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Chinese Strategy in the High Himalayas

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy was a Researcher at the Indian Pugwash Society, New Delhi.
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  • November 21, 2006

    As the India-China relationship continues to grow in the new Asian dynamics, Mr. Hu Jintao's maiden visit will indeed help to keep the momentum of improving ties going. The main thrust of both governments will be to establish greater political trust for future co-operation. Two-way trade between India and China is likely to touch US $24 billion this year. There are high expectations on both sides. Manmohan Singh and Hu know each other well. They have met and held talks five times during the last two years. Both have repeatedly affirmed their belief and commitment in charting out a mutually beneficial agenda for the expansion of India-China relations. Yet, the UPA government seems to be entirely unaware of the historic moves that Hu is about to make in Islamabad. India's laxity towards the unfolding Chinese strategy in Kashmir is clear. New Delhi has gone to sleep while China unveils a strategy to extend its economic and political influence across the Himalayas into the subcontinent.

    China's close ties with Pakistan have been very important to Beijing and Islamabad has played a major role in China's long-term strategy. Moving ahead on the path of "time tested friendship," China and Pakistan are set to firm up a new generation of co-operative agreements encompassing multi-billion dollar investment deals in nuclear energy, oil refinery, coal, copper and gold extraction, trade, industry, railway, and expansion of the Karakoram Highway during Hu Jintao's upcoming visit.

    Most importantly, during Hu's visit to Pakistan, a major agreement that is likely to be signed would be one dealing with the widening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) from the current 10 metres to 30 metres. Once completed, this project would give a major boost to the overall quantum of economic co-operation between the two countries, including in areas such as industrial infrastructure and nuclear energy. Notably, a memorandum of understanding for expansion of the highway was signed in June 2006. The two countries will now formalise a contract leading to the actual ground breaking of the US$ 794 million project. The Chinese Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) has completed the feasibility study, and the China Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (CASAC) has already made appropriate financial allocation to kick-start the construction.

    Meanwhile, Islamabad has decided to upgrade the KKH for improving road connectivity throughout the year. According to Pakistani media reports, the National Highway Authority of Pakistan will construct the 97-kilometre Hasanbadal-Mansehra section and the 254-kilometer Railkoat-Khunjerab section of the KKH. The Pakistan government has also decided to construct four additional bridges on the Indus for east-west connectivity between the Indus Highway and the north-south link.

    Apart from expanding the capacity of the KKH, China has also agreed to lay a fibre optic line and to consider building a rail link from Havelian to the China border along this strategic highway. The agreement to lay down a rail link is also expected to be signed during Hu's visit. Rail lines have always been about integrating markets and projecting political and military power. Chinese strategy to improve connectivity in such a difficult terrain will rapidly integrate Pakistan occupied areas of Kashmir into the Chinese economy. Earlier this year, China opened a dry port at Sust on the Khunjerab pass near its border with Pakistan to promote trade between Xinjiang and Kashmir and launched a new bus service between Kashgar and Gilgit.

    While inaugurating the Sust dry port, President General Pervez Musharraf underlined Pakistan's central geo-strategic location at the heart of the region, which included the western parts of China, Central Asian states, Afghanistan, Iran, India, and the oil-rich Gulf countries. Dwelling on the importance of the port, Musharraf said an elaborate network of infrastructure being put in place across Pakistan and improvement in the Karakoram Highway would provide China the shortest access to the Middle East and other world markets through Pakistani deep-sea ports including Gwadar. He said, "We are talking of Pakistan-China inter-connectivity in terms of energy and trade, improvement in the KKH, development of railway link and gas and oil pipeline linkages and even fibre optics connectivity along the KKH under one project simultaneously will open up immense prospects of trade and economic growth." He also added "We are capable of creating 9th and 10th wonders of the world in the form of railway and pipeline linkage between Pakistan and China." Despite the fact that the trans-Karakoram transport and energy corridor is a distant reality, it is likely to alter the geopolitics of Jammu and Kashmir. Importantly, it will bolster the role of the Northern Areas as a bridge between China and Pakistan.

    There is no doubt that China has a clear and consistent strategy behind the rapid development of infrastructure in Western China. In fact, we are witnessing a quantum leap in China's western oriented transportation infrastructure. China is systematically applying modern transport technology to penetrate the high Himalayas. Apart from altering the relationship between human activity and geographic space, these technologies have also enabled China to substantially increase its capabilities.

    Instead of ignoring and or protesting against these developments, India must learn lessons from China. The question we first have to answer is: what to do to safeguard our interest? The strategic consequences of connectivity across the high Himalayas must be taken into account. While the Chinese military threat has waned and instead economic challenges loom large, India needs a smart strategy to meet it. This must include modern transport corridors along and across its border. Making the borders irrelevant is a good strategy. Borders should become meeting points of ideas, people and goods, rather than dividing lines. For this, India needs to rejuvenate its traditional transport linkages with neighbouring countries effectively. This requires changing the mindset, courage and political will.