The vast glaciers of the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Pamirs, spreading across the highlands of Central and South Asia, are considered to be the globe’s third pole. Interestingly, these mountain ranges converge over Pakistan administered Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in a unique way, making the region the undisputed core of the third pole. While mega glaciers underscore GB’s significance for regional hydrology and ecology, the region’s ability to connect Asia’s key peripheries makes it a distinctive geospatial entity. Notwithstanding growing climate change concerns and the need for a concerted climate action, India has recently been expressing an intent of confrontation vis-a-vis GB. India’s Defense Minister’s statement, “not to stop until reaching GB” seems to be an extension of the belligerent policies being adopted by the Modi government, especially towards Kashmir and Pakistan. By getting hold of GB, India could attempt to not only disconnect Pakistan and China but also get access to Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Given China’s strategic and economic interests, especially the country’s recent mega investments in GB’s infrastructure under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing has become a direct stakeholder in the region. Thus, India’s intentions of adventurism in GB might also have the motivation of killing two birds with one stone, or in other words, to give a try to its “two-front war” mantra. With general election in India due next year, the ruling party has to show to its public a disposition of a great power. Challenging both its nuclear rivals at a time would serve to win greater public mandate on the one hand, while on the other, the feat would put to test New Delhi’s partnership with Washington. For now, Washington appears to be turning a blind eye towards New Delhi’s actions in Kashmir. Any Indian actions to come eyeball to eyeball with China are likely to get the support of the U.S. Under the prevailing situation, it is imperative for Pakistan and China to take immediate measures to halt India from taking another unilateral decision and carry out any kind of adventurism in the third pole’s core.
A growing economy, popular government, and U.S. support seem to be a part of the reason behind India’s coercive diplomacy and policies. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s passive reactions emanating out of the state of confusion to decide the fate of GB and a lack of internal cohesion are other factors New Delhi appears to be capitalising on. Islamabad seems puzzled whether to constitutionally mainstream GB or keep it in a contested state to retain its international status at the United Nations. Both geography and history indicate GB to be a distinctive region and having a separate identity than Kashmir’s. The locals, wary of the Dogras of Kashmir for invading and imposing ill practices of slavery and forced labour, revolted against the Raj and acceded to Pakistan. India considers GB as a part of the then state of Kashmir and lays claim on it. Ironically, Pakistan’s inability to give constitutional status to GB and its linking the region to Kashmir are making the situation more complex. While New Delhi’s unilateral decisions accentuate complexities of an already complicated situation, Islamabad has optimistically been pushing for implementation of UNSC resolutions and arrangement of a plebiscite across the territories of GB, Ladakh, and Kashmir.
Nevertheless, keeping GB in a state of limbo does not bode well for China’s interests in the region. China and Pakistan concluded a border agreement in 1963 and ceded land to each other. During the following decade and a half, both countries constructed the strategic Karakoram Highway (KKH) — the only road link between the two countries. The recent push under CPEC to improve regional economic opportunities has brought mega investments to GB, to upgrade the KKH by constructing state-of-the-art tunnels through rugged mountains. Considerable investment is also being done to enhance power generation capacity. China must be cognizant of the fact that GB’s geographic position provides a perfect opportunity for expansion of its geoeconomic initiatives to Afghanistan and Central Asia. However, India raising a question on the sovereignty issue related to the project has added to tensions. This gives the U.S. a perfect justification not only for non-recognition of China’s economic initiative but also to discourage its European allies from taking part in it.
While this remains to be a key concern for China, India’s unilateral manoeuvring in its immediate neighbourhood seems to be a graver concern. Beforehand, New Delhi’s unilateral decision to annex Kashmir’s autonomous status has dented the delicate equation of regional stability. The ongoing India’s aggressive rhetoric of trespassing and reaching GB reeks of a country pursuing regional hegemony, or in other words, challenging China’s regional supremacy. This is coming at a time when the U.S., in its latest National Security Strategy, has committed to bolstering alliances and partnerships against China.
There is a reason Pakistan and China need to take India’s intent of confrontation seriously. Before the last general election, the Indian leadership made similar statements vis-a-vis Kashmir, and materialised what was said, immediately after the polls. Despite listening to repeated calls from the Indian leadership to change the status quo in Kashmir, Pakistani and Chinese authorities were irresponsive. Therefore, it is time for both Beijing and Islamabad to take immediate steps not only to avoid geopolitics but also to force New Delhi to use a different lens when perceiving this vital geospatial territory.
Given the significance of GB for regional ecology and hydrology, Islamabad and Beijing must make climate action a priority over geopolitics in the region. China has already been undertaking extraordinary research to preserve its glaciers and promote eco-friendly trends over ecologically sensitive places. Capitalising on this, Pakistan and China should make efforts to establish a climate-centric regional consortium of third pole countries. An agenda to declare the third pole a collective regional or global asset and make ways to declare it a nuclear weapons free zone would certainly help reduce hostilities. Furthermore, making its core, GB, a top priority for undertaking climate action, and promoting eco-friendly trends of tourism and energy generation would also benefit regional countries. This is so because it will help advance an amiable environment and avoid geopolitical volatilities. India joining this consortium would be crucial for its success. However, New Delhi’s non-participation would confirm that the country is soon going to materialise its confrontational rhetoric. In that case, Pakistan and China, while continuing efforts to preserve the environment, will have to take more drastic measures. Maybe, it is time to ensure the security of the third pole’s core. Therefore, China and Pakistan must transform their partnership into an alliance by preparing for joint air and ground defences to deter India from taking another unilateral action detrimental for regional stability. Failing to deter India from taking any kind of misadventures could result in a limited or total war over a region comprising the most glaciers outside the polar zone. Such an eventuality will certainly have global consequences.
Kashif Hussain is Deputy Editor, Karakoram Magazine.