KASHGAR: Lost Frontier

Lost to India, of course, and being profitably milked by Pakistan and China.  Farooq Renzushah  recounts the fascinating intrigue and geostrategic games played along the old Silk Route in the northern Kashmir borderlands, and how the much talked about CPEC came to be

By Farooq Renzushah
  • Published 6.11.16
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THE APPLECART THAT AMBLED: The ancient city of Gaochang in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region kicked up a lot more dust when it was part of the Silk Route; PICS: AFP

About 600 kilometres north of Kashmir, in far western China's ear-shaped Xinjiang region, lies Kashgar. Apart from the first half of its name, Kashgar shares with Kashmir its fragile celestial beauty. Again like Kashmir, it is strategically located - surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India - causing successive generations of men to lose their heads and hearts over it.

In the olden days, when the economic corridor we know as the Silk Route was in play, the stretch from Kashgar to Kashmir was the fulcrum. It connected Asia with Europe through the Arabian Sea via Balochistan's Gwadar port.

The Kashgar-Kashmir (KK) route was used for surprise invasions and wars by ambitious Mongol warlords. Successive dynasties ruling China ensured control of this stretch to consolidate their power over China and other adjoining central Asian countries.

In 1321 AD, the Sufi saint Hazrat Bulbul Shah influenced the first Muslim king of Kashmir, Hazrat Sadaruddin Shah, to utilise the KK route for enriching Kashmir's economy. During his time, silk production was introduced in the Valley. Later, in 1370 AD, Shah-e-Hamdan brought caravans of human resource and experts in the traditional arts and crafts to Kashmir through the same route. Kashgar, in the meantime, adop- ted Sufi Islam like its neighbours.

Just as Kashmir passed through various political phases and change of regimes - Mughal, Afghan, Sikh, Hindu - so did Kashgar. Mongols, Tangs, Arab Muslims, Turk Muslims and finally, the Chinese Ming dynasty. The Mings created military colonies and maintained a robust army presence along the frontiers to control the Silk Route.

TIES THAT BIND, OR DON’T: (From top) The Uyghurs, Kashgar’s 
original inhabitants, are an ethnic minority today; this tunnel in Pakistan’s Gojal Valley, built in 2015, is part of the China-Pakistan economic corridor  

The military dominance of Hans on Kashgar in the name of protecting the Silk Route led to a revolt in 1860 headed by Tajik adventurer Amir Yaqub Beg. However, 10 years later, the Manchus reoccupied it. According to The Cambridge History of China by J. Fletcher, at the beginning of 19th century there were 98,000 Manchu military personnel at Kashgar.

The KK route attained more importance after the British gifted Kashmir to Gulab Singh - the first Dogra Maharaja of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) - for helping them defeat Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh empire.

Gulab Singh's grandson, Pratap Singh, began to understand the importance of this route passing through Karakoram to Pamir. He launched a series of military expeditions to conquer Ladakh, Gilgit, Hunza, Baltistan, right up to the frontiers of Kashgar.

With the re-annexation of these territories with Kashmir, the strategic plan of controlling the route from Kashmir directly to Gwadar was on track. However, these strategic manoeuvres alarmed the Russian military.

Russia had already strengthened its command over other Central Asian regions, and had its eye on the KK route.

In 1935, in a bid to insulate this bit of Silk stretch, the Gilgit Agency created by the British, leased the northern half of J&K from its king, Hari Singh, for a period of 60 years. The purpose behind this move: to keep full vigil on the KK route right down to Gwadar and stave off Russian influence.

China lacked significance and threat potential at that time. Hari Singh toed uncle Pratap Singh's anti-British policy and developed secret relations with the German powers through Subhas Chandra Bose.

And then World War II happened. It left Britain haemorrhaging and she started withdrawing its troops from various subject countries, including India. But the conspiracies around Kashmir, the other strategic point in the KK route, only intensified.

The British planned to partition Kashmir and India in such a way that no one political entity could have complete control of this very strategic piece of geography.

They encouraged local rebellion against the king of J&K to prevent him from interfering in the Gilgit Agency.

Lord Wavell, secretly, informed the British government about the importance of the Kashgar to Gwadar route. He warned that in case Hari Singh annexed J&K with India, there were chances that this strategic route, which served as a merchandise and military hyphen with Gulf countries and Sinai shores, would eventually fall into the hands of Russians.

