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Gilgit-Baltistan and the New Great Game

By Aziz Ali Dad  - Originally Published on DAWN.

The famous Silk Route has witnessed many vicissitudes for more than two millennia. This route was disrupted many times because of political events engulfing the regions spanning from Ch’ang-an, modern day Sian to the Mediterranean region and Europe. However trade on the Silk Route continued to flourish because its multiple arteries enabled traders to dodge political upheavals and geographic hurdles.

During the 20th century, areas along the Silk Route witnessed redrawing of boundaries on the basis of modern nation-states. As a result, mobility between areas around the Silk Route became difficult. At the same time, new road and railway network further reduced the significance of this route.

Despite restrictions on mobility, a small amount of barter trade between Pakistan and China continued informally on the borders. This helped maintain a symbolic continuum of the Silk Route in the mountainous regions of China, Wakhan and Pakistan. In this process the region of Gilgit-Baltistan remained an important conduit of trade. The informal nature of historic trade became formal and expanded exponentially with the construction of Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1979. It has opened both countries to trade and commerce and helped connect the mainland with the peripheries. Now the KKH has been upgraded and expanded to accommodate the increasing volume of trade between China and Pakistan.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Pakistan and announced construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This corridor is a part of the new Silk Route that will connect the western part of China with the markets of the Middle East. The expansion of an artery of the Silk Route in Gilgit-Baltistan into a major economic corridor will not only help rejuvenate the old route, but also transform it into the major route between Inner and South Asia – and beyond. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has been hailed by policy and decision-makers as a ‘game changer’ for Pakistan’s economy and for a major geo-strategic shift in the region.

Initiatives for economic uplift like the economic corridor ought to be welcomed, but while doing so it is also important to take stock of social and political implications for Pakistan in general and Gilgit-Baltistan in particular. Unlike other regions of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan has an anomalous position within the overall political structure of Pakistan because this region does not fall within the constitutional ambit of Pakistan. Owing to its absence in the power of dispensation in Pakistan the region of Gilgit-Baltistan has always been ignored in major decision-making processes. On the other hand, with the introduction of mega infrastructures and economic projects, its political and economic vulnerabilities also increase.

Before embarking on the CPEC project, it is imperative to ensure social and political liberties in Gilgit-Baltistan through constitutional measures and institutional rearrangements. Implementation of the CPEC without required political and legal guarantees makes the region vulnerable to exploitation by big businesses and apathetic decision-making bodies.

It is the duty of political leadership in Gilgit-Baltistan to protect the economic rights of the local populace by ensuring that legal arrangements are in place before implementation of the mega projects like the CPEC, Bunji Hydro Power Project and Diamer-Basha Dam. Protection of the rights of local people in the face of potential investments for mega projects in the future by Chinese and Pakistan governments in Gilgit-Baltistan will be the litmus test for the local political leadership. So far no voice for the economic rights and position of Gilgit-Baltistan in the CPEC has emerged. At the moment everyone is euphoric about the 40 billion investments in the corridor.

Nothing is more dangerous than opening a politically marginalized region to mega economic project without clearly and democratically defining its legal status, role in the process and involvement in the project, and by ignoring the aspirations of the local populace. If Pakistan continues with its ambiguous policy of keeping Gilgit-Baltistan in political limbo, it will ultimately harm its own interests. When a politically deprived area is exposed to gigantic economic initiatives by economic giants, then it is natural that the area might tilt toward economic incentives and align itself with an economically powerful actor as an act of compensation.

In the proposed economic corridor between China and Pakistan, a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Kashgar is also planned. Sost town and Gilgit city in Gilgit-Baltistan will be among 12 economic zones to be established along the CPEC.

Economic development should lead to more freedoms and enable local communities to achieve basic civil liberties and political rights. For that to happen political initiatives should precede economic arrangements. Amartya Sen views expansion of freedom as the primary end and the principal means of development. If the CPEC has to be shown to the world as a prologue to holistic development, then the governments of China and Pakistan need to provide legal protections and political rights to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Otherwise, a voiceless economic zone will emerge in an area which is a political zombie in the political system of Pakistan.

In order to avoid the negative fallouts of development ensuing from the proposed corridor a special bill of citizens’ rights need to be introduced. This is important because multinational companies tend to secure their interests first and in some cases acquire impunity from the rule of the land from the government. In the long run, this provides space for big businesses to trample upon the rights of indigenous communities. Secondly the government of Pakistan has to chalk out a strategy that links the interest of local communities with the would-be economic and investment plan on the corridor. This can be done by earmarking a share of taxes accrued from trade traffic and industrial parks on the corridor for the development of local communities in the economic zone.

The social sector is another important part of the CPEC investment plan. Through investment in the social sector both countries will collaborate on education, culture, tourism, poverty alleviation, increase cooperation in livelihood areas and media through exchanges and people-to-people communication. China is already offering scholarships to hundreds of students from Gilgit-Baltistan in Chinese language and higher education. This trend will likely increase in near future. Ultimately, it will help China to create a cadre of professionals with more understanding of the Chinese economic system and with empathy for China.

One of the loopholes in the proposed investment plan for the CPEC by China is that it tends to neglect the social dimension of development. The one-party system in China does not allow its policy and decision-makers to take into consideration aspirations and sentiments of multiple stakeholders. This results in a wide gap between local people and apathetic mega projects. At the moment this may appear to be a glitch in the bigger scheme of things envisaged by China for the future of Gilgit-Baltistan, but in the long run it may become an insurmountable hurdle for cooperation, and also provide a space for powers that try to minimize the increasing influence of China in the region.

So far the western countries have made huge investment in social development. In this regard Chinese have paid no attention. China has solely focused on infrastructure development. In such a situation Gilgit-Baltistan will be facing a schizophrenic situation wherein the economy will be determined by the Chinese model and social/political awareness influenced by western ideals of civil society and governance amidst the political confusion endowed by the Pakistan’s ruling class. It will have grave implications for the economy, society and politics of Gilgit-Baltistan in the ,long run.

Ultimately, this bifurcation of experience will have to be negotiated or reduced by the political leadership of Gilgit-Baltistan through a struggle for political and economic rights. Though general elections for Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) are in the offing, its political class has neither the time nor the capacity to safeguard the interest of this small but geo-strategically important regikon which has turned into a playground for the new players of the New Great Game.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email:


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