Could Pakistan Move to Make Gilgit-Baltistan a New Province Soon?

Media reports last week suggested that Pakistan may declare Gilgit-Baltistan — a part of Kashmir administered by Pakistan as an autonomous territory but also claimed by India — to be a full-fledged province in the near future. According to reports, on September 16 Pakistan’s Minister for Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs, Ali Amin Gandapur, said that Prime Minister Imran Khan will visit the region “soon” and make the official announcement. Since India’s decision in August 2019 to revoke the special constitutionally-guaranteed autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, Islamabad has been struggling for an appropriate response – which, so far, has only taken the form of attempts to raise the Kashmir issue at the U.N. and the release of a new political map that marked India and Pakistan-administered Kashmir with the same color.

To be sure, if Pakistan was to revoke Gilgit-Baltistan’s autonomy, it would be much more consequential – and potentially fraught with risks. But such a decision is most likely to be taken in consultation with – if not dictated outright by – Pakistan’s powerful army and its chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Also at play is a renewed opposition push in Pakistan against (what the opposition calls) “selected prime minister” Khan. After a year’s silence, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched a strident attack against Khan on September 20 “accusing him of only reaching power through a vote rigged by the country’s powerful military,” according to one report of a conference of opposition parties. Whether Khan, who nominally enjoys the support of the military, will deflect Sharif’s attack by showing his resolve around Kashmir — an issue around which he can rally people — or (conjecturally) consolidate the army’s backing by adopting a muscular approach on the region remains to be seen. But any Pakistani decision on Gilgit-Baltistan will have to factor China’s significant investments in the region, as well as the ongoing India-China military standoff “next door,” in eastern Ladakh.

Let’s start with the domestic-political angle. Pakistan’s three major opposition political parties – the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), and the Pakistan People’s Party – announced a joint decision Sunday to launch a “three-phased anti-government movement” beginning next month and lasting till January next year with the aim to oust Khan from office. If this alliance manages to sustain itself, and some Pakistani observers remain skeptical, it stands to put significant pressure on Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. But much would depend on Khan’s own assessment of the probability of something like that materializing. If he assesses that the alliance has the ability to stay its stated course, Khan might try to earn a quick win from the COVID-19 battered public with a decision around Gilgit-Baltistan to preemptively deflect some of the heat, and especially so if it buys him more goodwill with Bajwa which would, then, go on to help him consolidate his rule.

But Khan’s domestic-political calculus pails in significance compared to what the Pakistan army may – or may not – have in mind when it comes to drawing up a course of action for Pakistan-administered Kashmir (which currently comprises the autonomous “Azad Jammu and Kashmir,” along with Gilgit-Baltistan) as well as India. While soon after India’s August 2019 decision Bajwa spoke out — noting that his army was “prepared” and would “go to any extent to fulfill our obligations” to the Kashmiri cause — Pakistan’s coercive military options to force India to the negotiating table on Kashmir are limited. Any solo Pakistani military push around Kashmir at the moment is a non-starter given the significant Indian military presence in the region, especially as Indian planners find themselves confronting the possibility of a two-front India-China war.

Paradoxically, given these circumstances, Bajwa may indeed sign off on a plan to incorporate Gilgit-Baltistan into the Pakistani state – a move that will irk India considerably, but one to which New Delhi will have no meaningful reply given China’s military buildup in Ladakh. In fact, it is plausible that the India-China standoff creates an opening for Pakistan to establish a notional parity with India – just as India revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy in August 2019, Pakistan, by doing the same in Gilgit-Baltistan, could call it even and call it a day.

Of course, to what extent China may agree to such a plan remains to be seen. Pakistan’s incorporation of Gilgit-Baltistan as a fifth province of the republic would stand to help China consolidate its significant investments in the region. But at the same time, given the timing New Delhi would – irrespective of how the story actually played out in reality – suspect Beijing to be a backer, if not outright instigator, of the move. That, in turn, could lead to significant hardening of India’s position in the standoff in eastern Ladakh, at a time when diplomatic options to resolve the crisis look fewer each passing day.