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China's the winner in Gilgit-Baltistan elections

Amid the wrangling among mainstream political parties in Pakistan about the “fairness” of the illegal polls in occupied Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) that concluded on Sunday, China, Islamabad’s “iron brother,” hopes to emerge as the real winner.

Despite deep strategic stakes in the area that technically belongs to India, following the signing of the accession document by Hari Singh, the former Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), but forcibly occupied by Pakistan soon after India’s independence, the Chinese have remained virtually silent about the November 15 polls. “It is an issue left over from history between India and Pakistan. It should be resolved peacefully and properly according to the charter, relevant UN Security Council resolutions and bilateral agreements,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said, during a regular press briefing in Beijing.

There are at least three primary reasons that draws Beijing towards the region.

First, China wishes to leverage GB’s unique strategic location, which is central to fulfilling its dream to implant its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the key to Beijing’s rise as an unrivalled great power. GB, the northern spur of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), shares borders with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Ladakh, and Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province.

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The BRI is Chinese leader Xi Jinping pet project of connecting the Eurasian supercontinent with China through a network of roads, railways, cyber connectivity pathways and much more.

Second, GB is critical to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—touted by Beijing as the “flagship” of the BRI, which also radiates the China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC), among others, to consolidate Beijing’s influence in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

GB provides the sole overland link between China and Pakistan. All CPEC roads, railway lines, and oil and gas pipelines connecting Pakistan with China have to pass through this territory. Having pitched billions of dollars in CPEC infra projects, risk-averse China has been prodding Pakistan since 2015 to confer constitutional validity to the region, in a bid to legalize its investments.

Third, GB is rich in mineral resources, including marble, gold and uranium that Beijing wants to exploit. In May 2019, Pakistan’s Board of Investments (BoI) approved establishing Moqpondass Special Economic Zone about 40 km from the city of Gilgit, as part of nine similar fast-tracked investments.
The proposed SEZ is spread over 250 acres focusing on the region’s reserves of marble, granite, fruit, minerals and leather. It is located on the Sakardu-Gilgit highway, 160 km from Skardu airport. The Sust dry port catering to this SEZ is 200 km away.

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China is also at the forefront of leveraging GB’s water resources. Pakistan’s plans to build five mega-dams with Chinese assistance, in the hydrographically rich area, including the controversial Diamer-Bhasha Dam. The concrete-filled gravity dam on river Indus is located between Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Diamer district in Gilgit Baltistan.

GB has become a major battleground of geopolitical competition between the China-Pakistan nexus and India, especially after Beijing went ahead with CPEC without consulting India. CPEC aggravated India’s angst, which had taken root in 1963, when Pakistan had ceded the Shaksgam valley along the northern border of GB to China, which is now part of the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

The marked shift in India’s approach to PoK became visible in August 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed to an all-party delegation that he would take up the issue of the Pakistan government’s atrocities in Balochistan and PoK at various international forums. Soon after, in his Independence Day address, he stated that the people of these regions, including Gilgit had written to him expressing their gratitude for raising his voice against Pakistani atrocities against them.

The abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, followed by a strong reiteration that that “entire Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of the Union of India, including Gilgit-Baltistan and Aksai Chin, which is under Chinese occupation has flagged the intensification of Great Game between India and China in POK to an altogether new level. The November 15 “elections” for Pakistan’s freshly minted fifth province opens another chapter in this rivalry between Asia’s two major rising powers..