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China Corrects Diplomatic Faux Pas, but Maintains Presence in Gilgit-Baltistan

On August 27,2010,the “New York Times” carried an article by Selig Harrison, former correspondent of the ”Washington Post” in New Delhi who now works in a Washington-based think tank, stating inter alia as follows: “While the world focuses on the flood-ravaged Indus River valley, a quiet geopolitical crisis is unfolding in the Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan, where Islamabad is handing over de facto control of the strategic Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir to China. The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to Azad (Free) Kashmir in the south is closed to the world, in contrast to the media access that India permits in the eastern part, where it is combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency. But reports from a variety of foreign intelligence sources, Pakistani journalists and Pakistani human rights workers reveal two important new developments in Gilgit-Baltistan: a simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.” (…20china&st=cse)

2. The report caused considerable concern and sensation in India. The Government of India, while expressing its concern if the report is true, ordered a verification of it by its agencies. A strong denial of the report came from the Pakistani Embassy in Beijing. On September 1, the party-controlled “Global Times” reported as follows in an article written by one by Wang Zhaokun : “A senior Pakistani official Tuesday (August 31) denied recent reports that Chinese troops are stationed in the area of Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to build a high-speed rail and road there. “The story is not true,” Masood Khan, ambassador of Pakistan to China, told the Global Times. “It is totally fabricated.” Khan said there are no Chinese troops in the area, but a humanitarian team from China is currently there to help local Pakistanis who suffered during the ravage of the country’s most devastating floods in history.”

3.In keeping with the practice followed by official and media sources in China, the article referred to the region mentioned by Selig Harrison in his article as “Pakistan-controlled Kashmir”. The practice followed till now by Chinese Government officials, journalists and columnists has been to describe Jammu and Kashmir as “Indian-controlled Kashmir”, the so-called Azad Kashmir as “Pakistan-controlled Kashmir” and Gilgit-Baltistan as the “ Gilgit-Baltistan region” of “Pakistan-controlled Kashmir”.

4.In what was feared by analysts in India as a major departure from this practice, on the night of September 1,2010, the Government-controlled Xinhua news agency disseminated the following report:

China refutes reports of sending troops to Pakistan

BEIJING, Sept. 1 (Xinhua) — China on Wednesday rejected reports of the presence of over 11,000 Chinese troops in northern Pakistan, saying that such “groundless reports” were made with “ulterior motives.”

“We believe the attempts of some people to fabricate stories to provoke China-Pakistan or China-India relations are doomed to fail,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu in a statement.

The comment came in response to recent reports of some American and Indian press that China had deployed more than 10,000 troops in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan.

5. The next day, during the regular briefing of Bejing-based journalists, including some from India, Jiang Yu reportedly used the expression “northern Pakistan” while referring to Gilgit- Baltistan in the context of the article of Selig Harrison. However, this did not find mention in a transcript of the media briefing carried by the web sites of many Chinese diplomatic missions abroad. The text of the relevant extracts from the media briefing transcript is given below:

Q: Can you brief us on the latest developments of China’s assistance to Pakistan’s flood-stricken areas?

A: As Pakistan’s close neighbor and all-weather friend, China empathizes with Pakistan for its severe natural disaster. The Chinese Government has offered several installments of humanitarian relief supplies worth more than RMB 100 million. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the Red Cross Society of China, local governments and Chinese enterprises provided different forms of assistance as well. An international relief team sent by the Chinese Government has arrived in the hardest-hit southern part of Pakistan and set up a mobile hospital which is in operation now.

China has provided sincere and timely assistance to Pakistan without any strings attached. We will continue to offer support as much as we can to Pakistan based on its needs, with a view to helping the Pakistani Government and people to overcome difficulties and rebuild homes.

Q: According to reports, China recently refused to grant a visa to Lieutenant General Jaswal, head of Indian Army’s Northern Command, and the Indian side said the refusal was about the Kashmir issue. Do you have any comment? What’s China’s position over the Kashmir issue? And what’s China’s visa policy towards residents of the Indian-held Kashmir region?

A: Relevant media reports are inconsistent with the facts, as is checked with relevant authorities.

The Kashmir issue is an issue left over by history between India and Pakistan. As a neighboring country and friend to both India and Pakistan, China always holds that the Kashmir issue should be properly handled through dialogue and consultation between India and Pakistan.

China’s visa policy towards the residents of Indian-held Kashmir is consistent and remains unchanged.

