The Indian Army Chief`s statement about the presence of 3000 to 4000 Chinese, including troops, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) has been widely reported. The statement is significant coming as it does after the statement of the Northern Army Commander, Lt. Gen. K.T. Parnaik, in April 2011 that, “not only they are in the neighbourhood but the fact is that they are actually present and stationed near the LoC.” This commentary analyses the implications of the growing Chinese footprint in India’s North West region, particularly in Northern Afghanistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir.
In the recent past, China has embarked on a major policy of bidding for infrastructure and energy related contracts in the oil and mineral rich areas of Northern Afghanistan. The China Metallurgical Corporation, a state owned company, has been awarded a $3 billion contract to mine copper from Mes Aynak copper mines, reportedly the second largest copper mine in the world. The mines are located 25 kms South West of Kabul and have a potential of $88 billion of copper deposits. The contract gives China a 30 year lease which will ensure a Chinese presence around Kabul for a long period of time. The China National Petroleum Corporation, another state owned enterprise, has been awarded a contract to carry out oil exploration in Kashkari, Bazarkhami and Zamarudsay blocks located near the Amu River and part of a larger deposit that extends into neighbouring Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Given the modest estimated reserves of 80 million barrels – that’s a mere 55,000 barrels per day over four years - China`s moves to execute such a project appear to have more strategic than economic significance. In addition, China has bid for almost 40 more projects totalling $500 million. Alongside, China is also funding a road through the narrow Wakhan Corridor leading up to its border with Afghanistan. This road will have a supply depot and a mobile communications centre to facilitate connectivity and trade across the border.
In PoK, Pakistan has jointly constructed the 10 metre wide, 1300 km long Karakoram Highway (KKH) with China. The KKH was commissioned in 1986 and it was a joint effort between the Frontier Works Organisation of the Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers and their Chinese `counterparts`. 810 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese lost their lives while constructing this road. Since January 2010, the KKH has been closed to traffic due to huge landslides which blocked the Hunza River near the village of Ataabad, causing damage to life and property besides creating a huge lake and washing away 20 kms of the KKH. Since the KKH was constructed by Army personnel from both sides, it would be reasonable to assume that some Chinese troops mentioned in the newspaper reports are working at this site to carry out repairs.
China has also been actively involved in the construction of the Diamer Bhasha dam near Chilas in the Northern Areas of PoK, close to the LoC in the Keran Sector. The Diamer-Bhasha dam is proposed to be a 272 metre high RCC dam, capable of generating 4500 MW of power, one of the largest in the world, at an astounding cost of $12 billion. The Dam is along the KKH and its construction has necessitated the widening of the KKH from 10 metres to 30 metres, ostensibly to transport machinery, with a concomitant threefold increase of transportation. In 2006, the contract to widen the road was given to China`s State owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC). Pakistan has been unable to find sponsors to fund the Dam project. The World Bank has declined and the US, which initially pledged $1 billion, has now shown reluctance to fund the exorbitant cost. China has lent support by influencing the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to provide $5 billion. It has also been reported in the media, quoting WAPDA officials, that China will `most likely fund bulk of the project costs as well as provide 17,000 workers from the Three Gorges Project.` What is noteworthy is that as a policy, China takes responsibility for any project it finances. In other words, the Chinese presence in this project is likely to be permanent. Brahma Chellaney recently stated that units of the People’s Liberation Army are engaged in dam and other strategic projects in the restive, Shia-majority region of Gilgit-Baltistan in PoK, probably indicating that some of these workers are PLA personnel.1
As of 2010, at least 17 other projects involving about 122 Chinese companies were identified mostly in PoK and Gilgit-Baltistan. Some of these projects that have strategic significance are: the Havelian-Kunjerab Pass rail link along the KKH; a major bridge on the Jhelum in Mirpur District; a $6 million mining lease including establishing a power plant; provision of mobile communications to PoK by China Mobile; and several minor and major hydro-power projects like the Neelam Valley project and raising of Mangla Dam.2 These projects have long gestation periods and are likely to justify a long term Chinese presence in PoK.
The foregoing delineates the footprints of the broader Chinese strategy, which comes disguised as a quest for securing energy reserves and a search for new markets - both of which, though legitimate, will nevertheless generate dependence on China in the long term. This also reinforces China’s strategy to contain India and keep it engaged in an asymmetric war waged through a proxy - Pakistan. The presence of the Chinese in this region, therefore, has four major implications for India.
What should India do? In my view, India needs to initiate the following: