The highly mountainous region of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) covers an area of 72,971 square km with an estimated population of over 1.8 million (as of 2015 records). The region is an extremely fragile and significant one with three of world’s powerful ornery and daedalian powers along with a conflict-ridden nation encircling it. Originally belonging to and part of India, Gilgit Baltistan is surrounded by Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north, China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region to the north-west, Ladakh to east and Kashmir to south. Geographic tri-junction of Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Pamir, Gilgit Baltistan possesses the most startling views of natural beauty. Apart from several high-altitude lakes, the region is also home to three of world’s longest glaciers outside of the polar region, including the world’s highest war field, the Siachen glacier.
But apart from its mountains, glaciers and green plains, the region has something else of superfluous significance and prudence: its strategic points. GB is home to some of the world’s most important and contentious strategic points capable of creating unremitting embroilments and fracases. The region holds extreme volatility and if gets subjected to desuetude can cause a ruckus in the entire regions of South Asia, Central Asia and China, ultimately affecting the entire world. The mountain province consists of 3 core divisions: Gilgit, Baltistan and Diamer, which in turn is further divided into 10 districts along with its Shaksgam valley – which was gifted to China by occupier Pakistan in 1963 border agreement – of 5,180 square km. The recent developments in the Jammu and Kashmir region with the removal of Article 370 and Indian minister’s statements on PoK has again bought the region of Gilgit Baltistan into limelight from being drowned in the darkness. Which makes it exceedingly important for us to understand the strategic importance of the region of Gilgit Baltistan.
The region’s trijunctionality, both in terms of political and geographical boundaries, makes it one of the world’s most significant geostrategic points. Situated between Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir mountains, the high positioned GB oversees the entire regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, Kashmir, Ladakh, Xinjiang and Wakhan Corridor; making it a powerful game-changing military high point. Gilgit Baltistan is, uniquely, an introspection point of West, Central and South Asia along with China. It has passage to four nations, two of them (India and China) being Asia’s biggest powers. GB possess direct links for connecting all four regions which, if held to desuetude by loony wanton forces, has the potential of causing serious geostrategic conflicts.
Gilgit Baltistan’s geo-strategic importance is multi-folded, in case of a two-front war against India, to become the most critical point of the war, capable of drastically affecting and determining the outcome. An advanced Air Force base in GB can devastate the enemy’s confidence and steer the movement of conflict to India’s side. High altitude points are still tremendously important aspects of warfare which can prove to be, if accessed properly, the big game changers.
Apart from warfare, the region of Gilgit Baltistan has the potential of completely destroying Pakistan’s Kashmir dream. The region is a comfy hotbed and safe haven of every major terror outfit gunged with religious radicalisation – which are sponsored, protected and fostered by Pakistan’s ISI and military for the pernicious purpose of attacking India – from Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) to Hizbul mujahideen. The region acts as a protective shield, the first line of defence, for the ‘original’ Pakistan of Punjabis and Pakhtuns and the first front of aggression against India. Under Pakistani control, the province has been morphed into a military-cum-terror state fundamentally designed to further the malicious agenda of annexing Kashmir. Controlling the first line of defence – the first and most powerful launchpad of aggression – can be a strategic boon for India.
Gilgit Baltistan is the sole, and most significant, the connection of Pakistan to China. Pakistan’s Khyber province, its otherwise northernmost part, has absolutely no access to Chinese soil and hence making GB the very string of China-Pakistan necklace. Losing GB will be a catastrophic and calamitous situation for Pakistan cutting the socioeconomic ties with Beijing. China’s ‘all-weather friendship’ with Pakistan is entirely based upon the geo-strategic significance of Gilgit Baltistan as it holds the pass to Pakistan and eventually to the Arabian Sea. India controlling Gilgit Baltistan will be an overarching knock-out punch to China Pakistan’s two front and ‘iron brotherhood’. Without China’s assistance, Pakistan will be left with no ‘godfather’ to feel protected both economically and militarily.
Home to valuable earthy resources, GB is rich in minerals deposits. These include metallic, non-metallic, energy minerals, precious stones and different rocks of industrial use. The southern areas of this region have substantial deposits of nickel, lead, copper and zircon. In its northern regions, it contains deposits of iron, silver, gold, garnet and topaz. Almost all of its mining potential is untapped and capable of generating ample wealth.
Gateway to Afghanistan, Tajikistan and rest of the Central and West Asia, the region of Gilgit Baltistan is a potential economic epicentre of trade. The Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan contain large deposits of mineral resources, many of which still remain unexplored. Its unexploited oil and gas reserves are conservatively estimated at 4% each of the total global reserves. This untapped potential has attracted China too and it acted fast. In 2000, China’s trade with Central Asian Republics (CARs) was US $1 billion and over the next ten years, it leapt 30 times to reach US $30 billion. By 2013, the two-way trade reached US $50 bn and with that, China replaced Russia as Central Asia‟s largest trading partner.
Apart from China; US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi and India all eyes for the natural resources of Central Asia. India, being the most likely beneficiary from Central Asian reserves, is conscientiously working to access and establish trade routes to Central Asia for securing domestic and military energy demands along with ensconcing greater muscle power in the region. With China becoming the galloping horse in race to capture Central Asia, it is of paramount significance for India to have a land connection with Afghanistan and Central Asia. Gilgit Baltistan can be the wanton sabre in this war of wooden knives, providing strong land linkage and sociocultural connections to Central Asia for India.
The economic significance of Gilgit Baltistan is also embedded in its vast hydroelectric potential. Home to Indus and its 6 tributaries, hundreds of glaciers and lakes, including world’s second and third longest glaciers outside of polar regions, the rich water resource region has the potential of generating 40,000 MW of hydroelectricity. It consists of about 27% glaciers and snow deposits, the biggest in the world outside polar region. Proper management and harnessing of hydroelectric power potential of Gilgit Baltistan can generate US $21 billion per annum in revenues.
Anyone who looks at the map closely will notice the unprecedented significance of Gilgit Baltistan region to China. Part of the former ‘silk route’, Gilgit Baltistan is the ladder for China to reach its ambitious target of accessing the Arabian Sea. China envisages a mega infrastructure project connecting China’s Kashgar in Xinjiang to Balochistan’s Gawadar port. The project named China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – which is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an attempt to bring back the ancient silk route to life – is a US $60+ billion programme which consists of constructing infrastructure connecting the two ends. For China, CPEC is a means to increase its strategic presence in Pakistan and CPEC is part of a grand plan for enhancing influence through rail, road and pipeline connectivity to Central and West Asia while linking Gwadar to Xinjiang through Gilgit. Besides, Xinjiang is only 2500 km from the Arabian coast but is 4500 km from the Pacific coast. The flow of goods and fuel from Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Sea through Gwadar, Gilgit and eventually to Kashgar, the CPEC project provides a shorter, stronger and more direct link to the fulfilment of China’s increasing energy hunger. China plans to create a byzantine network of gas pipelines, road and rail in order to secure its energy demands and establish an authoritarian control over Pakistan.
Karakoram Highway (KKH) is another mega infrastructure project of China in Pakistan, a 1,300 km national highway project extending from Hasan Abdal in Punjab in Pakistan, Khanjerab Pass in Gilgit Baltistan to Kashgar of Xinjiang in China. The highway at points reaches an extremely close point to borders of Afghanistan, China and India, hence making it a critical geo-strategic region.
Both CPEC and KKH are tremendously significant strategic projects of China in Pakistan, the connection between China ambitions and Pakistan’s dreams. CPEC is also the backbone of China’s flagship BRI project and supposed economic renaissance of Pakistan. Both the projects pass through the Gilgit Baltistan making it the most fragile and volatile region for both China and Pakistan. Gilgit Baltistan is the key to the destruction of Chinese influence in South Asia; the string of China-Pakistan’s pearl necklace and also the Brahmastra for India against China. India controlling GB can turn out to be the worst nightmare for China and eventually for Pakistan too.
The region of Gilgit Baltistan is a marvellous throne of immense geostrategic importance adorned with the diamonds of its geographical location, economic potential and essentiality. The nation who coronates the throne becomes the king.
Columnist and undergraduate student from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Two time state topper in Science and Art of Lecturing.