through PoK. The Indian position continues to be that PoK is an integral part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. India in the past has expressed concern and lodged strong protests over projects in PoK. Last year, New Delhi had lodged a strong protest over Pakistan’s plans to build the Bunji hydroelectric project, which is also coming up with Chinese assistance. Pakistan and China had signed an MoU for the construction of the dam last year.

There seems to be renewed cooperation between China and Pakistan. The plan to build the rail link follows the revelation that China has agreed to build two nuclear reactors in Pakistan. India is concerned by this development considering Pakistan’s proliferation record.