CPEC, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, was established in 2013 with the expressed intent of bringing Chinese-Pakistani relations closer through economic partnership. CPEC is an infrastructure project now valued at $62 billion that includes highway systems, railways, and energy initiatives. One highway project meant to connect China and Pakistan cuts through territory in the Pakistan-administered region of Kashmir, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).
Spokesmen for CPEC argue that the economic prosperity, energy, and improved means of transportation the project will bring does not just benefit Pakistan, but also Iran, India, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, through greater economic, academic, and cultural growth. Nevertheless, the project has served to underscore tensions between Pakistan and India while bringing the issue of sovereignty in Kashmir to the forefront.
This May, the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation was held in Beijing, drawing representatives from more than 130 countries. Representatives from India were not in attendance, presumably in protest of CPEC.
Officials in Islamabad have now accused India of trying to sabotage CPEC. This week, Joint Chief of Staff General Zubair Mahmood made claims that India is destabilizing the region by supporting Taliban terrorism against Pakistan. General Zubair also made the accusation that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian external intelligence service, has earmarked $500 billion to sabotage CPEC.
General Zubair asserts that India’s activity could lead to war at any time between the two nations.
What about Kashmir?
Because CPEC will involve construction in AJK, India has laid out claims that the project will traverse through disputed territory. Beijing and Islamabad disagree.
In his remarks, General Zubair also turned to Kashmir, a contested territory that has been in crisis for decades. After the independence and subsequent partition of India in 1947, Kashmir was given the choice of joining India or Pakistan or gaining independence. Despite 60% of the population being Muslim, the Hindu maharaja of Kashmir eventually chose to accede to India instead of Pakistan, leading to a two year long war.
Subsequent wars and frequently violent street protests have enshrined Kashmir as a bedrock of the characteristically tense relationship between the two nuclear capable countries. Since 1989, India has held that Pakistan is responsible for arming insurgents in India administered Jammu and Kashmir.
As the borders currently stand, Pakistan administers one-third of Kashmir, the western region of the country sharing a border with both China and Afghanistan.
Despite India’s boycott of the Belt and Road Forum, not all voices in India-administered Kashmir agree with New Delhi’s stance. This summer, Mehbooba Mufti, Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, drew controversy for her comments on CPEC. The Kashmiri leader stated her belief that CPEC could help Kashmir restore trade and reconcile with its neighbors. She went on to say that allowing people to cross borders more easily would make the borders irrelevant, ameliorating Kashmir’s sovereignty issues. Pakistani officials like National Security Adviser Lt-Gen (retd) Nasser Khan Janjua, have echoed some of these claims.
Words from Beijing
From an Indian perspective, CPEC isn’t the first time that China has tried to exercise control over the region. In the 1950s, China gradually ceased control of eastern Kashmir, Aksai Chin, leading to a war between China and India in 1962. India was not the victor. China still holds the disputed, largely uninhabited territory, which serves to connect Tibet and Xinjiang.
While India is suspicious of China’s intentions, the Chinese government insists that CPEC is cultivating friendliness between nations and will lead to greater prosperity in the region. Chen Feng, a Chinese official, commented:
CPEC is neither a platform to achieve political ambitions nor it can be used to resolve territorial disputes. The primary aim of CPEC is to develop the mutual connectivity among all neighbors where China aspires to engage other nations in the economic development. Beijing holds that CPEC is an economic initiative not meant to have an effect or comment on territorial disputes.
This summer at the Belt and Road Forum, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released this statement in regards to India’s boycott: “Regarding the issue of Kashmir… we have been stressing that the issue was left over from history between India and Pakistan, and should be properly addressed by the two sides through consultation and negotiation.”
Despite the characterization of the Kashmiri conflict as “history,” the region has seen multiple violent clashes this year.
The UN and international community
The UN has not neglected to weigh in on the issue. In May, the Economic and Social Commission for Asia Pacific (ESCAP) released a report on China’s Belt and Road Initiative in which it raised concerns about Kashmir, claiming that CPEC could increase tensions and create more instability in the region. The report also highlights potential environmental threats.
Perhaps adding further complication to the project, Afghanistan announced at the end of October that it would not support the project unless it was given access to the Pakistan-India border. The ESCAP report also points out that some of the CPEC routes aim to cut through areas of Afghanistan with a significant Taliban presence.
In October, the Trump administration announced their support of India’s objections to CPEC, reinforcing the claim that CPEC crosses disputed territory.
The contentious CPEC plans have also drawn attention to the Balochistan province of Pakistan. The Baloch ethnic people have long accused Pakistan of oppression and exploitation of the resource rich Balochistan. The region has been marred by frequent insurgency against Pakistan. ESCAP’s report notes that CPEC could destabilize the region and lead to further economic and cultural marginalization of the Baloch people.
While India remains unconvinced of China’s motives, Beijing continues to insist that their intentions are purely friendly and economic. Chinese officials insist that the project is meant to bring economic development to Pakistan, which has seen less growth than India, while massive investments into energy aim to reduce frequent energy shortages. Despite China’s economic interests and assertion that Pakistan and India must come to the negotiating table, it remains unclear how much of their influence they will exert to bring Pakistan and India into dialogue over the conflict in Kashmir.