Despite being characterized by high mountain ranges and desolate terrain, Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has a rich history of civilizational exchanges. The region’s rugged topography has not stopped it from having strong linkages with the ancient Silk Road, whose southern branch connected the region with Xinjiang, China. In modern times, geostrategic interests and regional rivalries have transformed the region into a securitized zone. The de-facto Indo-Pak borders between Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh are dotted by flashpoints like Kargil (the site of 1999 Indo-Pak war) and Siachen (also the world’s highest battlefield). Today, GB once again finds itself at the intersection of a new Silk Road being paved by China.
Launched in 2015, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) attempts to leverage the region’s geography to deepen Pakistan’s economic linkages with China. This ambitious corridor and several other examples of successful trade connections in the region demonstrate that it is possible to overcome historic tensions and mold new connections. Trade linkages have been operational since 2008, connecting the Indian and Pakistan-administered Kashmirs. Though Indo-Pakistan relations hit their lowest point recently, trade has continued, and trucks have been seen moving swiftly across the Line of Control (LoC). Such successes demonstrate that a case exists for reviving connectivity in the northern reaches of the LoC, where Ladakh borders GB.
The case for opening GB’s borders is not new but has gained momentum in recent years. In 2011, the GB Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution which called for establishing a 220-kilometer long road from Ghizer (westernmost district of Gilgit) to Tajikistan. The route would connect GB to Central Asian through the Wakhan Corridor. The idea for the connection dates back to the 1990s when a feasibility survey confirmed the possibility of the project. However, no significant progress was made until 2015, when the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) revived calls for Islamabad to expedite the Ghizer-Tajikistan link.
The Wakhan corridor currently lacks reliable connectivity. Owing to its remoteness and sparse population, Wakhan has successfully evaded Taliban influence to date. But its inhabitants are devoid of essential services. The time is ripe for India to lead investment in upgrades to physical and social infrastructure in the Wakhan corridor. This can only be possible if connectivity is established between Gilgit and Wakhan, and Gilgit Baltistan’s borders are opened to allow India direct access to Wakhan. This proposed Gilgit-Wakhan route can also serve as the shortest route from Kashmir to Tajikistan.
On the Indian side, linkages still exist between Ladakh and Gilgit Baltistan via the Kargil-Skardu road, Turtuk-Khaplu road, and Gurez-Astor road. All three happen to be the routes proposed by the Prime Ministerial Working Group formed under Dr. Manmohan Singh’s regime in 2006. Specifically, the conversion of the 150km Kargil-Skardu road to an all-weather road would ensure year round connectivity with Gilgit-Baltistan (substituting the Khunjerab link especially during the winter months) and could also be used in case of natural disasters. Just last year, massive flooding cut off several places in Gilgit Baltistan.
Despite the potential gains from stronger connectivity between South and Central Asia, challenges remain. The landscape of Ladakh is characterized by heavy military deployments. Prevailing tensions along the Line of Actual Control (the de-facto India-China border) persist. In addition, the northwestern part of GB that borders the Wakhan Corridor faces topographical challenges from the mountain ranges and political challenges from the complexity of Af-Pak relations.
Environmental challenges have also hindered development. For instance, the Khunjerab route (Sino-Pak border crossing) remains closed for four months of the year due to heavy snowfall along the Karakoram Highway. In 2010, a massive landslide submerged a 22-kilometer stretch of the highway in Hunza under the newly formed Attabad Lake. This meant that the stretch had to be traversed by ferries until tunnels and bridges were restored in 2015. Frequent monsoons can also cause shut downs along the highway, bringing the region to a standstill.
Given all the benefits that open borders could offer to the region, a “strategic de-escalation” of regional tensions could pave the way for greater connectivity and increased economic benefits. Yet mitigating regional tensions will require high-level cooperation from all governments involved. A trilateral working group consisting of representatives from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan could be constituted to discuss the possibility of a road network linking Kashmir with Pamirs. The official opening of the LoC in 2005 and the establishment of Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chambers of Commerce and Industry in 2011 were followed by increased economic activity and institutionalized trade ties. The opening of Gilgit-Baltistan could produce similar opportunities.
Prateek Joshi is a postgraduate in International Relations from South Asian University (a SAARC Nations Project), New Delhi and a researcher on South Asia’s strategic issues.