What is Really Happening in Gilgit-Balochistan

Two months ago I called attention to Selig Harrison’s claim in a New York Times op-ed that 7,000 Chinese soldiers had been stationed in Gilgit-Balochistan, the Pakistani-controlled section of Kashmir.  This week the Pakistani branch of the International Herald Tribune, the Express Tribune, published a forceful riposte to Mr. Harrison’s claims:
Nosheen Ali. Express Tribune. 5 October 2010.

Selig Harrison paints an astoundingly imaginative picture of Gilgit-Baltistan. He claims that this region is witnessing a creeping Chinese occupation at the hands of 7,000-11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, as well as a simmering local rebellion against Chinese and Pakistani control. Here are the facts.

Gilgit-Baltistan is a Pakistan-governed territory bordering China, and is internationally considered as part of disputed Kashmir. In the 1970s, Chinese labourers and engineers had worked with Pakistan’s Frontier Works Organization to build the Karakoram Highway (KKH) – a high-mountain road that connects China, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan. Like the rest of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently suffered severe devastation as a result of natural disasters, and the KKH has been damaged at many points. The Chinese, who had already been working on expanding the KKH over the last few years, are now active in repairing and rebuilding the road. This work is being undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation.

The Times’ article portrays this construction activity as a military manoeuvre by the Chinese army, even suggesting that tunnels created as part of a proposed gas pipeline in the region can be used for storing missiles. This is an exercise in sheer myth-making, and both the Chinese and Pakistani governments have issued statements to this effect. Perpetuating such fear-mongering narratives is particularly deplorable at a time when Pakistan is faced with the worst natural disaster in its history, with over twenty million people in urgent need of humanitarian relief. As if the reductive image of a nuclear-armed Pakistan in the throes of Taliban militancy is not enough of an impediment to the flow of aid, Mr Harrison now adds “de facto Chinese control” of Gilgit-Baltistan to the mix and openly suggests that Pakistan cannot be a trusted US ally under these circumstances.

His assertion that local activists are revolting against an imaginary PLA presence is equally misguided.  Activists in Gilgit-Baltistan have in fact reprimanded the Pakistani government for not involving the Chinese earlier in relief work, due to the latter’s stronger technical competency. More generally, ordinary people in Gilgit-Baltistan respect the Chinese labourers for their efforts, and favour stronger economic ties with China.

When Kashmir is the topic of dispute Pakistani papers are prone to jingoism and overblown rhetoric. As such, this op-ed should be taken with a grain of salt. However, it would be unwise to dismiss it entirely. As pointed out in the original post here at the Stage, Mr. Harrison has fabricated details to spice up his stories in the past. His record is far less reputable than that of Ms. Nosheen Ali, the author of this editorial. Absent independent verification it is difficult to take Mr. Harrison’s claim seriously. Thus the importance of India’s announcement that it was launching an ‘investigation’ to ‘verify’ his claim

This announcement was made in August. The government has said nothing on the matter since then. Though one cannot be sure, I imagine this is because there is nothing to say.  While it is true that China’s position on Pakistani claims to Kashmir has changed in the last few months, there is no reason to believe that this is because China has stationed thousands of armed troops in the region

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