Analysis : Karakoram Highway A Danger Signal for
Intro : The Karakoram highway to link Pakistan with China has been termed as “a road to friendship”. But this new link has ominous strategic implications for Bharat.
Karakoram Highway (KKH) connects Abbottabad in Punjab (Pakistan) to Kashgar, Xinjiang Region of China across the Karakoram Ranges. Bharat has five mountain ranges which guard its northern frontier namely, Karakoram Ranges, Zangskar Ranges, The Ladakh Ranges, Himalayan Ranges and the PirPanchal Ranges. The Karakoram Ranges are the northern most and also form the de facto border along which runs the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China. Karakoram Highway is the highest paved strategic international road which crosses the Karakoram Ranges at Khunjerab Pass and is presently a fair weather road. KKH meanders through the Gilgit–Baltistan region (part of Jammu & Kashmir state and presently in illegal occupation of Pakistan). The work is in progress to make it an all-weather road through construction of tunnels, widening of the road to thrice its present specification, construction of bridges and enhancing the load carrying capacity by three times. The highway initially was constructed jointly by Pakistan and China but its up gradation is being undertaken by a Chinese company called China Bridge and Road Construction Company (CBRC). Consequently there is large scale presence of the Chinese labour and military troops in the area. The KKH will be linked to the newly constructed port with Chinese aid at Gwadar. This would reduce the distance of nearest sea port to the land locked Sinkiang province by 200 km.
It is also proposed to develop KKH into an economic corridor referred to as Karakoram Corridor (KC). It would involve up gradation of KKH into an all-weather express way, laying of optic fibre cable (OFC) along its entire length, 1100 km trans-karakoram rail link, laying of oil and gas pipelines. KKH and KC serve both political and strategic interests of China and Pakistan. Bharat cannot afford to remain quiet to increased Chinese presence in the disputed POJK. It has obvious implications for Bharat’s security. While China claims it to be part of its economic strategy to revive old trade routes, the Bharateeya security experts denounce it as a part of China’s “string of pearls” strategy to encircle Bharat as well as ensuring her presence in the strategically important Gilgit- Baltistan region. It is like the case of a half-filled glass. It is dependent on how the viewer perceives it “half-empty” or “half-filled”? There is no doubt that the KC would provide China access to the Indian Ocean thus giving boost to its trade. But the fact that it can also be used for military purposes to threaten Bharat and destabilise Indian Ocean can also not be ignored. Readers would recall that in the past KKH has been used by China to supply strategic material for production of its nuclear arsenal as well as for supply of long range missiles. It was also used to equip the Taliban in Afghanistan during their fight against the USSR. Pakistan used it to ship American weapon systems to China for reverse engineering. Thus, KKH poses a great security challenge to Bharat. It can be used for rapid movement of troops and material from China and Pakistan. It can be used for stationing missiles in POJK. The tunnels would provide enhanced security to these missiles and their deployment can be kept concealed from Bharateeya and international surveillance systems. In case of an Bharat-Pak war, China can make a ‘pincer movement’ to threaten Bharat and tie down its troops in Ladakh sector. China can also keep an eye on the Bharateeya activities in the region by establishing listening posts and advanced surveillance bases in POJK. The PLA Air Force would have the additional benefit of using the air fields in POJK in case of hostilities with us. KKH can also become a life-line for promoting terrorist activities in troubled Kashmir region. The increased Chinese presence in POJK will act as a hindrance in resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir problem.
Thus KKH/ KC is the focal point of Pak-China nexus against Bharat and for domination of the region. Pakistan has already illegally ceded to China parts of the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, an integral part of the state of J&K, in Saksam Valley and Aksai Chin. Pakistan calls China as its strategic partner and they both have a common enemy, i.e., Bharat. A new “Great Game” is being played by China in the region to ensure its hold over the strategic region of Gilgit-Baltistan with active connivance of Pakistan. Bharateeya security establishment cannot turn a blind eye to the happenings in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Saltoro Ridge and Siachen Glacier assume great strategic importance in this context. Bharat under no circumstances should vacate Siachen Glacier. Our defences in Ladakh sector should be strengthened through rapid development of infrastructure. Re-activation of DBO airfield by the Indian Air Force has sent a strong message across. The much needed up gradation and modernisation of the surveillance systems should be taken on war footing. Long range surveillance radars and satellites be deployed to keep the main arteries in China and POJK under surveillance. Our Special Forces should be tasked, equipped and trained for interdiction of KKH.
Diplomatically, Bharat should oppose Pak’s action of separating Gilgit-Baltistan region from POJK and making it a separate region directly under the federal government. Any talk on ‘K’ issue must include the Gilgit-Baltistan region with Bharat insisting on its complete vacation by Pak. Incidentally, the region being Shia dominated is also a victim of Sunni hegemony in Pakistan. Our relations with other neighbours in the SAARC region should be strengthened to negate Chinese influence in the region and to isolate Pakistan. The Modi Government has already flagged it as a major foreign policy initiative which has begun to yield success. Similarly, in keeping with Kautilya’s advice that “enemy’s neighbour should be your friend”, Bharat’s relations with countries that border China and Pakistan like Myanmar, Vietnam, Japan, Mongolia, Taiwan and Afghanistan should be friendly and mutually beneficial. Another foreign policy initiative of the Modi Government to renew and improve relations with Indian Ocean Rim countries should be pursued with vigour.
Despite recent bonhomie in Sino-Bharateeya relations and the proposed joint military exercise between the two countries Bharat cannot afford to let her guard down. As long as we have unsettled border with China as well as taking note of China’s military posture in Tibet, Bharat would have to be ready to thwart any Chinese misadventure. Pakistan on the other hand continues to be the breeding ground of terror and an important player of the global jihad against Bharat. It has unleashed a proxy war. Its strategic alliance with China is solely aimed at threatening and de-stabilising Bharat. Thus, KH and its proposed expansion that provides connectivity to both our hostile neighbours poses a major security challenge.
Brig Anil Gupta (The writer is a Jammu based security and strategic analyst. The views expressed is entirely personal)