The celebrated Dogra Military Commander of Sikh Kingdom way back in 1839 realised the importance of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Western Tibet. Alas our politically misplaced priorities squandered that achievement by not pursuing operations towards GB to regain what was rightfully part of India in 1948 – 49. Indo – Pak war after the Indian Army had Pakistani Army on the run after the capture of Kargil. General Zorawar needs to be celebrated and credited with a vision which he displayed in 1840 – 41 by undertaking operations first to capture Gilgit and then territory almost upto the base of Kailash Mansarovar. Although he perished due to the harsh winters of Tibet, lack of reinforcement due to extended lines of communications and reinforcement of Tibetans by the Chinese, his efforts did not go in vain. In 1842 a treaty at Chusul was signed between the representatives of Khalsa Darbar and Raja Gulab Singh and representatives of Tibetan and Chinese Government, as a result the entire area came under the Dogra Kingdom what today is the Indian frontier in Ladakh. Surrounded by Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir mountains, Gilgit – Baltistan is the gateway to Central Asian Republics through the Wakhan Corridor – Afghanistan, Arabian Coast (Gawadar Port in Baluchistan) through Pakistan, Kashmir, and Xinjiang. It provides tremendous military and economic advantages which China is working to fully exploit because we must understand that Xinjiang is 4500 km from the Pacific Coast whereas only 2500 km from Gwadar port in Baluchistan providing unfettered access to the Arabian Sea. See map 1.
In fact as per Vikram Sood advisor Observer Research Foundation, we failed to react when the US Congressional Research Service in its report of February 13, 2007 showed a map of the Indian subcontinent with Gilgit and Baltistan as a contiguous part of Pakistan and Aksai Chin as an “Indian claim.” The Indian Government did nothing. On the other hand Pakistan continued its effort to convince the world that the Northern Areas of Pakistan where never part of J&K. These efforts of Pakistan and China were contested by an EU expert on J&K, Emma Nicholson who gave authentic historical evidence to prove that GB was part of the Raja Hari Singh’s State at the time of signing of the Instrument of Accession. India it seems never really thought strategically and has frittered away opportunities whenever it has come their way at least in the case of J&K.
Reference to GB by PM Modi in his 2016 Independence Day speech brought the issue back into focus but it also probably raised the hackles of Chinese, who started becoming more aggressive in their face offs along the India – China border. The most significant being the Doklam crisis in 2017. In fact, Dokalam or Dolam as we refer to it, had assumed serious proportions and at the least a border skirmish was averted for a change due to sound military response and effective diplomacy. Abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35 including reorganization of J&K into two Union Territories may have further antagonized China. This coupled with the anti-China global rhetoric of which India is also perceived to be a part by the Chinese, may have had a cumulative effort in triggering the current face offs in Ladakh.
The Chinese activities in Ladakh have to be seen in conjunction with its strategic interest in Giligit – Baltistan. The flagship project of China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) from Xinjiang to Gwadar port passes through Gilgit. Without Gilgit there will be no CPEC. It is a 66 billion USD project. Success of CPEC will decide the success of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative which seeks to combine the two famous theories given out by Alfred Mahan and Mackinder of geopolitics in its quest to become a super power. Mackinder had floated the Heartland Theory in which he had said that the country which controlled Eastern Europe would control Eurasia, the Heartland and subsequently it would control the World. On the other hand Mahan had said the country which controls the seas will rule the world. In one stroke Xi Jinping has combined the two theories by floating the grand OBOR project involving 4.4 bn people and 60 countries at an estimated cost between $4 trillion to $ 8 trillion. See Map 2 below. Surprisingly China has shown Aksai Chin and J&K as part of India which it later removed from the site. Another opportunity which we failed to grasp. Besides CPEC, GB also has the Karakoram highway which has become part of the architecture of CPEC. The success of CPEC and by corollary OBOR depends upon the success of Gwadar port, which is to serve as the gateway for China into the Arabian Sea and then on to Persian Gulf and IOR bypassing the Malacca strait as an alternative. This grand strategic plan would never have been feasible if GB was held with us.
There appears to be strategic linkage of current face off with GB. China probably is aiming to get control of areas south of Karakoram pass and thus secure the Baltistan area and its military and economic activities from south. Further it will provide him a direct approach to the Siachen Glacier. Stobodan, former Ambassador and China expert says, “Once China gets control of the southern side of the Karakoram pass, it can easily approach Siachen Glacier from the Depsang corridor and meet at Tashkurgan junction from where the CPEC crosses into Gilgit-Baltistan.” See Map 3 below. This would be disastrous for India. Hopefully given the recent military and diplomatic level talks that are going on between India and China such an eventuality will be averted. But it is time now that we look to negate the strategic designs of China through some innovative and out of the box moves. More on that in my next week’s article. Meanwhile I request the readers to ponder over a possible solution to the problem. (To be continued….)