Gilgit-Baltistan: strategic borderlands for China, Pakistan, India and U.S

By Iram Zahra

BEIJING—(October 22, 2010—M4relay) — Gilgit-Baltistan – formerly known as the Northern Areas is the northernmost political entity within Pakistan. The area’s strategic location is growing in importance to countries with varying interests in the region including China, Pakistan, India and the United States. But its economic, political and social importance does not mirror the level of development within the region.

Gilgit-Baltistan borders Pakistan’s Khyber Pukhtunkhwa province to the west, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north, China to the northeast, Azad Kashmir to the south, and Jammu & Kashmir State of India to the southeast. Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of 72,971 km² (28,174 mi²) and has an estimated population approaching 1,000,000. Its administrative center is the city of Gilgit with a population of 216,760.

The people of this remote region were liberated from the Dogra regime of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir on 1 November 1947 without any external assistance and then became citizens of a self-liberated and very short-lived independent state. The new state asked the government of Pakistan to provide it with necessary assistance with which to conduct its affairs, as it did not have the necessary administrative infrastructure of its own. The government of Pakistan accepted the request and sent Sardar Muhammad Alam Khan, an extra assistant commissioner from the NWFP, Pakistan, to Gilgit. Sardar Muhammad Alam Khan then took control of the territory’s administration as its first appointed political agent.

This area is very important for China and as many trade tracks from China to Pakistan are situated here and also for India as well. Selig S. Harrison told the New York Times that, “the United States is uniquely situated to play a moderating role in Kashmir, given its growing economic and military ties with India and Pakistan’s aid dependence on Washington. Such a role should be limited to quiet diplomacy. Washington should press New Delhi to resume autonomy negotiations with Kashmiri separatists. Success would put pressure on Islamabad for comparable concessions in Free Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. In Pakistan, Washington should focus on getting Islamabad to stop aiding the insurgency in the Kashmir Valley and to give New Delhi a formal commitment that it will not annex Gilgit and Baltistan.”

On 29 August 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, was passed by the Pakistani cabinet and later signed by the country’s President. The order granted self-rule to the people of the former Northern Areas, now renamed Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating, among other things, an elected legislative assembly. There has been criticism and opposition to this move in Pakistan, India, and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The economy of the region relies on a traditional trade-route – Silk Road. China Trade Organization was the leading economic forum through which most of barter trade activity made a phenomenal change in the general economical outlook of the area which being the remotest region of Pakistan was neglected for over a quarter of a century. This forum led the people of the area to actively invest and learn the modern trade know how from its neighbor Xinjiang. The participation of the all ethnic groups and active force behind this activity, legendary economist of the area Ashraf Khan brought a great change in the region. Later the establishments of Chamber of commerce and Sust dry port are milestones. The rest of the economy is shouldered by mainly agriculture and tourism.

Gilgit and Biltistan are strategically located and of huge benefits to the United States, Pakistan, India and China. These countries could as such work together to make this region more attractive for trade and investment.

* Iram Zahra is an international reporter at M4 Media

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