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VK scents a Chinese tunnel

- ‘Outflanking move’ near Afghan border with interests for India: Ex-chief

New Delhi, June 4: China is opening its narrow border with Afghanistan with roads and probably a tunnel under the Pamir ranges skirting Jammu and Kashmir with strategic implications for India, former army chief Gen. V.K. Singh has told The Telegraph.

“It is an outflanking move,” the general who retired last Thursday said. “India risks losing the influence it has in Afghanistan because of a China-Pakistan link that is getting stronger and is seen in evidence here,” he said.

Since retirement four days ago, the general has said he was giving top priority to writing his PhD thesis on “Fundamentalism in Afghanistan and the Geo Strategic Significance of the Wakhan Corridor”.

Singh registered as a PhD candidate as army chief in 2010 with the department of defence and military sciences of Bhopal’s Barkatullah University.

The Chinese connection to Afghanistan, he says, is through the Wakhan Corridor that skirts the northern areas of Jammu and Kashmir, territory that India claims but is under Pakistani occupation. But for PoK, India would have had direct access to Afghanistan through the Wakhan Corridor.

India does not have transit rights to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Most of its shipping to Afghanistan is done through the Iranian port of Chabahar.

“China’s objective is to increase connectivity with Afghanistan where it already has considerable presence along with India in development and other projects,” the general said.

“This connectivity would be physical. And it is interested in this comparatively quieter area (the Wakhan Corridor) through which it would facilitate the exploitation of natural resources in Afghanistan,” he said.

As chief, the general red-flagged the presence of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers, mostly engineers, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The building of the Karakoram highway abutting the Siachen glacier to its northeast through Shaksgam valley in Aksai Chin — India-claimed territory that Pakistan has ceded to China — is also a strategic concern of the Indian Army.

A “panhandle” of territory in Afghanistan’s extreme northeast, the Wakhan Corridor or Wakhan Tract is at most 220km long and 64km at its widest. It separates Tajikistan (to its north) with PoK (to its south). At its eastern extremity, it has only a 76km-long border (half the distance between Calcutta and Kharagpur) over high mountains at the top of which is the 16,100-feet Wakhjir pass that has no road through it.

Despite being adjoining countries, Afghanistan and China do not have a border crossing since the Wakhjir pass was shut after Mao Tse Tung’s communist forces took over China in 1949.

The Wakhan with the headwaters of the Amu Darya (Oxus river) borders Xinjiang province’s Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous County that has a Muslim majority. This is the area popularly known as the “Pamir Knot”.

Through the wars that have ravaged Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion (1979), the sparsely populated Wakhan has been largely peaceful.

To its west, the Wakhan emanates from the northern parts of Afghanistan where India has counted on a largely Afghan Tajik population whose leader was Ahmed Shah Masood before he was assassinated in 2001, two days before 9/11.

Singh said that in the course of his research, he has found evidence of military engineering activity on the Chinese side of the border. On the Afghan side, the nearest roadhead is close to 100km from the Wakhjir pass.

The former army chief was still researching his topic and did not want to go into the evidence behind his findings. It would be safe to assume, however, that he would utilise considerable technical, human and academic resources.

The Wakhan Corridor was a creation of “The Great Game” when Britain and Russia competed for strategic space. It roughly defined the border between British India and the Russian Empire in the late 19th century.

The Wakhjir pass itself remains closed for nearly half the year. A tunnel under the mountains would be an engineering feat — rivalling the kind that China has demonstrated with its railway line through Tibet — that would ensure all-weather access.

In December 2009, the US was reported in the Chinese media to have requested Beijing to allow access from its territory to the Wakhan Corridor (and Afghanistan). The US wanted to use the route as an alternative supply line for Nato forces because of an increase in attacks on the convoys in Pakistan. So far such access, if any, has not been visible.

Singh’s suspicion that such a tunnel was being built by the Chinese boosts the “garland of pearls” strategy — that China is surrounding India with bases and logistics centres — stretching from naval outposts in littoral countries like Sri Lanka and the Maldives, to ports like Gwadar in Pakistan and Hangyyi in Myanmar to the high Himalayas north of Kashmir.