Lord Wavell recommended that the formal annexation and allegiance of both J&K and Balochistan be kept undecided, so that the West could retain control of the 2,000-kilometre stretch from Kashgar to Gwadar.

In the meantime, in Kashmir, the pro-Russia lobby tried to promote Sheikh Abdullah to oppose Jinnah's two-nation theory and continued to engineer revolt against Hari Singh. Sheikh Abdullah's Muslim Conference became Nation- al Conference, and eventually endorsed merger with India.

In the meantime, as documented in Andrew D.W. Forbes's Warlords and Muslims in Chinese Central Asia: A Political History of Republican Sinkiang 1911-1949, in 1940, the Nationalist Party (of China), in order to engineer a demographic change in Kashgar and Sinkiang, settled in these areas political exiles of Han origin.

The original inhabitants of Kashgar were the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uyghurs.

The China-centric demographic changes intensified in the following years.

Lord Mountbatten persuaded Jawaharlal Nehru to act on a clandestine plan to partition Kashmir so that Hari Singh and Sheikh Abdullah co-operated with the British foreign policy to stave off Russian control over this critical stretch.

In fact, Hari Singh's indecisiveness - as to join the new Muslim nation or its Hindu counterpart - was itself part of a bigger international conspiracy.

The invasion of Kashmir by Baloch and Swat tribes caused ripples in the entire subcontinent. On one side Jinnah accelerated the process of the annexation of Balochistan with Pakistan, and on the other side, Hari Singh and Sheikh Abdullah decided to annex all of J&K with India. Lord Mountbatten readily accepted the accession.

This came as a big blow to the British. The landing of Indian troops with full support of local scout volunteers, National Conference party workers and local militia who fought against tribes, helped Indian troops not only consolidate their positions but also advance towards the northern part of Kashmir.

However, here's a big question history hasn't answered: when the Indian Army was fast advancing and the invader tribes retreating, what world powers prevailed upon Nehru to declare a ceasefire, fracturing Kashmir into two parts, exactly as visualised by Lord Wavell?

The Kashmir case was taken to the UN. But rather than solve the problem, the UN let it linger in the garb of plebiscite. Of course, there was the pre-condition that Pakistan should withdraw from the Indian part of Kashmir.

IN FLUX: Snapshots of Kashgar, once the epicentre of trade and cultural exchange

In 1953, the United States started secret negotiation with Sheikh Abdullah to allow it to have its military base in Jammu and Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah virtually agreed. The Western powers were satisfied. But then Russia's KGB (foreign intelligence and domestic security agency) came to know of the whole scheme and informed Nehru. Sheikh Abdullah was arrested.

The Kashmir case dragged on in the UN. The Constitution of J&K adopted in 1956 stated that all of J&K, including Gilgit Baltistan, was an integral part of India. Later, in 1994, the Indian Parliament endorsed the line.

This dashed all hopes the West may have had of any venture on the KK route from the Pakistani side. Pakistan on its own hadn't the financial means to revive the route and so abandoned the idea.

In the Seventies, Pakistan military chief General Zia-ul-Haq, who was very close to Saudi Arabia as well as the US, drafted a three-decade futuristic document to utilise Muslim militants in Afghanistan against surging Russian military powers in the region, with US support, and simultaneously strengthen these militants to take over this route. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto cautioned China and was hanged soon after.

The Chinese had their own plans for the landmass leading south of Kashgar to the warm water port of Gwadar. Zia's plane crashed mysteriously in 1988 and the Chinese grabbed their chance. They took over the Karakoram, an important portion of the KK route. Beijing also intensified the demographic change of Kashgar, Khotan, Yarqand and Sinkiang and reduced the Muslim Uyghurs to minorities in their own land.

In 1999, Pakistan army general Pervez Musharraf initiated the Kargil War to fiddle with geographical boundaries of the area directly or indirectly connected with the Karakoram range. Neither the US nor China approved.

Later, when Musharraf took over Pakistan, he established friendly relations with China. Through a series of secret conversations he supported the revival of the KK route with the objective of defeating US and Indian interests in the region.

In the meantime, the deteriorating relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan paved the way for an active role of India in Afghanistan. The arrest of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, forced the Obama administration to review its relationship with Pakistan.

In 2013 China revealed its wolfish plan of a military corridor in economic sheepskin to Pakistan. Sino-Pak relations started attaining new dimensions. Pakistan started distancing itself from the US.

