Neither of New Delhi's two main justifications for opposing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor stands up to scrutiny

by Adnan Aamir

Speaking during Raisina Dialogue 2020 in January, Indian Naval Chief Admiral Karambir Singh claimed that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor impinges on India’s sovereignty. This was a repetition of India’s stand against CPEC, which is the flagship project of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The Indian government also opposes CPEC because it considers Sino-Pakistani cooperation a threat. However, the Indian opposition to CPEC on these two points does not hold ground.

There are two major reasons that drive the Indian opposition to the US$50 billion CPEC initiative. The first reason is that the economic corridor passes through the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan, which was partly under the control of the state of Kashmir at the time of Partition. Since Kashmir is an internationally recognized dispute between India and Pakistan, India lays claim to Gilgit-Baltistan. Based on this logic, India argues that an international corridor between Pakistan and China is passing through an Indian-claimed territory and hence violates India’s sovereignty.

The Case of Gilgit-Baltistan

In July 2018, S Jaishankar, then foreign secretary of India, told Chinese officials in Beijing that “CPEC violates Indian sovereignty because it runs through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.” During the same meeting, India also asked China to explain how it could take part in the CPEC project when it passes through disputed Kashmiri territory. The Chinese government rejected this claim and reiterated that CPEC does not change Beijing’s position on Kashmir.

Moreover, India fears that if the CPEC corridor successfully starts functioning through Gilgit-Baltistan, then it will internationalize the Kashmir dispute. New Delhi has historically opposed this possibility, insisting that the dispute is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. This stance is based on the argument that the entire Kashmir region, including Gilgit-Baltistan, is Indian territory. The reason is that the Kashmiri Maharaja acceded the entire territory of Kashmir to India and Pakistan did not respect that decision. Hence the fact that the CPEC corridor passes through Gilgit-Baltistan inherently violates the territorial sovereignty of India.

Historically, the region that is now Gilgit-Baltistan was partly under the control of the state of Kashmir and partly under the British paramountcy. After Partition, Kashmir state sent its governor to Gilgit to take control of the region, but the Gilgit Scouts, a paramilitary force, did not accept the authority of the Kashmiri Maharaja. Just a couple of days after Kashmir’s controversial accession to India, the Gilgit Scouts revolted against the governor and asked Pakistan to take control of the region.

So, in historical terms, the nature of dispute over Gilgit-Baltistan is completely different from that regarding the Jammu and Kashmir regions. Hence India can’t claim Gilgit-Baltistan in the same way it can claim Pakistani-administered Kashmir. India’s claim on Gilgit-Baltistan can only be justified if Kashmir’s wholesale accession to India is ratified as legal by the United Nations, which is still not the case.

Moreover, irrespective of the historical dispute over Gilgit-Baltistan, this region has been firmly under the control of Pakistan for the last 72 years. Pakistan has made it a semi-autonomous federally controlled territory, which for all practical purposes is part of Pakistan. In fact, the already existing Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan with China, passes through the same region.

Pakistan has refrained from including Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan as official parts of Pakistan to abide by UN resolutions on the dispute. Furthermore, last August, India fundamentally altered the geographic arrangements in its part of Kashmir despite it being a disputed territory. By this logic, how can it question any step taken by Pakistan in its part of Kashmir? Therefore, there is no practical justification for the Indian claim that CPEC violates its “sovereignty” in Gilgit-Baltistan.

CPEC As ‘Counterbalance’?

The second reason for India’s opposition to CPEC is the fear that it is being used by China to counterbalance the economic growth of India. It’s a fact that Pakistan’s economy was struggling in early 2015 when Beijing signed the CPEC agreement with Islamabad. CPEC has so far helped the Pakistani economy by increasing energy production and paving the way for further foreign investment. Thus it makes sense that India might see CPEC as an attempt by China to prop up Pakistan against India.

This theory is further supported by the fact that India is receptive of the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor under BRI but opposes CPEC. Therefore, India’s opposition to CPEC can be perceived in a Pakistan-centric angle and not a general opposition to the wider Belt and Road Initiative.

India has the right to oppose any project it deems against its interest, but its fear of CPEC is misplaced. Neither Pakistan nor China has shown any explicit intentions to counter India by any means using CPEC. In fact, the Indian economy is much bigger than Pakistan’s and in no way could CPEC alone help Pakistan become an equal economic competitor of India.

Furthermore, Pakistan also has a sovereign right to make deals and enter agreements with other countries for its economic interests even if they are opposed by India. However, CPEC by no means represents any act of hostility toward India.

Moreover, the Gwadar Port in southwestern Pakistan is the mainstay of CPEC. Pakistan plans to make Gwadar a regional commercial hub in the future with the help of China. In order to counter the success of Gwadar Port, India invested in Chabahar Port in Iran, located just 175 kilometres from Gwadar. India invested $100 million in Chabahar and according to Chinese media, the only apparent reason was to counter the success of Gwadar Port.

The timing of the Indian deal with Iran further supports the claim made by Chinese media. India started investing in Chabahar in 2016, just a year after the CPEC agreements were signed. It would be a too big a coincidence if India started investing in a port just 175km from Gwadar if it had no intention to counter CPEC.

Chabahar could have been a formidable competitor of Gwadar, but then the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States changed the situation. The Trump administration reimposed sanctions on Iran, and it became increasingly difficult for India to keep on investing in Chabahar, which therefor could not be developed at the expected pace. As a result, Gwadar Port’s significance once again increased, and it even started serving Afghan transit trade, which would have been a client of Chabahar Port if the US government had not imposed sanctions.

The Chabahar episode reveals that it was India that made a strategic move to counter CPEC but it did not work. Just as India has the right to make independent investment decisions like that involving Chabahar, Pakistan can do the same with CPEC. However, the Chabahar investment is a case where India made an attempt deemed hostile by Pakistan and China against CPEC, but so far it has not worked out.

Bottom Line

Last, while India’s opposition to and criticism of CPEC might not be justified, there is internal criticism on the project from within Pakistan that is completely justified. Ever since its inception, CPEC has been shrouded in mystery and the agreements Islamabad signed with Beijing have never been made public. CPEC projects have benefited the eastern provinces of Punjab and Sindh more than the underdeveloped provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. There is also a genuine concern that CPEC might result in a debt trap for Pakistan because of most of the projects are financed through loans.

However, this internal criticism cannot be used by India to prove its claim that CPEC is a bad idea. Although in the current environment it would be unwise to think of any rapprochement between Pakistan and India, at least both countries could keep economics out of their unending rivalry. A starting point could be India dropping its strong opposition to CPEC and Pakistan allowing China to be part of the project.

Adnan Aamir is an award-winning journalist and researcher based in Pakistan