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Increasing Chinese Footprint in India's North West: What should India do?

Major General Mandip Singh was formerly a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • October 21, 2011

    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.

    • India has been wary of the threat posed by Pakistan-China collusion in the event of a confrontation with either of the countries. Its response has been to articulate the idea of a `two front` war option. The presence of Chinese troops in such close proximity, on a permanent basis, only exacerbates the threat.
    • The widening of the KKH and its increased load capacity will improve mobility in switching forces and the movement of heavy equipment and stores across borders. It may be recalled that in 2004 China had reportedly moved `Silkworm` missiles to Pakistan via the KKH.
    • Post 2014, once the US-led ISAF deinducts from Afghanistan, the focus of the Mujahideen will shift away from Afghanistan. The
      presence of the Chinese in North Afghanistan and PoK will ensure that they are prevented from entering Xinjiang. In all probability these armed groups will then be diverted to Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).
    • The permanent presence of the Chinese in PoK is likely to `harden` the positions of India and Pakistan and preclude their finding a solution to the J&K imbroglio, as China will automatically get entangled in what has till now been a bilateral dispute.

    What should India do? In my view, India needs to initiate the following:

    • India needs to increase its footprints in Afghanistan. Towards this end the recent agreements signed during the visit of President Karzai are insufficient to leave lasting imprints post 2014. India needs to increase its stakes in Afghanistan in the energy, minerals and power sectors, which have a longer presence and resultantly require construction of ancillaries like transportation, railways and housing besides the need to guard assets. Further, India must build on the training of the Afghan National Army and Police by enlarging the scope to include the provision and supply of arms and munitions, vehicles and stores as also training the Afghan Air Force. All these must be guaranteed by the US through trilateral agreements before its withdrawal from Afghanistan.
    • The presence of Chinese troops in PoK needs to be raised at the international level as it has serious ramifications on the future of the settlement of the J&K issue. Internally, the people of J&K need to be taken on board about the long term implications of China`s permanent presence in PoK.
    • The Indian military needs to factor the `collusivity` of China-Pakistan in its strategic and operational plans.
    • 1. Brahma Chellaney,`The Water Hegemon`, The Asian Century, October 14, 2011.
    • 2. Pranab Dhal Samanta, `More than troops, Chinese projects in PoK worry India`,, September 05, 2010.