Alleged presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan and Americans at Shahbaz Airbase

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Context

The floods in Pakistan have given birth to two controversial geopolitical issues. One of them is related to anarticle that first appeared in the New York Times on August 27, where the author Selig Harrison has claimed the presence of about 11,000 Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan area of Pakistan. The second event is associated with flooding of western Balochistan allegedly as a consequence of the efforts to save the Shahbaz airbase, located in Jacobabad, Sindh. This base according to media reports is used to conduct drone strikes in FATA and also hosts Pakistan’s modern attack aircrafts. This analysis explores the geostrategic linkage of these developments if they are indeed true.

Analysis

Shahbaz Airbase

Jacobabad airbase is located 300 miles north of Karachi, 300 miles southeast of Kandahar and approximately the same distance from the Pak-Iran border. Due to its strategic location it was chosen as one of the key bases used by US for supporting Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Reportedly, the site has also been used for conducting research and development for drone related programs as well as strikes in FATA.

A controversy was triggered recently when some Pakistani politicians made official remarks pointing out that the airbase could not be used for rescue and relief efforts since it is under lease to US and for conducting drone strikes. Subsequently American ambassador to Pakistan clarified that this is not the case. However, both unofficially and via media reports, the U.S. maintains that the drone strikes are carried out under a secret tacit agreement with the government of Pakistan. Senator Diane Feinstein (D-California) who is also the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence had claimed in 2009 that the drones are actually based in Pakistan and are launched from there against their targets. In short the base has an immense regional geo-strategic importance for the US as it relates to Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and to counter Chinese policies in the region.

Gilgit-Baltistan

In an article published in the New York Times, author Selig Harrison has claimed that Pakistan recently handed over the control of its Gilgit-Baltistan region to China. The Pakistani authorities have subsequently denied that this has occurred but accepted Chinese presence there to conduct rescue, relief and reconstruction of the Karakorum highway, including work related to other energy and development projects. Pakistan gave the area full province status in 2009, a move criticized by India, which considers the region as occupied territory. Nonetheless, Gilgit-Baltistan has become critically important in establishing a rail as well as an energy link between Pakistan and China, and stretching all the way to the port city of Gwadar.

Since the report of Chinese presence in the area, India has been in a state of alarm about what this means for the future of Jammu and Kashmir. China also recently denied a visa to an Indian general whose command includes the region of Jammu and Kashmir. According to media reports, since the incident, the defense relations between the two countries have been suspended.

In the aftermath of the devastating floods many areas of northern Pakistan have been cut-off from the rest of the country. Moreover, the road link between China and Pakistan had initially been interrupted as a result of an overflowing lake, created by an avalanche near village Attabad. Fearing an aggressive move on part of India as a consequence of the vacuum, its possible that Pakistan may have requested China to send its forces, as its own military is already preoccupied with fighting extremists and providing rescue and relief efforts. The following scenarios would have also be on the mind of Pakistan’s military to have invited the Chinese:

Dr. J. Bruce Amstutz, the U.S. Charge De Affairs in Afghanistan from 1977 to 1980, in his book Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation has this to say regarding the administrative takeover of the Wakhan Corridor by the Soviets in the fall of 1980, during its occupation of Afghanistan:

  • By annexing the Corridor the Soviets could directly control the 37 mile-long Afghan-Chinese border and reduce any chance of the Chinese supplying arms to the Mujahidin.
  • They would be able to control the 4,923 meters-high Vakhjir Davan Pass, which provided the only access from the Soviet Union to China along the long and mountainous China-Soviet border. This pass was of strategic importance if the Soviets wanted to cut off the China-Pakistan all-weather Karakoram Highway, further towards the east.
  • The Chinese interpreted the Soviet takeover of Wakhan and their establishment of a military presence there in the 80s as an attempt to penetrate the northern areas of Pakistan and to disturb the security situation in Pakistan.

Presently, Afghanistan is under the control of NATO alliance and thus the chief worry would not have been from the Russians. From all indications, Chinese and American rivalry is heating up in the region as well as in the pacific realm. As a result Pakistan is being pulled in different directions and having to cover more than one risk. The tussles which were previously peripheral to the country are now moving inward, and perhaps escalated by the ruinous floods.

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