By Jai Kumar Verma
New Delhi. 07 August 2022. Chairman of Karakoram National Movement, Mumtaz Nagri stated in an interview to a newspaper that Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) which is part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is an isolated and neglected area. He claims that Pakistan may lease out GB to China as Islamabad would fail to repay the Chinses loan. He also demanded that residents of GB should not be afraid of Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and be prepared to go to jail.
At present Pakistan’s economy is on ventilator and according to reports as of March 2022 Pakistan’s public debt was USD 248.7 billion which is 80.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The domestic debt was Rupees 28 trillion while external debt was $ 86.4 billion. Pakistan’s foreign reserve is dwindled to $ nine billion, it wants to take loan from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and recently IMF has signed preliminary agreement with Islamabad to revive $ six billion bailout package. But IMF loan comes with stringent conditions, IMF stipulations include that Pakistan should share terms and conditions of Chinese loan taken for completion of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and IMF money cannot be used in Chinese projects. IMF loan cannot be used in repaying Chinese debt. It would be difficult for Pakistan to adhere to these stipulations.
Nonetheless Beijing is Islamabad’s biggest bilateral creditor. Chinese government outstanding loan is $14.5 billion besides this loan Pakistan has also taken loan from government owned Chinese banks as well as from China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE). Although it is difficult to mention all the Chinese loan but the analysts claim that Chinese debt is about $24 billion which is about 30 percent of total Pakistani external debt.
The residents of GB claim that Pakistan has no resources to repay the debt hence it would lease out GB to China. Beijing would utilise GB as it wants to expand itself in South Asia. Not only this China is the largest importer of agricultural products, would utlise arable land, natural resources, and vast water resources of GB. China needs clean water from glaciers for manufacturing semiconductors. Semiconductors are used in mobile phones, cars, fighter jets, ships etc. China wants to control Shaksgam valley which has more than 240 glaciers. GB has second highest peak i.e. K-2 and has ancient Buddhist sculptures.
Gilgit, Skardu, Diamer, Astore, Ghanche, Ghizer and Hunza-Nagar consist of GB. The total area of GB is around 72,496 KMs which is more than five times of present POK. Under Karachi Agreement of April 1949 Pak government forcibly got the control of GB and split them from POK. It also gifted Sakshgam Valley (5,180 Sq. KMs) to China in 1963. Pakistan with ulterior motive, projects GB as a separate region and not as a part of POK.
In 1974 Pakistan abolished state subject rule in GB so that Sunni Muslims from Pakistan can settle there. According to a report originally the ratio was of 1:4 but in 2019 the ratio was changed to 3:4. Originally the Shia population was 68 percent now it is 41 percent only. Sunni terrorist groups like Sipah-i-Sahaba, Harkat-ul-Mujahiddin, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Jaish-e-Mohammad have established terrorist camps in GB and are killing Shias.
China also wants that more Punjabis and Sunni Muslims should settle in this area, so that they get more support for the CPEC. China is also insisting that GB should be given a status of an independent province. Pakistan has already given agricultural land to Chinese companies so that they can build infrastructure projects. Hundreds of Chinese are living in GB and are exploiting the natural resources of the area under the garb of developing infrastructure. China intends to develop Gawadar, Jiwani, Sonmiani, Pasni and Ormara ports so that it can increase its influence in Indian Ocean.
Legally GB is part of Jammu & Kashmir hence it is part of India and Pakistan has no right to lease it to China or any other country. In case Islamabad gives GB to China on lease, Government of India has the right to challenge this decision in the International Court of Justice.
Besides it Islamabad has to face stiff resistance from United States and it would become difficult for Pakistan to get loan from IMF or World Bank. The residents of GB would also resist Chinese occupation although at present the federal government had given very less rights to them. The local population is against CPEC because it feels that China is exploiting their mineral resources and CPEC related projects are not generating employment to locals.
The population of GB is fast dwindling because there is no job, scarcity of everything including food items, electricity only for limited time and primitive living conditions. Hence the residents are migrating to other areas within or outside the country. The suicide rate in GB is highest in Pakistan.
United States is also keeping eye on GB as last time when it withdrew from Afghanistan, 9/11 occurred hence this time although US withdrew from Afghanistan but it is still keeping an eye on it. Hence GB can be useful for US also.
Pakistan wants to incorporate GB in the federal system and declare it as the fifth province. Previously it was known as Northern areas and only in 2009 it was allowed to constitute its assembly but it is governed from Islamabad and has no power to take decisions.
China wants to control GB and its dry port Sost, which is a last town inside Pakistan on Karakoram Highway before Chinese border. It is important because all traffic crossing Pakistan China border has to pass through this town.
The rising insurgency in Balochistan has restricted progress of CPEC. Now China on one hand is assisting Pakistani forces in curbing Balochistan uprising and on the other hand forcing Pakistan government, so that the work on CPEC continue in GB. China is also pressing Islamabad to declare GB as fifth province, so that it can be controlled better. However, there were large scale protests in GB and all opposition political parties not only supported the protests but became part of it.
Islamabad is issuing mining licenses to non-residents which is resented by the locals of GB. The issue of licenses to non-locals have increased the loot of natural resources of GB especially by Chinese companies.
Nawaz Khan Naji founder of the Balwaristan National Front (BNF) also stated that “Pakistan occupied our land in 1947 and since then no development has been done here”. He also claimed that elections are farce. Pakistan security forces use draconian anti-terror laws to ruthlessly suppress the peaceful protests and demonstrations.
The residents also claim that making GB as fifth province would not bring any progress in the region as Balochistan which is one province of Pakistan is underdeveloped with highest illiteracy rate. The people of GB also claim that their counter parts residing in India are leading much better lives and enjoying the freedom and equality under Indian constitution.
India, USA, and other countries should remain vigilant so that Pakistan does not lease out GB to China as it would be dangerous not only for India but for the free world. However, it does not mean that the world waive Pakistan’s loan or render more financial assistance. Islamabad is surviving on foreign assistance and also utilising it for increasing terrorist activities all over the world especially against India. The IMF should give loan with stringent stipulations and Islamabad must fulfil the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) conditions. Pakistan watchers point out that country’s economy is ruined but the political leaders, senior army officers have no dearth of money. The fundamentalism and extremism have derelict the country.
China which considers India as its potential adversary has exploited the brutish desire of Islamabad to destroy India. Beijing assisted Islamabad which has waged a low intensity war against India and in the process, Pakistan devastated itself. The democratic as well as Muslim world must press Pakistan to abandon terrorism and the time, money and energy consumed in spreading terrorism in other countries especially in India should be utilised in the development of the country.
(Jai Kumar Verma is a Delhi-based strategic analyst and Life member of United Services Institute of India and member of Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. The views in the article are solely the author’s. He can be contacted at [email protected])