While the relationship between Pakistan and China is strengthening continuously, there is an underlying debate on how the two countries’ increasing cooperation will have an impact on the Kashmir dispute. Observers raise the question whether the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) can be useful in initiating a dialogue process for the resolution of this decades-old dispute between Pakistan and India.
From a political economy perspective, such a mega project could have a negative impact if there is no peace in the region. But, if dealt smartly, it can go a long way in resolving not only the Kashmir issue but also other disputes in the region. However, this will largely depend on how India reacts to events unfolding in its next-door neighbours.
The CPEC passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, a region which India claims is part of their territory. The economic corridor is connected to the Karakoram Highway, the world-class 1,300km highway at an elevation of 4,693 metres which is also called the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Comprising a number of development projects, the $46 billion worth CPEC connects Pakistan and China through networks of roads and railways.
It is the reason that India opposes the CPEC project, claiming that it passes through a disputed region.
Majority of mainstream political parties and pro-freedom groups in India-held Kashmir have so far not found a connection between the CPEC and the Kashmir dispute. Mehbooba Mufti, the chief minister of India-held Kashmir, has recently suggested building of a corridor — similar to the CPEC — between South Asia and Central Asia with Kashmir as its nucleus. She points out that “taking advantage of its geographical location, Jammu and Kashmir could become a nucleus towards forging a new economic alliance in the region”.
Talking about economic dynamics that could influence political issues has usually not been the forte of Kashmiri politicians. But perhaps the rise of China and the use of a territory which is considered by India as part of the disputed one have made politicians in the occupied valley pay attention to new developments in the region.
The prominent pro-freedom leader of Hurriyat Conference, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, believes that Kashmir can become a gateway to Central Asia. In a recent interview, he said that in terms of larger economic activity everybody wanted to be part of the CPEC.
He finds the mega project as an opportunity for the region to become part of the ancient Silk Route, even before the resolution of the Kashmir issue. “Kashmir can be a gateway for India as well. I am sure India will also want to be a part of the CPEC. Coming year is going to be very interesting as economic and political equations are going to be changed…”
However, no one is giving any blueprint for such a plan, especially when India is continuously opposing the CPEC. India is also not happy over holding of elections in Gilgit-Baltistan by Pakistan, claiming that it is against the disputed nature of the region.
Though China has always supported Pakistan over the Kashmir dispute, it wants Pakistan and India to resolve this issue through dialogue.
Mostly people in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan believe that if India joins the CPEC it will benefit both countries, especially people in the occupied valley.
Yasin Malik of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front was the first to oppose any change in the status of Gilgit-Baltistan. He has written a letter to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, reminding him that any change in the status of the region would lead India to consolidate its hold on the held Kashmir.
In a reply, PM Sharif told Mr Malik that his concerns and suggestions were valuable and they were being examined with care. “I would like to make it unambiguously clear that Pakistan is fully aware of the sensitivities attached to Gilgit-Baltistan with regard to Jammu and Kashmir dispute,” he had said in the reply to Mr Malik.
Some observers in occupied Kashmir are of the opinion that making Kashmir an entry point to the CPEC may only benefit India. But at the same time they believe that inclusion of India in the mega project can pave the way for resolution of its dispute with Pakistan.
If India decides to join the CPEC or even find a way to connect the occupied valley with the economic corridor, the politics of the region would take a new turn. This would lead to increasing engagement between the two sides and help connect people through economic interests.
The observers are of the view that such a decision would prove to be a game-changer for the region. It would reduce political tension in South Asia and initiate a new chapter of economic development in the region.
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2017