On August 27, 2010, the New York Times carried an article by Selig Harrison, former correspondent of the Washington Post in New Delhi who now works in a Washington-based think tank, stating inter alia as follows:
“While the world focuses on the flood-ravaged Indus River valley, 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. The entire Pakistan-occupied western portion of Kashmir stretching from Gilgit in the north to Azad (Free) Kashmir in the south is closed to the world, in contrast to the media access that India permits in the eastern part, where it is combating a Pakistan-backed insurgency. 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 rebellion against Pakistani rule and the influx of an estimated 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.”
Selig’s wake-up call should not have been a surprise to intelligence sources and policy-makers in India and the US. They were aware of the high level of involvement of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China and its nuclear establishment in the construction and maintenance of high-altitude roads in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).The PLA was interested in infrastructure development and maintenance in GB because of its strategic importance for possible use by the PLA in the event of another military conflict with India. China’s nuclear establishment was interested because it wanted to use the PLA-constructed Karakoram Highway (KKH) as an overland route for the movement of missiles and spare parts to Pakistan.
The first wake-up call that China had been using the KKH for moving missile supplies to Pakistan was sounded by the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US, which managed to take satellite photographs of such movement. On August 6 and 7, 2001, the Washington Times gave the following details:
- The China National Machinery & Equipment Import & Export Corporation sent a dozen shipments of missile components to Pakistan since November,2000, and a US spy satellite detected the latest shipment as it arrived by truck at the mountainous Chinese-Pakistani border May 1,2001. The company supplied components for Pakistan's Shaheen-1 and Shaheen-2 missile programmes. The consignments were sent by ship and truck.
- The missile components are being used for production of the Shaheen-1, which has an estimated range of 465 miles, and the development of the Shaheen-2, which US intelligence agencies think will have a range of up to 1,240 miles.
Following the disclosure by the Washington Times, Gen.Pervez Musharraf visited Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, including GB, for four days from August 27, 2001. In an article of September 3, 2001, titled Musharraf's Visit to POK & NA, I wrote as follows:
“The US media reports that its intelligence agencies had detected the transport of 12 consignments of Chinese missile components by sea and land since China pledged to stop such supplies in November last. The consignments sent by trucks came via the Karakoram Highway through Xinjiang and the N.A. (Northern Areas). To avoid detection of transport by sea by US satellites or by the CIA's port-based sources, China and Pakistan had decided to move future consignments by road, which, they felt, would not be vulnerable to detection by the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US. Pakistan has also sought Chinese assistance for the movements of future consignments of missiles and components from North Korea by road through the same route. The military junta had taken considerable precautions to prevent detection of the truck movements by not associating any of the officials of the NA Administration, particularly the Shias, with the arrangements for the movement. In view of this, both Islamabad and Beijing were surprised and embarrassed by the US media reports that US intelligence had detected the truck movements. Pakistani officials claim that even if US satellites had detected the trucks, they could not have known that the consignments contained missile components. They, therefore, reportedly feel that there must have been leakage to the CIA from one of the Pakistani officials associated with the movement. Moreover, following past US detection of the storage of the earlier missiles/components in Sargoda, the military junta had drawn up alternate plans for storage in Gilgit in the hope that there would be less possibility of detection there by the CIA. Before Musharraf's arrival in the POK, Lt.Gen. Jamshed Gulzar, Corps Commander, 10 Corps based in Rawalpindi, had visited the N.A. to enquire into the leakage jointly with the Force Commander, NA, Lt-Gen Muhammad Safdar. Measures for tightening up security in N.A. was one of the subjects which figured during the discussions of Musharraf in Gilgit in which apart from senior military officers, Abbas Sarfaraz, Musharraf's Minister for Kashmir and NA Affairs, who is also the Chief Executive of the NA, also participated. “
In this connection, reference is also invited to my article of August 7, 2001, Gilgit And Baltistan -- China And North Korea
When the KKH was constructed by Chinese engineers in the 1970s, China had no private construction company. All construction companies were State-owned. Only the Engineering units of the PLA had engineers with experience of construction at high altitudes. Right from the beginning, PLA engineers had been involved in the construction, maintenance and upgradation of the KKH. As a result, there had always been a sizable presence of engineers of the PLA in GB. This number has gone up since the beginning of this year following severe damages to the KKH by two natural disasters in January and August. Regular units of the PLA have always been deployed in the GB to provide security to the Chinese engineers and humanitarian workers. It has been difficult to estimate the total number of Chinese engineers, humanitarian workers and security personnel in GB. This number will go up further when China starts the construction of a railway line through GB.
While information has been coming from time to time about the role of PLA engineers in infrastructure development in GB, similar details are not available about the role of engineers of the North Korean Army. Nationalist sources from the area, who have been fighting against the Pakistan Army, have been saying that North Korean military engineers have good expertise in high-altitude tunnel construction and have been helping the Pakistan Army in the construction of roads which would facilitate all-weather road movements to the Chitral area. According to them, for part of the year, the Chitral area is cut off from the rest of Pakistan by landslides. The only way of reaching Chitral is via Afghanistan. Other sources say that the engineers involved in this are from South and not North Korea. It has not been possible to verify this.
Thus even before Selig sounded his wake-up call, considerable details were available for over a decade on the presence and activities of the PLA and possibly North Korean military engineers in GB. Considerable details came from GB when the government of Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee was in power from 1998 to 2004. It was during that period that the PLA presence in GB increased. His government failed to highlight this threat to our own population and to the international community. It is not known whether we have factored this into our plans for the protection of the Ladakh-Kargil sector. Infrastructure development in our territory in the areas bordering GB has remained neglected. It is time we sit up and pay more attention to this. If we do so, Selig’s wake-up call would have served a useful purpose. Chinese and North Korean activities in GB should also figure prominently in the talks during the visit of President Barack Obama to India in November.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies.