China's growing economic and defense ties with Pakistan are no secret. But a US report claiming China is discreetly pouring troops into the strategic Pakistan-administered western part of Kashmir has sparked worries.
China bankrolled the $200 million Gwadar port in Pakistan in 2007
Last week, a report in the New York Times said China had deployed some 7,000 to 11,000 troops to work on major infrastructure projects in Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan region in the northwest corner of disputed Kashmir on the border to China.
The article spoke of "a quiet geopolitical crisis" and claimed Islamabad "is handing over de facto control of the strategic" region to China which it said wants road and rail access to the Gulf through Pakistan.
The report prompted a furious reaction from China and Pakistan with both countries denying the presence of Chinese troops in the mountainous region.
"The story is totally groundless and out of ulterior motive," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu said in a statement, according to state-run news agency Xinhua. "We believe the attempts of some people to fabricate stories to provoke China-Pakistan or China-India relations are doomed to fail."
The Indian army has a heavy presence in Indian-administered Kashmir
Pakistan's ambassador to China, Masood Khan, told China's Global Times the story was "totally fabricated," saying only a "humanitarian team" from China was in the region to help victims of the recent devastating floods.
Some analysts too remain skeptical of the claims in the article, saying they're hard to verify in a region wracked by territorial disputes, historic tensions and mutual suspicions and shifting power alliances.
"The problem is that a lot of reports on the whole China-India-Pakistan relationship and the disputed area of Kashmir tend to be shrouded in mystery, half-baked facts, propaganda and misinformation. And this article simply adds to it. We really need to be careful about jumping to a conclusion," Dibyesh Anand, an expert on international relations at London's Westminster University, told Deutsche Welle.
"Marked increase" of Chinese activity
But speaking to Deutsche Welle, the article's author Selig Harrison, said China's activities in Pakistan, though not new, remain a source of concern to the US.
"What's new about this is that China is making a much bigger commitment to its development assistance to Gilgit-Baltistan, an isolated area that's hardly been covered by the international media. That's involved a tremendous Chinese presence in the region - not by combat forces but by construction crews, engineering corps - these are units that are adjuncts of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) under direct supervision of China's Sinkiang military district," Harrison, who is the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said.
Some analysts say the theory may not be far-fetched given China's ambitious trade strategy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean which many say is reshaping the region. But they warn that more proof is needed.
"What is certain is that the Chinese state and state-owned companies have become increasingly involved in all kinds of infrastructure and agricultural projects in that region. We've seen a marked increase of such activity in the past two or three years," Jonathan Holslag, a research fellow at the Brussels Institute of Contemporary China Studies, told Deutsche Welle.
"And these companies work with retired PLA soldiers and engineers - people who are particularly skilled at working in these high altitudes and under severe conditions. That might explain to some degree the presence of PLA soldiers in Pakistani-administered Kashmir," Holslag said, adding: "But we really need more evidence."
Deepening investments in Pakistan
But while the forces behind the mega infrastructure projects in the region remain unclear, few dispute the fact that China has in recent years moved to shore up investments in neighboring Pakistan and boost traditionally warm ties.
As part of its strategy to develop alternative trade routes to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, China has helped Pakistan develop a deep-sea port at the naval base at Gwadar in the province of Baluchistan on the Arabian Sea.
Beijing is also working to extend the strategic Karakoram Highway, built to link China's Sinkiang province with Pakistan and other projects such as dams and rail networks.
Harrison estimates that once high-speed rail and road links through Gilgit and Baltistan are completed, China will manage to transport its oil tankers and cargo to the Persian Gulf within 48 hours - a maneuver, he says, currently takes 16 to 25 days.
US worried about nuclear deal, India policy
Experts say China's increasing involvement in Pakistan isn't all counterproductive for the US.
"For the most park the work that China is doing in Pakistan on infrastructure and transport links is not unhelpful from an American perspective. It's not hugely out of line with what the Americans were hoping to support Pakistan on anyway," Andrew Small of the German Marshall Fund in Brussels told Deutsche Welle.
"But the China-Pakistan relationship definitely has other strategic and military dimensions that are undoubtedly worrying for the US," he said.
Small pointed to China's support of Pakistan's strategy on dealing with India by tying it down on its western frontier and on Kashmir, Beijing's failure to push Pakistan on combating counterterrorism and a recent China-Pakistan civilian nuclear cooperation with Pakistan as major irritants to the US.
Pakistan and China have in recent years ramped up their traditionally close ties
The latter involves a nearly $2 billion (1.5 billion euros) deal for China to design, build and finance two nuclear reactors in Pakistan.
Small pointed out that in the past the US was more worried about China's help for Pakistan's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. In 2004, it emerged that a top Pakistani nuclear scientist was running a clandestine proliferation ring. But the latest nuclear agreement is also troublesome, he said.
"The current Chinese nuclear deal with Pakistan reflects something about how China is treating that entire region and proliferation issues more generally and that is a major concern to the US," Small said.
China is already Pakistan's biggest defense supplier and helped build Pakistan's only two modern reactors located in the Punjab province.
Growing Chinese assertiveness
The latest report on increasing Chinese activity in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir follows the release of an annual Pentagon report last month which warned China is building up its military and expanding its nuclear capabilities in a secretive manner.
But some analysts say growing strains in US-China ties can't just be seen through the narrow prism of Beijing's growing ties with Pakistan but must be seen in a wider context.
"The Pakistan issue has to be contextualized in China's growing influence and power in wider Asia," Holslag said.
"You have maritime spats between the US and China over the south and east China sea, troublesome military exchanges and then you have China's reluctance to support reconstruction of Afghanistan. Tensions and distrust between the US and China are certainly on the rise - this whole Pakistan-Kashmir issue fits nicely into it."
Author: Sonia Phalnikar
Editor: Rob Mudge