6. Under the heading “China Withdraws Reference to Gilgit-Baltistan as “northern Pakistan”, the correspondent of “The Hindu” of Chennai in Beijing reported as follows on September 5: “ A day after India voiced concerns to China over its reference to the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region as a “ northern part of Pakistan”, the Chinese Government withdrew its statement from its official Xinhua agency as well as from the Foreign Ministry’s web site…..On Saturday ( September 4) the statement appeared to have been removed from the Xinhua’s web site. The link to the statement, headlined “China refutes reports of sending troops to Pakistan”, did not open. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which in a regular briefing on Thursday (September 2) had repeated the reference to Gilgit-Baltistan as “ a northern part of Pakistan” in response to a question on the presence of Chinese troops, deleted records of both the question and its response from its official transcript, which was posted on its website on Friday (September 3) “

7. “The Hindu” correspondent further reported: “ On Friday (September 3) morning, Indian Ambassador to China, S.Jaishankar, had conveyed New Delhi’s concerns over China’s recent moves in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir in talks with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Zhijun. In the talks, Mr.Jaishankar raised questions over the presence of Chinese troops in POK and protested China’s reference to the disputed region as a part of northern Pakistan. Mr.Zhang assured Indian officials that the troops were stationed there only for flood relief work and to provide humanitarian assistance.”

8. The Chinese reference to northern Pakistan could have been the result of the use of a similar expression by Selig Harrison, who had referred to Gilgit-Baltistan as “Himalayan borderlands of northern Pakistan.” It is likely that after the Indian Ambassador protested, the Chinese Foreign Office realized the diplomatic and legal implications of their referring to Gilgit-Baltistan as “ northern Pakistan” and deleted their statement from the web sites of Xinhua and the Foreign Office. But, they could have just deleted the reference to “northern Pakistan” and substituted in its place the name of the area as “Gilgit-Baltistan” and let the modified statement remain on the web sites. Why they deleted the entire statement? A satisfactory answer to this question is not available. However, it is evident that the Chinese, while sticking to the decisions to issue stapled visas to resident of J&K and to assist Pakistan in the development of its infrastructure in Gilgit-Baltistan, are at the same time keen that this issue should not seriously damage China’s relations with India. In this connection, reference is invited to my article dated August 30,2010, titled “Chinese Government, Media Play Down New Friction With India” at

9. As regards Beijing’s contention that their troops were present in the Gilgit-Baltistan region only for humanitarian relief work, the Chinese have made two humanitarian interventions in the area this year. The first was in January last. On January 4, a landslide created a huge artificial lake in the Hunza area, which subsequently burst submerging a large number of villages in the Gojal Tehsil. About 22 KMs of the Karakoram Highway were submerged under water totally disrupting road communications with Xinjiang in China and with the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan. The Pakistan Army was able to go to the assistance of the affected villages only in the downstream area. It was not able to reach the affected villages in the upstream area for want of helicopters. The Pakistan Government appealed to the Chinese for assistance. Workers of the Chinese Red Cross and engineers of the People’s Liberation Army entered the Hunza area for relief. The Xinhua reported as follows: “On January 19, at the request of the Pakistani government, the Chinese side made special arrangements to open the Kunjirap border and facilitate the purchase of relief goods from China and its clearance. The China Road and Bridge Corporation, which is conducting the project of upgradation of the Karakoram Highway, has also provided engineering consultations and equipment to help the Pakistani side to deal with the problem.” The second humanitarian intervention at the request of Islamabad was made after the recent floods. In this connection, reference is invited to my article dated September 2 and titled “INDIA MISSES AN OPPORTUNITY FOR HUMANITARIAN INTERVENTION IN GILGIT-BALTISTAN” at

10. Reliable source reports say that the Chinese civilian and military personnel, who entered Gilgit-Baltistan for humanitarian relief work are still in the area, but no figures regarding their number are available. The sources say that their number will be in hundreds and not in thousands. Selig Harrison’s information about the presence of over 7,000 Chinese troops is not independently corroborated. There is also no information to indicate that the construction of the railway line from Xinjiang through Gilgit-Baltistan has started. A pre-feasibility study of the project has been done and a fesibility study is to be undertaken.

