In a surprise development Trump administration, through U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, first time commented on China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China-led connectivity initiatives. Addressing questions on role of China at the U.S. Senate’s Armed Services Committee hearing on ‘Political and Security Situation in Afghanistan’, Secretary Mattis stated that:
“In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’…that said, the One Belt One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think, that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate”
It was first time that a Cabinet level U.S. official publicly spoke on the Belt and Road Initiative. He threw his weight behind Indian’s position on the China-led development initiative, which contends that route of nearly USD 60 Billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through the disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan, which India considers part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
Strategic competition in the region between China and the United States means that no U.S. administration and senior official will ever view Belt and Road Initiative and related connectivity projects as a favorable development. In May, 2017, U.S. administration did participate in the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) held in Beijing. U.S. Delegation was led by Special Assistant to President Trump. What prompted change of heart in Washington? Is it linked to recently announced South Asia strategy where President Trump called on India to play a larger role in the region. It appears that present U.S. opposition is not intrinsic but an effort to take advantage of India-Pakistan differences. Secretary Mattis threw his weight behind Indian objection to OBOR/CPEC after a recent visit to India.
On the objection itself, that route goes through ‘disputed territory’, it can be said that finally New Delhi and Washington has recognized that Kashmir is a dispute between India and Pakistan. Secretary Mattis should ask the question: why is Kashmir disputed? Why not push India towards resolving it? More than that, It is not first time that development related activity is taking place in that disputed territory. Beijing and Islamabad collaborated in the construction of the highest paved highway called Karakorm Highway for more than two decades.
Before Beijing, Washington forayed into the disputed territory in early 1960s. After Indus Waters Treaty was signed, with support from the U.S., American contractors also participated in construction of Mangla Dam, partly financed by the World Bank in the disputed region of Pakistan-administrated Kashmir.
More recently, in April 2014, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) made public a report titled ‘Analysis of Quadrilateral Traffic in Transit Agreement (QTTA)’ on the 1995 agreement between Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Pakistan for facilitating traffic in transit. The route for this transit traffic is the same as CPEC. US administration had no objection to the route in 2014, even though it passed the same disputed territory.
Thus, for regional peace and stability, Trump administration should not oppose development initiatives of sovereign nations. Granted that because of strategic rivalry with China, Washington cannot directly support the China led initiatives. But efforts must be made to not undermine the regional security and stability.
Faisal Ahmed is an IPI Resident Scholar specializing in Southern Asia.