Because of being mired in an age-long conflict and humanitarian crisis, the geographical uniqueness of Kashmir is usually rendered to forgetfulness. Along with that, its potential of being used as a geopolitical pivot in international politics is usually not considered.
The Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Himalayas all meet at their extremities in Kashmir. The Hindukush are spread all over the Gilgit-Baltistan area, the Karakoram encompasses the whole of Ladakh, and the Himalayas rest in the Kashmir Valley at the end point of their journey. On the feet of the towering cliffs of these great ranges lay separated three great cultures; of Islam, Hinduism and the Han Chinese culture.
The Greater Kashmir that is disputed between Pakistan and India includes Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Azad Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract (Shaksgam Valley). Put together, this would make a large territory with borders with China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
But as of now, disintegrated between Pakistan, India and China, it is serving as a pivot that the three use for influencing each other, not only with interventions inside the disputed land but also in the larger canvas of their national and international politics. And China’s being part of the conflict is often undermined in the political narrative.
China controls the Aksai Chin, a large territory bordering Ladakh. Aksai Chin is vital for China as it connects the two remote provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet — as there are no road links via the vast and formidable Taklimakan Desert. A road from Urumqi, Xinjiang, goes all the way around the Taklimakan and through the daunting terrain of the Himalayas reaches Lhasa, Tibet — a part of this track passes through Aksai Chin. Adjacent to Aksai Chin is the Trans-Karakoram Tract, a 5,800 square kilometres belt, famously known as the Shaksgam Valley. Pakistan handed over the Shaksgam Valley, originally a territory of Gilgit-Baltistan to China, for the time until the Kashmir Issue is resolved, in the 1963 Sino-Pak Agreement.
Strategically, China’s possession of Shaksgam opens the possibility of China constructing a road that connects G219 (the Xinjiang-Tibet road) in the east with the Karakoram Highway in the west in Pakistan, further facilitating the development of the two neglected provinces. On the other hand, conjugating Shaksgam with Aksai Chin makes the Chinese factor over Kashmir even more real and present — as Shaksgam lies exactly opposite to the Siachen Glacier, India’s highest post in the unmarked border to the western end of the Line of Control, that had been a volatile point of conflict between Pakistan and India for 19 years till the 2003 ceasefire agreement and had led to the 1999 Kargil War. India fears that in case of an international conflict, China can launch a missile attack from Shaksgam or attempt a physical occupation of the glacier, in combination with Pakistani forces.
In 1962, China and India fought a war over Aksai Chin and in 2014 China built up on troops in Aksai Chin and made incursions into Ladakh causing a stand-off between the two countries. Because the borders of Aksai Chin are also disputed, this means that both India and China think that the other is sitting on a part of its territory. For this reason, when India repealed Article 370 in August 2019, declaring Ladakh as a Union Territory, China not just called for a peaceful resolution between Pakistan and India and to safeguard regional peace and stability, but in a separate statement pointing to Ladakh said, “China always opposes India’s inclusion of Chinese territory in the western section of the China-India boundary under its administrative jurisdiction… This position is firm and consistent and has never changed. The recent unilateral revision of domestic laws by the Indian side continues to undermine China’s territorial sovereignty, which is unacceptable and will not have any effect.”
This makes it obvious that, though China chooses not to make much noise regarding the matter, in reality Kashmir is unresolved not only between Pakistan and India, but also between China and India. But China will try to remain offish on the matter until there is a decisive turn on the issue.
But China’s interest in Kashmir is not just confined to Ladakh — it also has a major stake in Gilgit-Baltistan, as the arteries of CPEC, China’s flagship Belt and Road project, pass through this region, and through it China will connect to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea at Gwadar Port. And like all of China’s connectivity projects, the US and its ally, India, are bitterly against the fruition of CPEC.
Going back a century in history, when the Russian and British empires were playing the Great Game in Asia and Afghanistan and Persia became a buffer between the two — a buffer that both dreaded would be crossed by their opponent — it is theorised that the British were complacent with the idea of the creation of Pakistan at the western belt of the Subcontinent, as it would remain as a permanent wall in the way of socialist influence into the Subcontinent as well as the expansion of Indian interests to its west. This new state would also become a barrier for the Afghans, who had an inclination to intervene into the Subcontinent whenever they had the strength to do so.
This means that the fate of Kashmir, of either being an independent state or becoming part of India or Pakistan, would also change the geopolitics of the region — perhaps essentially affecting India’s ambition to leap into Afghanistan and via that into the Central Asian region. And perhaps the same was reflected in Nehru’s statement, when he said, “India without Kashmir would cease to occupy a pivotal position on the political map of Central Asia.”
Beyond just India, China and Pakistan, Kashmir being completely occupied by India, as being wished by several Indian MPs after the abrogation of Article 370, would also mean the fortification of US interests in Afghanistan — making the country an Achilles heel for both Russia and China, who have been challenging US interests around the world this entire decade. The Russians repelled the British from Afghanistan for a whole century. They would not be willing to hand over the same to the US. Russia would rather ally with China and its interests in repelling the US, and in keeping the Indians at bay.
Kashmir being vital for Pakistan’s strategic and economic survival on one side and being indispensable for India’s integrity with both the Indian Muslims and Hindutva fascism on the other, are perhaps the two forces that have kept the present status quo in place — whereas the undoing of this status quo would potentially disquiet the balance of the whole region or perhaps beyond.
— Aneela Shahzad is a geopolitical analyst. She also writes at globaltab.net and tweets @AneelaShahzad