A while back I wrote a piece, The Most Dangerous Letters in the World Aren’t SCS…They’re CPEC.
I made the case that the South China Sea was a case of high-functioning, cautious states not interested in blowing each other up…while in South Asia the core Chinese gambit, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, was at the mercy of Pakistan and India, two borderline dysfunctional states that were interested in blowing each other up.
Indian PM Modi added some tinder to the bonfire with his August 15 Independence Day speech and another internal speech, in which he made an issue of Pakistan-Occupied-Kashmir (POK), Balochistan, and (drumroll) Gilgit-Baltistan.
In my opinion, the ongoing unrest in India’s slice of Kashmir is an embarrassment and reproach to Modi, who has to live up to the rep of World’s Largest Democracy, Upholder of the Rules-Based Liberal International Order, and Worthy US Ally.
Awkward fact is that while the PRC has done an OK job of coloring inside the lines post-Deng, India suffers by comparison as a historically Anschluss-happy (Sikkim) terrorist exporting (Sri Lanka), nation-shattering (Bangladesh), bullying (Nepal), brutal occupier (Kashmir) and recklessly malicious regional actor (Afghanistan) with appalling social problems, and run by an unapologetic, pogrom-executing fascist.
Sorry, Indian friends!
Anyway, in lockstep with Modi’s speech, nationalist-friendly Indian media started cranking out videos on how terrible things are in Pakistan, which was presented as a brilliant riposte to Pakistan pointing fingers at India over Kashmir.
Commentators swarmed all over the Balochistan issue, which is a hot button thanks to what is apparently an unbelievably brutal Pakistan security operation intended to destroy Baloch’s capacity for political action and nationhood by death-squad operations against Baloch activists and intellectuals.
In Balochistan, the Pakistan army seems to be recapitulating the horrors of Operation Searchlight in East Pakistan in 1971, which started with systemic slaughter at the universities and, when the project was lurching to defeat, wholesale exit massacres of Bengali intellectuals and professionals.
I’m guessing the Pakistan army is reassuring itself that it’s different this time.
Balochistan, unlike East Pakistan, is contiguous to the Punjab heartland, sparsely populated, and lacking an Indian border to provide havens and bases for subversion and intervention. The army’s probably right, especially since Iran has a Baloch problem of its own (exacerbated, of course, by the Pakistan army with its traditional brilliance, since it enables Saudi-backed Baloch militants making mischief in Iran’s Sistan and Baloch Province), and is unlikely to view Baloch self-determination with great enthusiasm.
Gilgit-Baltistan is, hopefully, another kettle of fish. Sometimes referred to as “GB”, it’s a mountain district of around 2 million people in northern Pakistan, abutting China, and hosting the northern stretch of the CPEC road network to Kashgar.
I take the road less-traveled and write about GB in my most recent piece for Asia Times, India Plays its cards in Gilgit Baltistan.
And here’s probably the best map you’ll find of the area, courtesy of the Gilgit Baltistan Scouts.
GB has suffered the usual sectarian and demographic divide and rule abuses at the hands of the federal government, spawning a nascent localist movement that veers into calls for some kind of independence or self-determination, and which has been met with the usual ham-fisted central government suppression justified on security/counterinsurgency/counter-terrorism campaign.
The temptation for India to meddle in GB to wrongfoot the CPEC must be irresistible, and indeed a two-city general strike was called in Gilgit Baltistan on the same day Modi namechecked the region in his Independence Day speech.
Indian media pitched in with reports on the unrest whose obvious objective was to send the message: Not like India in Jammu/Kashmir; Worse!
However, I’m hopeful that things are actually Better! up in GB and some combination of civilian common sense in Pakistan’s federal government and PRC pressure will turn GB into a “win-win showcase” instead of another demonstration of Pakistan’s suicidally counter-productive security-through-death squad military strategy.
Some encouragement can perhaps be derived from the fact that GB’s most noteworthy activist-dissident, Baba Jan, apparently got detained, kicked around, had his fingers broken and got sentenced to forty years in prison by the central government, instead of being abducted, tortured, shot, and dumped in a ditch by security forces as is apparently the norm in Balochistan.
It’s also inspiring that the Awami Action Committee, which organized this week’s strike, has been able to stick with Baba Jan’s determinedly non-sectarian political strategy (though I wonder how many of the resented Sunni Punjabi interlopers jointed the strike enthusiastically) and the movement seems to have broad backing from professional as well as religious groups.
And the PRC can take the fact that the local activists have not, like the Baloch independence activists, categorically repudiated the CPEC as exclusively an instrument of central government oppression and exploitation.
The local expectation in GB appears to be that the CPEC is a potential positive, especially if the government can be strongarmed into putting some economic development zones into the district.
The CPEC already has a sizable footprint in GB thanks to a crash $275 million/three year project to improve the Karakoram Highway to convert it into an all-weather road capable of handling semis pulling 40 foot containers year round back and forth to (eventually) Gwadar.
The project was desperately needed since a landslide in the Hunza district in 2010 had not only cut the road; it had blocked a river and created an enormous new lake, dubbed Lake Attabad, that had to be crossed by boat before the PRC realigned the road, building five tunnels with an aggregate length of 7.2 kilometers in the process.
The federal government’s initial dilatory and parsimonious response to the disaster—which killed 19 or 20 people and displaced 25,000 villagers—became a key issue for local activists, including Baba Jan (he was arrested after security forces fired into a Hunza-related protest, killing two, and tried to evade culpability by accusing Baba Jan of terrorism).
From what I can tell, the project was funded primarily by the China Exim Bank and contracted by Pakistan to China Road and Bridge Corporation. Local employment, if any, during the construction was pretty minimal. So, something of corporate welfare to China’s beleaguered infrastructure section.
I have to admit, I can’t get too worked up about it. I was struck by the fact that the U.S. under President Obama alone has sold $110 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, providing a similar service in keeping domestic industry fat and happy. And for its $46 billion from China, Pakistan is getting some roads and power plants out of it, and not just tanks and cluster munitions.
The new Karakoram Highway in GB, by the way, looks pretty impressive, at least until the next landslide comes along.
I’m guessing that local activists hope to use the heightened attention to GB thanks to Modi’s remarks to demand more from the CPEC than the road link and the promise that the beauties of Lake Attabad will bring more tourists to the region. GB has also risen on the domestic political agenda since the opposition PPP sees it as a stick to beat Nawaz Sharif with. And, as I wrote over at AT, I’m guardedly optimistic that the PRC will prevail on the Pakistan army not to turn GB into the usual hell-hole.
But it’s still an open question how badly Pakistan can mismanage the GB issue, and how far India can and will go to exploit it.