Baltistan – Where the World Meets for the Next Geo-Crisis?

At your next cocktail party, drop the word Baltistan. The blank stares you get would be an ego-booster. Then drop the name Gilgit, the capital of Baltistan, and you will be regarded as an elite intellectual. This is because very few people have heard of Baltistan or Gilgit.

Baltistan is where the world meets today. This is a small province that sits between US controlled Afghanistan, China, India and Pashtunistan territory occupied by Pakistan.  Russia and its interests in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan are a short distance away. 

This is not just a poor, landlocked territory at the top of the world. It happens to be one of the most strategic areas of the world. Because it is the key to Chinese land routes to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. It is the battleground where China-Pakistan could engage in a sharp, vicious military conflict with India. Baltistan is also the key to a Chinese domination if not control of Afghanistan after America leaves. So this is the province that may force USA to stay in Afghanistan far longer than it wishes to.

China is already building an all-weather rail line from Kashgar in Xinjiang to Gilgit across the Khunjerab Pass, the highest paved border crossing in the world. This rail line would allow Oil and raw materials to travel from Gwadar, the Chinese built port at the entrance of the strategic Straits of Hormuz to Kashgar in 48 hours. Alternatively, it can allow the Chinese Army to reach the Persian Gulf in 48 hours. 

Baltistan could be the key to the historical pursuit of unified control of Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet. British-led India was the last entity to have such control. China wants to be the next entity to control Af-Kash-Bet. We discussed this topic at length in our December 2009 article The Battle For Afghanistan, Kashmir & Tibet – A Post-American Withdrawal View of The Region. But when we wrote that article, we had little idea that Baltistan would emerge as a focus within a few months and long before America withdraws from Afghanistan.

Take a look at the map below. The area in light green titled Northern Areas is Gilgit-Baltistan, its new name. If China gets military control of Baltistan, how would the strategic picture look? To illustrate this point, we annotated this area by drawing red lines across Baltistan. Control of Baltistan would enable China to encircle Jammu & Kashmir of India and chop it off at leisure. In addition, the loss of Baltistan to China would forever cut off India from the mineral rich Central Asian region. It would also allow China to penetrate Afghanistan from the east and link up with Iran’s penetration of Afghanistan from the west.  

This is a geo-political crisis if we have ever seen one. The credit for bringing this to the world’s attention goes to the New York Times and its Op-Ed Contributor, Selig S. Harrison. Mr. Harrison is the Director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a former South Asia bureau chief of the Washington Post. 

Harrison made frank and candid assertions in his article China’s Discreet Hold on Pakistan’s Northern Borderlands . In this article, Harrison stated:

  • 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.(emphasis ours).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 rebelion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

This article by Selig Harrison created a fire storm in strategic circles. This Chinese incursion into Kashmir was discussed in last week’s meetings between Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command and his counterparts in the Indian Military. Admiral Willard said that “any change in military relations or military maneuvers by China that raises concerns of India could fall within U.S. Pacific Command’s area of responsibility” but also maintained that this is an issue for the Indian Military to handle on its own.

The United States is being exceedingly cautious in defining its role in this affair as it should. But it cannot avoid getting caught in the China-India-Pakistan triangle. Any time, US & Indian defense officials get together to discuss China & Pakistan, it makes Pakistan draw even closer to to China. It also makes the withdrawal from Afghanistan more complex for the Obama Administration.

Niall Ferguson of Harvard has compared China to Kaiser’s Germany before World War I. In this analogy, India would be France, a perennially soft, complacent country that almost invites attacks from its neighbors. But like France, India can only be pushed so far and Baltistan could prove to be the last straw.

Our own analogy is to Japan’s drive to secure its own natural resources in the late 1930s. The economic conditions are similar. The 1930s were a decade of deflation in the USA and a decade of global trade tensions. Japan was an emerging power in Asia and needed guaranteed, secure access to natural resources. Japan spent the decade of the 1930s in modernizing its Navy and building up its Army and Air force. Then it launched a military campaign in Asia to annex territories to seize resources.

Does this not suggest a parallel to current economic conditions and to today’s China?

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