The Pakistan military agreed to hand over control of the historical route to China.

In 2015, a game changer of a treaty was signed between China and Pakistan. A China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) was proposed (see box). The Chinese demanded 10,000 Pakistani army personnel to provide cover to all constructions related to the economic corridor.

India, which was earlier silent on Gilgit Baltistan and Karakoram, started hammering the issue vociferously. The Balochistan lobby in the US realised the threat and decided to help India.

As things stand, China has started construction of the Kashgar-Kashmir road. The Karakoram sector is already complete. Work on Kashmir to Gwadar through Balochistan is slow because of Baloch militant attacks on Chinese engineering divisions.

The fight over the Kashgar to Kashmir route is not about a road anymore; it is about controlling the highway to regional geopolitical superiority.

THE KARAKORAM AXIS

Scope of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)

  • Project cost: $46 billion
  • Principal intent: Link Kashgar in China to Gwadar port in Pakistan
  • Not just road: Involves rail and power projects associated with the corridor
  • Break-up: $33.8 billion in energy projects; $11.8 billion in infrastructure

How Pakistan will benefit

  • Boost infrastructure
  • Create 7,00,000 jobs by 2030
  • Significant GDP growth
  • Add 16,000 megawatts to the national grid; reduce power shortage
  • China will take a more active interest in Pak security

How China will benefit

  • CPEC will facilitate access to the Arabian Sea, instead of the long-winded route via the Strait of Malacca
  • Speed up commerce activities
  • Deepen economic integration and connectivity across Asia and into Europe
  • Enjoy enhanced geo-strategic advantages

Renzushah is chairman of the Kashgar-Kashmir Strategic chapter of the Kashmir Society and a former commissioner of the J&K government


Collateral consequences

India views the CPEC as a challenge; it could also be an opportunity

India has opposed the US$ 46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project through Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, worried that it could strengthen Islamabad's hold over the disputed territory and legitimise the Chinese army's presence there.

But behind New Delhi's protestations with Beijing over the CPEC, sections within India's strategic establishment are also viewing in the corridor a window to indirectly pressure Pakistan over terrorism and access to Afghanistan.

The project is aimed at opening up maritime access to China's distant northwest by connecting Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan's Balochistan. For Pakistan, the CPEC investment and Chinese trade running through the length of the country represent an opportunity to transform the country into a regional transit hub.

The CPEC will enter Pakistan-held territory in Gilgit, which India claims, and weave past Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir. Chinese troops have been sighted in the region - intensifying Indian security concerns.

But heavy Chinese investments will also increase Beijing's stakes in avoiding a flare-up between India and Pakistan, and may give it more of an incentive to ensure Islamabad doesn't invite retaliatory action from New Delhi.

M. IQBAL SHAIKH

Reminding China of the vulnerability of its investments was a key component of the diplomatic signaling in India's decision to go public with the September 29 "surgical strikes".

"You're indirectly warning China that if you don't want your investments to be adversely impacted, you've got to make sure Pakistan stops provocations in the form of terror strikes," former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal told The Telegraph in an interview last week.

India's opposition to the CPEC, conveyed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Chinese President Xi Jinping at each of four meetings this year, also has another goal in mind, officials familiar with the government's thinking said.

China and India are locked in what some experts have dubbed a "connectivity race".

The One Belt One Road (Obor) initiative, launched by Xi in September 2013, envisions a network of highways, rail routes and ports connecting China's interiors to India's South Asian neighbours, East Africa, Central Asia and even Europe. The CPEC, the US$ 24 billion loans offered to Bangladesh during Xi's October visit, and a new port off Colombo that has alarmed India are all a part of the Obor.

India too has signed pacts to develop Iran's Chabahar port, inked a transit agreement with Iran and Afghanistan and has sped up work with Russia to develop an International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC). The INSTC is aimed at connecting Iran to Eastern Europe through Central Asia and Russia.

India currently has access to the INSTC and Afghanistan only through the sea.

But persistent diplomatic pressure on China over the CPEC - including through support to Baloch protesters against the initiative - could make Beijing either rethink the project, or offer India a stake in its future, officials argue.

If such an offer comes, land transit access to Afghanistan through Pakistan - something Islamabad has so far rejected - will be the price India will demand.

Charu Sudan Kasturi