On the eve of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first state visit to China came the announcement that the two countries were starting a bus service along the Karakoram Highway between Kashgar in Xinjiang and Lahore. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) was quick to protest on the grounds that the bus service passed through Indian territory under occupation by Pakistan.
The MEA statement leaves out the fact that this is not the first bus service between China and Pakistan. The first was launched in June 2006 between Gilgit and Kashgar, used by both traders from Pakistan and Chinese tourists and traders. Just a month earlier, a truck service had also begun with Chinese traders allowed to bring their vehicles up to Karachi and Gwadar.
There is no record of the MEA having protested these Sino-Pak connectivity services in 2006. Of course, that year was also something of a high noon in Indo-Pak relations with the Composite Dialogue in full swing. India and Pakistan began the second of their own bus services across the Line of Control (LoC) between Poonch and Rawalakot after the first between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad began in April 2005.
One could argue ad nauseam about the sincerity of the Pakistani deep state and the ability of the civilian government to sustain a peace process with India. But as the MEA spokesperson suggested in June 2006, ‘We cannot give up the option of dialogue and a peaceful settlement. Clearly, war is not a viable option’.
It is therefore, not the case that the Indian government cannot think out of the box and ignore pin-pricks like the latest Sino-Pak bus service in the larger scheme of things.
But since 2006, the Indian economy has grown considerably more in size and capacity. Alongside, the belief has also grown that Pakistan could be safely ignored and that the Kashmir issue and terrorism were all under control. Thus, it is not surprising that in addition to political and ideological reasons, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finds it easy to dismiss overtures by his newly-elected Pakistani counterpart. Modi’s initial attempts at friendliness – inviting Khan’s predecessor Nawaz Sharif to his swearing in and the surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 – are the exceptions that prove the rule. Further, with the Kashmir political situation now the worst it has been in some years, the Indian economy struggling under the weight of structural problems, and with general elections around the corner, the need to use Pakistan as a whipping boy and diversion only increases.
While protesting the Sino-Pak bus service on legal and political grounds is legitimate, New Delhi’s habit of protesting without offering alternatives or solutions must stop.
Why for instance, were bus routes and trade between both sides of the LoC not expanded as the Indian economy grew in strength? There is still great interest in Jammu and in Kashmir for this expansion today as there is in Ladakh for religious and commercial reasons for access to Tibet, potentially through Demchok on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). While China is reluctant to allow religious pilgrimage especially by Buddhists through Ladakh, it is quite happy to engage in trade, which New Delhi simply does not have any interest in. This position is a bit of a mystery given that smuggling goes on merrily with products – flasks, blankets, flashlights and other cheap electronics, etc – made in areas on China’s east coast several thousands of kilometres from the LAC finding willing buyers on the Indian side. The failure of mainland Indian entrepreneurs to serve the needs of India’s border communities should be noted.
Leh, Kargil and Srinagar were not long ago in history major centres of commercial and political activity connecting Central and South Asia. Chinese activity in POK should be a reminder of the potential of India’s border areas and of the need to revive their broken links with not just Gilgit-Baltistan, Xinjiang and Tibet but also further afield with Central Asia. These links can be revived without prejudice to India’s positions on its disputes with its neighbours. And China’s desperation to make the BRI work in the face of problems it is facing across the world, including in ‘all-weather friend’ Pakistan, offers an opportunity.
New Delhi should incentivize its border communities by believing in and building on their central role in history as entrepreneurs and diplomats. India needs to work on overcoming the disadvantages of geography in its border areas with the help of entrepreneurship, technology, and political will and vision. Diplomatic protests are easy but not a solution.
This article originally appeared as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘China-Pakistan PoK bus service must remind India of the potential of its border areas’, Moneycontrol.com, 5 November 2018.