To those who watched the recent India-China clashes with dismay and a sense of betrayal by the northern neighbour, one of the most galling aspects was the unreserved glee with which Pakistanis greeted the conflict between their worst enemy and the all-weather friend. Even as Delhi began to gird itself for a possible war, the Pakistani Foreign Minister was on the phone with his Chinese counterpart, swearing that both would stand together on “core interests”.
But what many may have forgotten how China began to nibble away at what Pakistan regarded as its territory, long before Beijing began its forays into Aksai Chin or Ladakh. Even today, China continues its expansion, although in a slightly different format.
China’s steady expansion into Pakistani territory began with entirely imaginary versions of events translated over time into its maps and claim lines. This is a story whose lessons need to be learned well, as Beijing makes new claims in Eastern Bhutan, in addition to the Galwan Valley.
An unusual ‘friendship’
China’s covetous eyes were first cast on Hunza, now part of Pakistan Administered Kashmir, but at the time a kingdom strategically placed with ingress into Afghanistan, the Pamirs, Russian Central Asia and South Xinjiang, as also the Shaksgam Valley that bordered Xinjiang.
That’s when China first extended the hand of ‘friendship’. But the Mir of Hunza too had an expansionist vision, and thus laid claim to the Raksam Valley and the strategic oasis of Tashkorgan in Xinjiang, both in present day China. As a new ‘friendship’ was gaining ground, the Mir’s claims did not prevent Qing commanders in around 1847 from “granting” to Hunza, the areas between Yarkhand and Tashkorgan.
Later, despite the Hunza kingdom coming under the lordship of Maharaja Gulab Singh of Kashmir, the Qing troops provided arms to the Mir, also sending their first ever representative to the state.
The British, engaged in their own great game warned the Qing against interference in Kashmir, installed their nominee to the throne, and invited the Chinese to the ceremony in a bid to showcase their influence. An official attended, though this was portrayed by Peking as an indication of Hunza being a ‘tributary’ state.
Meanwhile, the Hunzakuts, continued to plunder trade routes, and send grazers to Xinjiang. This led to a mutually agreed modus vivendi whereby the Mir paid for the use of pasture lands in China. This continued until at least the 1930s, which then became part of the Chinese lore that Hunza was a vassal state.
In parts of Xinjiang however, the Mir had more respect than the Chinese. The flailing government of Chiang Kai Shek even tried to get him to join China at a time when the horror of India’s partition was unfolding. That offer was refused, and by then, Pakistan had established itself in the area.
Now independent, friends sign new deals
After independence, Pakistani control over Hunza was shaky at best. In the 1950s it hastily withdrew its frontier police fearing it might offend its large neighbour, whose nationals could be found living along the border. In 1959, the Chinese released a map claiming some 6,000 sq miles of Hunza and Gilgit as part of their territory. In a telling likeness to the present India-China clashes, these claims were followed by regular military intrusions into the area.
Alarmed, Pakistan launched a diplomatic offensive to convince China that its joining the US alliance system SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was only for defence against India, bolstering this with statements in Parliament that Pakistan would leave the alliance, if it did not deliver on this promise.
China, meanwhile, remained positively ambiguous on Kashmir before India, even while Chou En-lai denied that it was engaged in drawing up a ‘border agreement’ with Pakistan ‘so far’. This, despite the fact that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Manzur Qadir was holding demarcation talks. Clearly, the Chinese were looking for concessions from India. When none transpired, China refused to discuss any territory beyond the Karakoram Pass with India. On 3 May 1962, China secured a Provisional Agreement on the Pakistan-China boundary, thus securing its claims in the east. By October 1962, China was at war with India.
The eventual Pakistan-China Boundary Agreement, finalised in 1963, gave away more than 2,500 sq miles of Hunza’s recognised territory to China, probably not including its traditional borders that extended beyond the Shaksgam valley, short of the Karakoram pass.
India’s own position is that a total of 5,120 km was ceded in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The area was surveyed only in 1987, raising the possibility that Pakistan had little idea of how much land it had actually ceded to China.
There is another strange aspect to the 1963 treaty. While Article 6 of the Treaty acknowledges the need for a new settlement after Kashmir is settled, it thereby admits that Hunza and adjoining areas are part of the dispute, a stance which Pakistan has since completely backed off from, talking only about the thin slice of ‘Azad Kashmir’. In October 1967, an unpublished agreement between China and Pakistan, revealed the ‘strategic’ value of these events. It agreed upon an all-weather road through Mintaka Pass, directly into Hunza. This seems to have since been improved upon with a new link directly to Gilgit. This road is largely overlooked by strategic experts, with attention paid only to the Karakoram highway through Khunjerab.
CPEC is their new playground
The story of Chinese nibbling of Pakistan territory continues with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), as locals complain about the takeover of thousands of acres of their lands for ‘Special Projects’, of loss of livelihoods and severe environmental damage.
None of this will stop unless Beijing faces a threat elsewhere, perhaps in the South China Sea. As more countries range themselves against the continuous expansion of the ‘empire’, this will start to coalesce, both inside and outside China. However, the underlying lesson is this: a serious threat may lead to Beijing hitting the pause button, but in the long run, the slow decadal expansionism will not cease.
India would do well to recognise this as a constant threat, and knit this into its long-term defence and foreign policy, before it moves on to the ‘next big thing’. Our short attention span, inevitable perhaps in a pulsating democracy, has proved costly time and again. Better to nail this threat to the wall for good. But, that is going to be a long and arduous haul is the one thing we can count on.
The author is former director, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal. Views are personal.