On March 11, 2017, a seminar titled ‘Impact of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor in Kashmir’ was organized in Srinagar by the newly floated think tank The Kashmir Institute. Fahad Shah, the Director of the Institute, gathered a panel of experts to debate the issue in the light of the lingering conflict over J&K between India and Pakistan.
Andrew Small, the well-known author of China-Pakistan axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, addressed the seminar on Skype. In his 13 minute speech, Small drew a broad outline of the new CPEC-driven geo-politics of the region and its potential fallout on Kashmir.
“China has made it clear to Pakistan that in order for CPEC to be a success, it will require some degree of stable relations with its neighbours, particularly with Afghanistan and India,” Small said. “As a result, different set of pressures exist around CPEC, coming from Chinese side as to how Pakistan handles certain issues of high sensitivity including some of the Kashmiri militant groups operating out of Pakistan and in a certain sense how Pakistan handles Kashmir issue itself”.
However, according to Small, the CPEC’s “direct cross-border dimensions”, in Kashmir, “are likely to be much farther off in future”.
“But I think CPEC does have very consequential impact on the overall framework of India-Pakistan relations, and China’s role in these disputes and equities that it has in these disputes,” Small said adding the dispute between India and Pakistan involves China even more directly than it ever did in the past.
Kashmiri experts who spoke included Prof Siddiq Wahid, the former Vice Chancellor of the Islamic University of Kashmir and Zubair Dar a researcher in economics at the University of Berkeley. Prof Wahid said CPEC would put Kashmir “in a larger South Asian and Central Asian paradigm” and that “If the CPEC happens, it is we the people of Kashmir who will have control to how we create capacity.”
The seminar was the first attempt in Kashmir to get Kashmiris thinking about the potential impact of the CPEC on the state and the lingering conflict over it. The growing public interest in Valley in the 46 billion dollar project is the result of the collective expectation that it will introduce new geo-political factors which in the short or long term will force the resolution of Kashmir.
“The entire initiative will be more successful if it very genuinely contributed to a fully integrated region, economically and through infrastructure and a whole series of different trade, transportation links,” Small said adding that for that to happen, some of the issues of high sensitivity like Kashmir have to be either resolved or their nature made more “predictable”.
“More premium is being now placed by China that some of these issues can be more stably resolved”.
Already, the new factors being unleashed by the project are straining existing geo-politics of the region. Islamabad is mulling the grant of statehood to Gilgit-Baltistan following China’s alleged insistence for a legal cover to its investment in the disputed region, a part of J&K claimed by India as a part of its territory. New Delhi has already objected to foreign investment in Gilgit-Baltistan, an entry point for CPEC, which has further complicated the situation for Beijing.
Pakistan is now seeking to formalize the constitutional relationship with the region, it officially doesn’t consider its integral part. It seeks to further upgrade the Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009 which granted “self-rule” to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit-Baltistan Council. The province thus acquired de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. This enabled nearly 1.5 million people to elect their chief minister and governor for the first time.
However, real power has continued to be vested in the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas which has traditionally administered the area.
But in doing so, Islamabad faces opposition not only from New Delhi but also from Kashmiri separatists. After New Delhi termed “entirely unacceptable” the attempt by Pakistan to declare Gilgit-Baltistan its fifth province, a joint Hurriyat statement used more or less the same wording to caution Pakistan against any such move.
“Any proposal to declare Giglit-Baltistan as the fifth state of Pakistan is unacceptable. We reject any idea of merging of any part or division of the state,” read a part of the joint statement issued by Syed Ali Geelani, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Yasin Malik. “Kashmir, Ladakh, Jammu, Azad Kashmir and Giglit Baltistan is a single entity. Both India and Pakistan have no authority or right to alter the geographical status of state”
The fear among separatists in Kashmir is that if Pakistan unilaterally makes a disputed part of Kashmir as its integral part, it will encourage India to do the same in its part of Kashmir. But Pakistan, on the other hand, is realizing that its convoluted constitutional relationship with the province is complicating the execution of CPEC on the ground. And India, though opposing the passage of CPEC through Gilgit-Baltistan, is hardly in a position to bring the province under its control. On the contrary, New Delhi is already feeling a pull to join the CPEC and the China’s larger Belt and Road initiative, with China and even Pakistan extending a hand. The new geo-political dynamics that are in play are expected to generate momentum towards an integrated region.
“When CPEC becomes more powerful and economically beneficial, then maybe India will change its mind. Economics drives the politics of any place, including Kashmir,” Muhammad Ibrahim who teaches economy at Kashmir University said at the seminar. “Maybe the CPEC could in future help in the peace process between both India andEconomics drives the politics of any place, including Kashmir,” Muhammad Ibrahim who teaches economy at Kashmir University said at the seminar. “Maybe the CPEC could in future help in the peace process between both India and Pakistan and geoeconomics can actually impact geopolitics”.