Times of India, May 12, 2017
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Wahhabism, meet Han-ism: CPEC betokens China’s search for lebensraum in Pakistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir
With Beijing elevating the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative’s political visibility through a heads of government summit this week, India needs to craft a sharper policy position. Over the past two years, New Delhi waited and watched as China sought political buy-in from Asian powers for OBOR. India subtly communicated to China that a trans-regional project of this magnitude required wider consultation.
When Beijing chose to sidestep this request, India articulated concerns – at the highest level, no less – regarding its own sovereign claim on those regions of Jammu & Kashmir that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would traverse.
China’s wanton disregard for Indian sensitivities suggests the debate on OBOR’s economic potential is now academic. There cannot be any serious discussion on India joining or not joining OBOR unless New Delhi feels its political sovereignty – the very basis of governance – is respected by the project. Far from this, CPEC (the life and soul of OBOR) threatens India’s territorial integrity in a manner unseen since 1962.
China, through its economic corridor with Pakistan, has proposed a dramatic redrawing of demographic and geographic boundaries. It is undertaking an unabashed, confrontational and neo-colonial smash and grab in south Asia.
It is capturing key real estate in the wider region. Beijing is building islands in South China Sea, contesting territorial claims of neighbours in the East China Sea, and even aspires for greater control of the Malacca Straits. It has bankrolled its way to political supremacy in central Asia. It now seeks to build overtly economic but covertly military facilities and bases through the CPEC route – in Gwadar but also Gilgit-Baltistan.
Islamabad is willing to offer such stations in return for Beijing’s protection and money. The most obvious attempt is to engineer a political solution to the Kashmir dispute by changing “facts on the ground”.
If China managed to do this in the South China Sea by constructing entire islands in disputed waters, CPEC will create permanent or semi-permanent projects that will change the nature of the economy and society in Gilgit-Baltistan. The region will be swamped by Chinese and Punjabis who will exploit its location and pillage its civilisation for common benefit.
Not only would CPEC run roughshod over the sacred Panchsheel principle of “mutual respect”, it would also destroy any chance of a peaceful settlement of the Kashmir dispute. In effect, Pakistan and China are suggesting that it is conceivable Jammu & Kashmir (and Gilgit-Baltistan and presumably Ladakh) can be segregated into separate units that merit unique economic, political and military engagement.
CPEC also triggers concern that economic concessions by Pakistan will lead to ceding of territory, for which the 1963 Sino-Pakistani agreement is a precedent. Ironically, China’s involvement in economic activities in contested territories goes against the grain of its own policy on FTAs between Taiwan and third parties.
By investing in CPEC, the UK and EU are complicit in this design. In effect, European money is being used by China to limit Western political leverage in Asia, and assist Pakistan to continue to sponsor anti-India radicalism.
China’s hardline approach in Xinjiang province offers a clue to what CPEC could do to Gilgit-Baltistan. The 2000 census said while the native Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang remained the largest ethnic group at 48%, Han Chinese made up 40%. This was an astonishing turnaround from the overwhelming 90% majority Uyghurs enjoyed in the 1950s.
Han Chinese are said to dominate the province today, as they are economically better off and awarded the best jobs and highest positions. Uyghur culture and customs have been suppressed. There are restrictions on fasting during Ramzan, Muslim baby names are labelled “extremist” and even the length of beards is regulated.
Is Gilgit-Baltistan the next frontier for such demographic re-engineering? In 1974, Pakistan abolished a rule that prevented non-locals from buying land in Gilgit-Baltistan. This Shia-dominated region saw rampant Sunni expansionism and settlement of people from all over Pakistan. “As of January 2001, the old population ratio of 1:4 (non-locals to locals) had been transformed to 3:4,” suggests the South Asia Intelligence Review.
CPEC will make Gilgit-Baltistan the meeting ground for a volatile osmosis of two supremacist projects: Wahhabism and Han-ism. Both aim for complete social domination of communities. This would not only alter the region’s demographic composition but also reduce Gilgit-Baltistan to a tinderbox of ethnic, religious and sectarian conflict, with grave security consequences for south and central Asia.
And finally China’s brazen disregard for concerns of sovereignty cuts to the heart of its bilateral relationship with India, which had long been premised on respect for principles of non-intervention, territorial integrity and peaceful resolution of disputes. If that basis no longer holds, Indian policy makers must seriously revisit the benefits of joining China-led multilateral initiatives. Some would even question the political viability of Brics going forward.
CPEC will create domestic pressures on India to incubate sub-conventional support for oppressed peoples in Gilgit, Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia. It could intervene more directly in highlighting such issues in Balochistan, another CPEC waystation. While India’s $2.5 trillion economy brings limitations to any response, these steps will act as a benchmark for the future.
For now, India may resist the race to the bottom, ie confront violations of sovereignty with proportionate counter-violations. But policy planners in Beijing should not test India’s ability to impose Himalayan hurdles on the belt and road.