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-controlled 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 Peoples Liberation Army.
China wants a grip on the region to assure unfettered road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan. It takes 16 to 25 days for Chinese oil tankers to reach the Gulf. When high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will be able to transport cargo from Eastern China to the new Chinese-built Pakistani naval bases at Gwadar, Pasni and Ormara, just east of the Gulf, within 48 hours.
Many of the P.L.A. soldiers entering Gilgit-Baltistan are expected to work on the railroad. Some are extending the Karakoram Highway, built to link Chinas Sinkiang Province with Pakistan. Others are working on dams, expressways and other projects.
Mystery surrounds the construction of 22 tunnels in secret locations where Pakistanis are barred. Tunnels would be necessary for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would cross the Himalayas through Gilgit. But they could also be used for missile storage sites.
Until recently, the P.L.A. construction crews lived in temporary encampments and went home after completing their assignments. Now they are building big residential enclaves clearly designed for a long-term presence.
What is happening in the region matters to Washington for two reasons. Coupled with its support for the Taliban, Islamabads collusion in facilitating Chinas access to the Gulf makes clear that Pakistan is not a U.S. ally. Equally important, the nascent revolt in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a reminder that Kashmiri demands for autonomy on both sides of the cease-fire line would have to be addressed in a settlement.
Media attention has exposed the repression of the insurgency in the Indian-ruled Kashmir Valley. But if reporters could get into the Gilgit-Baltistan region and 'Azad' Kashmir, they would find widespread, brutally-suppressed local movements for democratic rights and regional autonomy.
When the British partitioned South Asia in 1947, the maharajah who ruled Kashmir, including Gilgit and Baltistan, acceded to India. This set off intermittent conflict that ended with Indian control of the Kashmir Valley, the establishment of Pakistan-sponsored Free Kashmir in western Kashmir, and Pakistans occupation of Gilgit and Baltistan, where Sunni jehadi groups allied with the Pakistan Army have systematically terrorized the local Shiite Muslims.
Gilgit and Baltistan are in effect under military rule. Democratic activists there want a legislature and other institutions without restrictions like the ones imposed on 'Free Kashmir', where the elected legislature controls only 4 out of 56 subjects covered in the state constitution. The rest are under the jurisdiction of a Kashmir Council appointed by the president of Pakistan.
Precisely because the Gilgit-Baltistan region is so important to China, the United States, India and Pakistan should work together to make sure that it is not overwhelmed, like Tibet, by the Chinese behemoth.
The speed at which things are moving in Pakistan administered Kashmir where the Chinese have set themselves up permanently, it would be surprising if the area doesn't become another autonomous region of China like TAR, sooner than later. The writing is on the wall. For Pakistan - losing its hold in the Northern Areas to China and for India - a clear threat to the Kashmir Valley.