By Syed Ali Mujtaba
China is closing on India at Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) and has opened a new flashpoint with the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam in POK. The way India has opposed the construction of the dam, it looks that after Ladak, the POK could be the next big flashpoint between India and China.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 15, 2020 kicked off the construction work multibillion dollar project at the Diamer-Bhasha dam. The Pakistan government in May 2020, signed a whopping 442 billion contract with a joint venture of a Chinese state-run firm and a commercial arm of Pakistan’s military for the construction of this dam.
China Power, a Chinese state-run firm holds 70% and Pakistan’s Frontier Works Organisation (FWO), a commercial arm of its Armed Forces hold 30% share in the consortium to build the Diamer-Bhasha dam.
Pakistan’s Council of Common Interests (CCI) approved the construction of the project in 2010. However, it suffered delays because of international lending agencies which remained associated with the project, backtracked due to opposition from India. Pakistan finally gave the contract to China that covers construction of a diversion system, main dam, Access Bridge and the 21MW Tangir hydropower project.
The dam will have a gross storage capacity of 8.1 Million Acre Feet (MAF) and power generation capacity of 4,500-megawatt project. Its presumed value is 1,406.5 billion Pakistani rupees and expected to provide at least 16,000 jobs, slated to be completed by 2028. With the height of 272 meters Diamer-Bhasha dam is touted to be the tallest dam in the world and third largest dam in Pakistan after Tarbela and Mangla dams.
India in May 2020 had vehemently objected to the construction of the multipurpose Diamer Bhasha dam. India denounced the project calling it a violation of its territorial sovereignty. India has opposed the move on the grounds that Gilgit-Baltistan region is part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and all such projects in the Indian territories that are currently under Pakistan’s occupation are illegal.
“This dam will lead to submergence of a large part of land of the Indian union territories of J&K and Ladakh and we condemn the continuous attempts by Pakistan to bring about material changes in Indian territories under its illegal occupation,” Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said.
China has rejected India’s concerns, calling them misplaced and asserted that the economic partnership between China and Pakistan are directed at enhancing development and the welfare of people.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a media briefing in Beijing that it is part of a “win-win” bilateral cooperation to promote the wellbeing of the local population and the dam would accelerate development and create job opportunities, besides improving availability of water and clean energy.
With regard to India’s objection that POK is an inalienable part of India, the Chinese spokesman said, “China’s position on the issue of Kashmir is consistent and it considers Kashmir is a historical baggage that has to be unloaded as per UNSC relevant resolutions.”
Since the major part of the Diamer-Bhasha dam is located in Gilgit-Baltistan, China has directly crept into the theater of Kashmir conflict. The construction of the dam has brought a new dimension into the Kashmir conflict and may become a source of conflict in the region.
Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director at the Asia program of Wilson Center at Washington DC says; “exploiting India’s vulnerabilities is an essential element of China’s “contain India” policy.”
“It is only a matter of time that China’s expansionist strategy in Kashmir is more visible and India will have no option then to challenge Chinese belligerence just like they did in Doklam, North Sikkim or Ladakh,” Kugelman added.
The US academic sees the growing Chinese investments in Pakistan-administered Kashmir as a strategy of closing on India. Kugelman warns that Kashmir could emerge as the next big flashpoint between India and China where Pakistan will have a pivotal role to play.
According to Kugelman, these moves will bring one more tension to the already strained India-China relationship. He was referring to the tense situation in Ladak where Indian and Chinese troops are locking horns on the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
Chinese investment in POK for the Diamer Bhasha dam has attracted alarming response from India’s Defence head. Chief of the Defence Staff General Bipan Rawat has repeatedly talked about two front wars. About LAC standoff General Rawat has said, if negotiations fail with China, then India is ready with the option of war. The CDS is also of the view to bring the US into the theater India China Pakistan conflict. He has given a statement that India should join ‘Quad’ to contain China in the South China Sea.
Chinese moves in Kashmir have certainly aggravated strains to the already strained ties between India and China. The tension will involve Pakistan and the fact is all three are nuclear-armed neighbors, the prospects of the ‘Day After’ is chilling.
Many Indian experts have expressed concerns over the alarming situation developing on the LAC and LOC and attribute it to the ill-conceived hardline policies of the BJP government towards Kashmir, Pakistan and China.
The alarming situation has its echoes from the BJP’s historic judgment of abrogating Article 370 and taking away the special status to Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP with such acts instead of cooling down the temperatures has added fuel to the fire and has complicated the situation on the ground.
War as an exit option from such a complicated situation sends chills in the spines of many Indian. The BJP government is under the impression that China is another Iraq or Afghanistan where the US may assemble a coalition of forces and come to India’s rescue. If the US does not come for India’s defence can India hold the ground on its own?
This war of attrition started by the BJP for its domestic consumption may go out of control and in such a situation anything could happen. The BJP may not be there to see the remains of the day, but will common Indians cope up with such a situation is the big question that begs for an answer.
The best bet for India is to refrain from war mongering and cool down the temperatures that have reached a new high in the India-China, India Pakistan relationship.
Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org