China Offers to Fund Large Dam Project in Disputed Kashmir, Inflaming Tensions and Raising Long-Term Security Concerns

On June 19, 2017, Pakistani media reported that China has offered to fund the long-stalled Diamer-Bhasha Dam project in the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan region of Jammu and Kashmir.  Due to the contentious nature of its geography, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam has struggled to secure financing from Western institutions, such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, following vehement opposition from New Delhi, which views CPEC — part of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, — especially those of its activities falling in disputed territory, as a severe violation of India’s territorial sovereignty.

China, however, may be stepping in to fill the void, pushing the significant 4500 MW hydropower project forward.  Pakistan’s Chief CPEC operator, Ahsan Iqbal indicated to Indian media sources that Beijing had hand-picked an unidentified Chinese company to build the dam over a 10-year period.  He also indicated that construction on the project would likely begin within the next financial year.

China has shown a willingness to operate in this disputed territory already, despite objections from India and the international community.  As reported previously by RWR, China’s state-owned China Telecom Global (CTG) signed a memorandum of understanding with Pakistan Telecommunications Company (PTCL) to jointly develop fiber optic connectivity between China and Pakistan, traversing Gilgit-Baltistan.  By way of these CPEC projects, Beijing has sought to increase its military presence in the region with Pakistan.

Indeed, media sources have indicated an influx of 7,000 to 11,000 soldiers from China People’s Liberation Army (PLA) building cantonments and dual-use storage facilities in the region.  Chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan Thinkers Forum (GBTF), Wajahat Hasan, indicated that Chinese troops have taken de-facto control of the area to keep local protests under control.  Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority estimates that the dam and reservoir project would displace approximately 4,200 families in the surrounding areas. It is also alleged that the dam and the harm it could do to the environment and cultural landmarks would be constructed in an earthquake-prone area, adding to the danger posed by the project.

Finally, it has been alleged that the expensive project is likely to contribute to unrest, with the dam expected to benefit primarily Pakistani industry and wealthy Pakistanis, rather than the half of the population that reportedly has no electricity access whatsoever.  Kashmir has also been a battleground for water resources between Islamabad and New Delhi.  India considers the Indus Basin (from where Diamer would divert water) as its own, and opposes the illicit diversion of vital water resources away from Indian territories.