11. The “Gilgit-Baltistan Tribune” reported as follows on July 10,2010, on the eve of President Asif Ali Zardari’s visit to China: “The proposal for a rail link between landlocked Xinjiang in China’s far west and the Arabian Sea through Pakistan has been under discussion for some years. Chinese companies have apparently completed a pre-feasibility study on a rail project that must cross one of the most challenging terrains in the world. If the two sides take the political decision to go ahead with the project during Zardari’s visit, a consortium of Chinese companies is likely to be constituted to explore in detail the engineering and financial aspects of the project. While the technical aspects of the trans-Karakoram rail link are daunting, there is no denying the Chinese audacity in embracing projects that are grand in conception, challenging in their execution, and consequential in their impact. During the 1970s, long before China had become rich, the People’s Liberation Army had built at great cost the Karakoram highway between Xinjiang and northern Pakistan. The self-assurance of Chinese engineers and the geopolitical ambition of Beijing’s security establishment have grown manifold since. While India’s objections have not had much impact on either China or Pakistan, other developments have cast a shadow over some of the trans-Karakoram projects. The unstable terrain of the Karakorams demands costly upkeep of the highway, repeatedly damaged by landslides and formation of temporary lakes. At the political level, China has been concerned about growing links between Islamist and separatist movements in the Xinjiang province on the one hand and the terrorist safe havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan on the other. As a result, China had to often shut down the Karakoram highway. In recent months, Beijing has been pressing Islamabad to crack down hard on anti-Chinese extremist groups taking shelter on Pakistani soil.”

12. In this connection, please refer to my article on Zardari’s visit of July 11,2010, titled “PAKISTAN AS CHINA’S FORCE-MULTIPLIER AGAINST INDIA” at . In that article, I had assessed the Chinese involvement in infrastructure development in Gilgit-Baltistan as follows:

“Any Indian expectation that as part of the assurance of Prime Minister Wen of caring for India’s core interests and major concerns, China would reverse its policy of helping Pakistan in the development of its railway and road infrastructure in the Gilgit-Baltistan area bordering Xinjiang, which de jure is part of India’s Jammu and Kashmir, and developing the hydro-electric potential in the Gilgit-Baltistan area was belied when the two countries announced the formal signing of more agreements relating to Gilgit-Baltistan during Mr.Zardari’s stay in Beijing. Under Memoranda of Understanding signed by officials of the two Governments during the visit, China will build the 165-km long Jaglot-Skardu road and the 135-km long Thakot-Sazin road. The projects would cost Pakistani Rs 45 billion with 15 per cent financing by Pakistan and 85 per cent by China. Under another MoU to be jointly executed by Chinese company Datang and Norwegian company EBT, 500 MW electricity would be produced through wind power. It is not known whether this will also be in the Gilgit-Baltistan area.

“ Mr.Zardari and the officials accompanying him repeatedly indicated that the Chinese have agreed in principle to co-operate with Pakistan in the construction of a railway line connecting Pakistan with Xinjiang via Gilgit-Baltistan. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters in response to a question that cooperation for the construction of a railway link between the two countries was for mutual benefit and not directed against any third party. It would appear that details of the project such as arrangements for financing and the alignment of the railway line are yet to be worked out. Mr.Zardari proposed that the Pakistan and China Railways should form a joint consortium for the timely execution of this project.

“ Mr.Zardari once again took up with the Chinese the pending Pakistani proposals for the upgradation of the Gwadar port, the construction of an oil refinery and an airport in Gwadar and the construction of oil/gas pipelines from Gwadar to Xinjiang. While the Chinese have readily responded in a positive manner to various proposals for projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, they are still hesitant regarding new projects in the Balochistan area. While they do not anticipate any security problems in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, they are still worried about the security situation in Balochistan.

“ Mr.Zardari’s disappointment over the Chinese hesitation in the Balochistan area became evident in his reported remarks to Prime Minister Wen that Pakistan desired that “China should take maximum benefits from the Gwadar Port.” From this it is evident that while Pakistan is keen for the quick implementation of the Gwadar-related projects, security considerations still inhibit the Chinese response.

“ The agreement in principle for the upgradation of the Karakoram Highway was reportedly reached more than 10 years ago. The Chinese agreed to meet the cost of upgradation on their side and Pakistan on its side. While the Chinese carried out the upgradation on their side ahead of time, the Pakistanis could not find the money for the upgradation on their side. As a result, the execution of the project was delayed and the Chinese ultimately agreed to give a soft loan to Pakistan for this purpose.

“. Pakistan has reached a similar deal wit Iran in respect of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. While Iran will finance and construct the pipeline on its side, Pakistan has agreed to do so on its side, but it does not have the money. Will the Chinese give the money and help in the pipeline construction in return for a supply of part of the gas from Iran? This is a question which Pakistan has repeatedly raised with Beijing. China has been reluctant so far. According to reliable sources, Mr. Zardari raised this issue once again in Beijing, but there was no positive response from the Chinese.”

13.That position remains unchanged.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director,Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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