Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) is blessed with an extraordinary landscape, immense natural resources, vibrant manpower and a profoundly consequential location. It is situated at the confluence of the three Asias—west, central and south—as well as the three mighty Asian mountain ranges; the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayas. It forms the northern part of the Greater Kashmir Region. Of late, China too has asserted its legitimate rights along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India, particularly in Ladakh.

The changing paradigms of geopolitics have raised GB’s importance in regional and global considerations. It is now central to the evolving strategic environment in the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR), primarily due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passing through it. To its West lies the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, which is still experiencing some terrorism. In the North-West it has the Wakhan Corridor which links restive, volatile and terrorism-stricken Afghanistan to China and Tajikistan. To its East-North lies Xinjiang from where the CPEC emanates. To its South-West it has Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJ&K); most of the live-wire LOC between Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu & Kashmir Region (IIOJ&KR) and AJ&K-Pakistan lies to its East-South-East. IIOJ&KR remains perennially destabilised and bristling under the inhuman and tyrannical stranglehold of the Indian military.

GB’s geopolitical relevance has been rising in tandem with the progress on CPEC. This flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), portends enormous strategic connotations. CPEC’s successful completion will establish BRI’s viability and China’s credibility as the pre-eminent economic power of the world. China’s sphere of influence and strategic reach are inexorably expanding to the SCAR, the Greater Middle East Region, Africa, the Mediterranean, Europe and beyond. CPEC gives China vital access to the Indian Ocean Region, Arabian Sea, and Persian Gulf through the strategically important Gwadar-Makran Coast. It makes China a two-ocean nation and enables it to outflank the Malacca Straits chokepoint effectively. This profoundly neutralises China’s strategic vulnerability of a blockade at the Malacca Straits.

All this has understandably raised US’ ire, which finds its singular position as the world’s premier economic power under serious threat. India, US’ strategic partner, continues to sulk on the side lines, as BRI and CPEC transform the regions all around it. Both have been roundly outmanoeuvred by the Chinese in the SCAR. This creates a natural convergence of US and Indian interests in delaying, disrupting and eventually destroying the project entirely. GB’s mountainous terrain lends itself to disruptive activities against CPEC as it snakes its way down South.

At the geostrategic level, the national interests of China-India and India-Pakistan clash violently in the Greater Kashmir Region. The strategic environment on the Siachen Glacier, in the IIOJ&KR, along the LOC and LAC has degenerated drastically. The arraying of massive Chinese, Indian and Pakistani militaries on the LOC and the LAC make the Greater Kashmir Region perhaps the most militarised, nuclear weapons heavy region and the likeliest nuclear flash point in the world.

India finds itself hopelessly caught in a potential two-front war scenario and fears a joint Pak-Chinese pincer movement could make its tenuous hold on IIOJ&KR untenable. Chinese presence on the LAC in Ladakh may have pre-empted Indian ambitions against Aksai Chin, the Xinjiang-Tibet (G219) lateral and eventually GB. Indian pretensions to regional hegemony have thus been dealt a fatal blow by the Chinese presence on the LAC and by Pakistan’s unyielding military defiance. India has threatened to ‘conquer and capture’ AJ&K and GB as part of its frivolous claims on the Greater Kashmir Region. That could ostensibly meet many of its strategic objectives in the region. It could connect it with Afghanistan and the CARs and give it an asphyxiating chokehold over the bulk of Pakistan’s water and consequently hydel power resources. Crucially, that could sever Pakistan’s physical link with China, scuttle CPEC and weaken the BRI irretrievably.

Quite obviously, India’s utopian intentions and its real military capabilities are mutually exclusive. However, efforts will be made to destabilise GB by instigating sectarian disharmony, exploiting ethnic differences and manipulating economic woes. India and other hostile powers could sponsor terrorist attacks in GB at large. RAW-sponsored terrorists will target the communication infrastructure including bridges, tunnels, dams, power houses etc and will aim to make travel on the Karakoram Highway a hazardous undertaking.

At the geo-economic level, CPEC now constitutes an inevitable lifeline not only for Pakistan but for the CARs and Afghanistan as well. The region is likely to become progressively more interconnected and interdependent as the CPEC evolves. GB could be linked to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan through Xinjiang, providing a critical alternate route to the Makran Coast for the CARs. GB will also be the conduit for all trade convoys, oil and gas pipelines that move into Xinjiang. Eventually a rail link between Pakistan and Xinjiang may also materialize. GB’s vastly improved road and motorway infrastructure will attract direct foreign investments in tourism and boost its economy. GB’s vast water resources and landscape are already helping kickstart gigantic projects like the Diamer-Bhasha Dam and enabling other dams and hydel power projects in AJ&K and elsewhere too.

There is a massive convergence of national interests of Pakistan and China in GB. It is thus imperative that GB remains secure, stable, peaceful, progressive and connected to the rest of the country, China and the region at all times. It has to be secured against all external and internal threats, particularly those sponsored by India and other hostile agencies. Rabid sectarianism, ethnicity and terrorism must be pre-empted and ruthlessly exterminated. It must also be secured against cyber and other attacks in the electro-magnetic spectrum. It is undoubtedly the centre of gravity of the CPEC; the GB-Gwadar link being the most crucial one. Peace and conducive environments must prevail at both ends of this link and in between. Without one end the other loses all meaning. Pakistan must further integrate GB into its political spectrum and give it an unequivocal and unambiguous Pakistani identity; without prejudice to its stand on the resolution of the Kashmir issue under the relevant UNSC resolutions.