Originally published: 2008
When the Northern Frontier of Kashmir was partitioned in 1947, the two routes connecting India with Xinjiang in China were distributed between the successors to British India. The Ladakh route connecting Leh via the Karakoram Pass and via routes east of it to Kashgar (Kashi), Yarkand (Shache) and Khotan (Hotan) went to India while the western route from Gilgit to Kashgar via Hunza, the Mintaka Pass and the Khunjerab Pass went to Pakistan. India’s portion is now a part of its dispute with China, while the Pakistani portion is now part of a cooperative arrangement with China in the form of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). Other than the events preceding the conflict with India in 1962 and the consequent occupation of Aksai Chin, the Chinese are only in the news on the Indian side for occasional border intrusions and clashes along the LAC. In Pakistan, meanwhile the Chinese have managed to engage in a substantial military and strategic partnership as well as a small but significant economic relationship.
The Karakoram Highway (KKH) is today a strategic and commercial asset for both China and Pakistan but it has also been responsible for transporting terrorism, drugs and disease. Indeed, for Pakistan, the resultant Chinese concerns are no small matter. Its policy towards the Northern Areas invariably invokes the link that the region provides with China and the importance of the trade with that country. Pakistani Prime Minister, Shaukat Aziz for example, did precisely this while speaking to newly elected members of Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) in late 2004 saying that their region was significant for the KKH that provided a vital link to China and asking them, therefore, to promote unity and maintain sectarian harmony to ensure the development of the area. Another important detail in the Sino-Pakistan relationship that is embodied by the KKH is the fact that there have been extensive historical contacts between the Northern Areas and Xinjiang, formerly known as Eastern Turkestan and that while Xinjiang is increasingly coming into its own as a substantial economic entity, the same cannot be said of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK).
China’s Strategic Interests in POK
The shift in the strategic nature of POK that the construction of a highway between China and Pakistan through the Northern Areas would entail was apparent to India which in June 1969 accused Pakistan of making it easier for Chinese troops to access occupied territory in Aksai Chin and from Tibet to the Gilgit area which lay immediately to the north of the ceasefire line in Kashmir. It stated that the road posed a threat to the peace and tranquility in the region. Years later, on the completion of the KKH, China’s deputy Premier Li Xiannian would publicly declare that the Highway “allows us to give military aid to Pakistan.” The KKH has also increased China and Pakistan’s control over their frontiers and ability to deal with security threats emanating from India and elsewhere.
The KKH, it is believed has been used for the transfer of nuclear and missile equipment to Pakistan. Meanwhile, Chinese and Pakistani plans to link the KKH to the southern port of Gwadar in Balochistan through the Chinese-aided Gwadar-Dalbandin railway, which extends up to Rawalpindi are being carried out with the intention would be that in the case of hostilities between India and China, the PLA Navy would find Gwadar the most convenient logistic location on the Indian Ocean. Prior to hostilities actually breaking out, it would be supported by material transported over the 1300km long Highway and stockpiled at the port. Once conflict had started however, the highway would in many stretches, especially in Gilgit and Hunza be vulnerable to disruption by air attacks. In addition, no traffic occurs from January to June because of the winter snowfall.
The link between the KKH and Gwadar however, has constantly been reinforced. In August 2004, a message on the renaming of a bridge on the KKH in honour of the Pakistani and Chinese workers involved in the construction of the highway, Pakistani Prime Minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain referred to Gwadar and in particular the killing of three Chinese engineers engaged in that project.
It also needs to be noted that there were reports that China was upset with Pakistan for allowing the US to establish listening posts in Pakistan’s Northern Areas and was unwilling to provide financing for the Gwadar port as a result. Among China’s overall strategic aims could be access to the air base in Gilgit and listening posts for itself. In a competitive game of acquiring bases and listening posts that has been underway between the major powers in Central Asia, Gilgit and Skardu airfields provide ideal locations for expansion and upgradation and China must fancy its chances. Indian strategic thinkers have long worried about China’s string of pearls in the Indian Ocean. An arch of land bases from Pakistan through Tibet to Myanmar should be just as big a worry.
From this brief outline of Chinese strategic interests in POK, three implications might be considered. One, while the Chinese claims to Hunza appear to have been settled by the treaty of 1963, the region is of increasing importance to China for the reasons stated above. Here, considering the Indian experience vis-à-vis the Sino-Indian boundary dispute might be instructive. The Chinese position on the issue has changed over the years with the mid-1980s witnessing a hardening of the Chinese position on the eastern sector. The western sector is no longer considered as the main area of dispute owing perhaps to the fact that the road through Aksai Chin is no longer as critical to China as it had been in the 1950s. The eastern sector meanwhile with its rich natural resources is now considered too valuable to give away in addition to significant political and strategic reasons. Given, the fact that the 1963 treaty is subject to revision depending on the eventual resolution of the dispute over Kashmir and given the recent improvement in Indo-Pak relations, the possibility of Chinese revising their position or strengthening their interests in POK must be considered. Moreover, the current status or the lack thereof, of the Northern Areas within the Pakistani constitutional framework could complicate the situation still further.
Two, access to the Northern Areas also provides another route by which the Chinese might approach Afghanistan. Besides military goals, western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq also has nation-building goals military operations, and it is therefore, not unrealistic to expect that China will have an interest in getting its own say in such projects where possible. And, in the case of Afghanistan, POK is as close as it gets. As mentioned above it has already once used the KKH to supply arms against the Soviets. Today, perhaps it is taking a longer-term perspective combining strategic aims, historical links and modern infrastructure.
Three, China is also discovering that expansion beyond its boundaries is a two-way street. China not only exports influence, but is influenced in turn and not always for the best – Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism and separatism are problems that China has begun to contend with increasingly following the opening of its overland links to Pakistan and other Central Asian countries. China will, therefore, be increasingly interested in how Pakistan and by extension, Afghanistan deal with rising Islamic sectarianism and fundamentalism, in order to safeguard its own domestic interests.
 Alastair Lamb, Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1846-1990 (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 275 and John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 207.
 John Garver, Protracted Contest: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the Twentieth Century (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 289-91.
Original Article: “Chinese Strategic Interests in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir,” in P Stobdan and D Suba Chandran (eds.), The Last Colony: Muzaffarabad-Gilgit-Baltistan (Jammu: Center for Strategic and Regional Studies (CSRS), University of Jammu, 2008), pp. 125-56.