This week, China and Tajikistan announced that they have settled their old border dispute. Under this settlement, Tajikistan ceded 386 sq miles or 1,000 sq km of land to China in the remote Pamir mountain range. China said that the move thoroughly solved their century-old border dispute. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei gave no details on the treaty but said that the dispute was solved “according to universally recognized norms of international law through equal consultations”.
Right, China and Tajikistan dealt in “equal consultations” when China has become the largest investor in Tajikistan. The above is the extent of the coverage by BBC and Washington Post. The New York Times did not even cover this story.
So why should we care about a tiny piece of land in the remote, sparsely populated Pamir mountain range? Read our reasoning below.
Where is the Pamir range? It runs along the Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan and China. Why is that important? Remember the story about Afghanistan containing over a trillion dollars of mineral reserves. China got the first contract to mine these reserves.
The land deal begins to make sense in the context of China’s long term interests in Afghanistan. But why should a small piece of land matter so much? The answer usually lies in the maps. Look at the map below from Wikipedia and focus on the “Corridor de Wakhan”.
The Wakhan Corridor
Look at the small white corridor titled “Corridor de Wakhan” that leads from mainland Afghanistan to China. This small corridor , about 10-40 miles wide and about 140 miles, is the only land border between China & Afghanistan. This corridor was carved out to separate the Russian sphere that included Tajikistan from the pre-1947 India. This agreement was sealed between England and Russia in 1873.
Today, the Wakhan corridor sits between Tajikistan and Pakistan, or more specifically the Pakistani-occupied portion of Kashmir. India’s unequivocal position is that this part of Kashmir is an integral part of India.
So if you are China with unlimited amounts of money, with an increasingly aggressive military and with far-reaching long-term interests in Afghanistan, would you be satisfied with the tiny Wakhan corridor as your only link to Afghanistan?
We wouldn’t. This is why we believe the land ceded by Tajikistan to China is just above the Wakhan corridor and that would enable China to build a wider, more robust military infrastructure connecting Afghanistan with China.
And what part of China is this? It is the Xinjiang province where the Chinese faced riots by the local Uighurs. Based on what we read, China plans to make Xinjiang its springboard in to Central Asia. It has already become the largest investor in Tajikistan and a major investor in Kyrgyzstan. Remember, Kyrgyzstan has the Manas airbase that is used by the US airforce to supply Afghanistan from the north.
Do you know who was the Chinese Leader in charge of Xinjiang until recently? It was Xi Jinping who will take over as the President of China in 2013. This is another reason why we think this small deal between Tajikistan and China is much more important than it seems.
After Tajikistan & Kyrgyzstan, the next step is a deeper foray into Afghanistan, a business foray while US troops remain in Afghanistan and a different kind of foray after US troops leave Afghanistan. But Tajikistan is only one part of the access to Afghanistan. The other part is below the Wakhan corridor and through Pakistan or Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
(source – wikipedia)
Remember that China is a strategic ally of Pakistan and Pakistan gets substantial aid from China. But the American involvement in and aid to Pakistan is much much larger. So as long as American troops remain in Afghanistan, China & Pakistan will mind their manners.
But once America leaves Afghanistan, China will become Pakistan’s sole patron. Will China then hold “equal consultations” with Pakistan and sign a deal for Pakistan to cede the land below the Wakhan Corridor to China?
Look at the map below to see how logical this is. Look the Wakhan Corridor in the northwest corner of the map below. The area in green just below the Wakhan corridor is called the Gilgit Agency, the Northern Areas or Baltistan. The capital of this area is Gilgit. It is a bit hard to see but Gilgit is located just above the orange highway line above and to the left & above of the word Northern Areas.
(Map of Kashmir, source – wikipedia)
China is already building a railway line between Gilgit and Kashgar, the principal town in China’s Xinjiang province. China is already constructing power plants in this Northern Area with the “permission” of Pakistan.
Will Pakistan Cede the Gilgit-Baltistan area to China a la Tajikistan?
So how natural would it be for China to make a deal to “let” Pakistan cede this green Northern area to China in exchange for money, military and strategic assistance to Pakistan’s military? Very natural we think, especially after America leaves Afghanistan.
This is not just conjecture and China is not waiting passively for America’s withdrawal. Last August, Selig Harrison broke the story in the New York Times that Pakistan is handing de facto control of the Gilgit-Baltistan region to China. This created a firestorm in strategic circles. Read our September 2010 article titled Baltistan – Where the World Meets for its Next Geo-Crisis? for a detailed discussion of that story.
Once China gets the Northern Area of Kashmir, look at the map above to see how vulnerable the Indian areas of Ladakh becomes. It gets sandwiched between Chinese Tibet to its right, Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin to its northeast and the Chinese-occupied, Pakistan-ceded Northern Area of Kashmir to its northwest. And China already claims large areas of Ladakh as its own territory.
By the way, this is all historically consistent. Through out history, Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet have been politically and administratively administered by the same Sovereign entity. Our acronym for this broad region at the top of the world is Af-Kash-Bet.
Remember, a mere 65 years ago, the Sovereign of the entire Af-Kash-Bet region was British-administered I
ndia. The British-led Indian Army occupied Tibet as its protector; Kashmir was a part of India and Afghanistan was a suzerain of British-administered India.
Will China become the next Sovereign of Af-Kash-Bet? Not as long as American troops remain in Afghanistan. But after America leaves? For a more detailed scenario analysis of that, read our December 2009 article titled The Battle For Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet – A Post-American Withdrawal View Of The Region .
Why is Af-Kash-Bet Important?
There is enormous geographical, geo-strategic and geo-commercial advantage to the control of Af-Kash-Bet. Af-Kash-Bet spans the entire Himalayan range. This is no longer the inhospitable terrain it has been through out history. China is already building a railway network across the Himalayan range to integrate areas under its control today. Look what Af-Kash-Bet opens up for China.
In the northwest, it opens up the entire Central Asian region, rich with mineral and energy resources. As the New York Times reports, China is already extending its footprints into Central Asia .
To the west, it allows control of the famous silk route, the old trading route that connects China with Iran, Iraq and Turkey.
To the southwest, it allows access to the Persian Gulf through Balochistan and Pakistan. To the south, it controls access to the Indo-Gangetic plain, India’s heartland.
To the southeast, it allows easy access to the Bay of Bengal through Bangla Desh and Burma. To the Northeast, it controls access to South East Asia.
In other words, control over Af-Kash-Bet will allow China to become a modern equivalent of 19th century Britain.
An early move in a long-term geo-strategic chess game?
When considered in the above perspective, the ceding of land by Tajikistan to China does not seem small or insignificant. On the contrary, it seems like an early move in a long game of geostrategic chess played for huge global stakes.
This is one reason the US-India strategic relationship makes natural sense. But that requires American presence in Afghanistan for at least the next 10 years.
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