hina's shrill objections over India's oil exploration project in the Vietnamese columns of the South China Sea remain in stark contrast to it being coy and non-committal while explaining its ever-increasing presence in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Since the past few years, Chinese strategy vis-à-vis PoK appears to be heading toward gaining tacit control of the region — both militarily and politico-diplomatically.
By increasing investments and sponsoring various "development projects" in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of PoK, the activities involving several thousand Chinese personnel belonging to the construction corps of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) seem to point towards an expansionist Chinese geo-strategic agenda in the region.
China's Western Highway, also known as the Lhasa-Kashgar/Xinjiang Highway connects Xinjiang to Tibet. From Quilanaldi, the road branches off to the Khunjerab Pass and, subsequently, becomes the Karakoram Highway right up to Gilgit. The significance of the Karakoram Highway lies in the fact that it cuts through the zone between Asia and the Indian subcontinent, wherein China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan come within 250 km of each other. The 1,300 km long Karakoram Highway remains the only all-weather road linking Gilgit-Baltistan with the rest of Pakistan, besides connecting China and Pakistan at an altitude of 4,693 metres, through the Khunjerab Pass. Upgrading the Karakoram Highway is of critical significance to China, since this region offers Beijing a window to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
According to a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed in June 2006 between China's state-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission and the National Highway Authority (NHA) of Pakistan, the Karakoram Highway is being widened from 10 metres to 30 metres — resulting in its operational capacity going up threefold, accustomed for military/heavy vehicular movement in extreme weather conditions. Subsequently, in July 2010, during the visit of Pakistan's President, Asif Ali Zardari to China, NHA signed MoUs with China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) for the Karakoram Highway Project Phase-2, connecting Thakot Bridge to Sazin and widening the Jaglot-Skardu road. The repair and upgrade of the highway is slated for completion in 2012.
It was only recently that China's State Council released guidelines to further augment the Kashgar and Korgas economic development zones located in western and southern Xinjiang, which borders Pakistan. The infrastructure investment announced by Beijing includes construction of a railway link with Pakistan. Acknowledging the decision of the State Council, Pakistan's ambassador to China, Masood Khan, underscored the 411-mile-long railroad, which will connect the town of Havelian in Abbottabad district in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the Khunjerab Pass.
With the reported stationing of a unit of PLA soldiers near the Khunjerab Pass and Chinese military officials frequenting the Field Command Office of Gilgit, which happens to be Pakistan's military headquarter in the region, a pervasive Chinese intent of establishing a military edge in India's northern sector cannot be negated. Amidst growing pressure following a report published in the New York Times last year, regarding Chinese military presence in Gilgit-Baltistan, Beijing issued a very disinclined and delayed response. The discomforting part of the entire exercise was when the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Jiang Yu, declined to issue a "categorical denial" over PLA troop presence in the region. Instead, Jiang chose to comment on the larger dimension of "attempts being made by a few" to fabricate stories so as to jeopardise China-Pakistan or China-India relations.
The Chinese-sponsored "development projects" in Gilgit-Baltistan render the strategic calculus of the region as being far more precarious. That China is pursuing an aggressive engagement strategy in the region, cannot be more apparent. What perhaps is of greater consequence is Beijing's aspiration of expanding and buttressing its reach, which is only likely to complicate any potential long-term resolution of Jammu and Kashmir. By issuing stapled visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir, rather than stamping the visas on their passports, Beijing's crass move is aimed at questioning the status of J&K vis-à-vis the Indian Union, thereby providing diplomatic support to Pakistan unambiguously.