GEN Joseph Dunford, chairman, US joint chiefs of staff, recently stated at a hearing of the US Senate’s armed services committee: “I think in a globalised world there’s many belts and many roads and no one nation should put themselves in a position of dictating ‘One Belt One Road’. That said, the one belt one road also goes through disputed territory … that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate.”

In a separate hearing before the House of Representatives armed services committee, Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis said that China, through its regional partnerships, is “focused on limiting our ability to project power” and is “weakening our position in the Indo-Pacific region”.

These statements, one with reference to Gilgit-Baltistan, the other relating more to US political fears, speak less to any applicable international law than it does to the peculiar notion that the US can — must — be able to influence ties between other sovereign nations. This runs counter to the principle of sovereign equality in international law; while states can, and do, differ in their relative global influence, the underlying legal principle is that all states are equal under international law.

Mattis’s reference to ‘disputed territory’ ignores the principles enshrined in the UN Charter. Article 55(b) obliges the UN to promote “solutions of international economic, social, health and related problems; and international cultural and educational cooperation”, and via Article 56 “all members pledge themselves to take joint and separate action in cooperation with the organisation for the achievement of the purposes set forth in Article 55”. The entire corpus of international law is predicated upon the notion that states should engage with one another in peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships. The fact that such ties adversely affect one state’s ability to project power over others does not render such relationships defunct.

Mattis is tone-deaf to regional realities.

Also, Mattis’s use of the term ‘disputed territory’, while technically correct, still speaks of a failure to understand the geopolitical, historical and legal context of the Kashmir issue. Firstly, the term ‘disputed territory’ is one which Pakistan maintains; India is content to identify the region as falling within its own sovereign territories. The ‘Kashmir issue’ is also a political one relating to the legitimate rights of self-determination and political sovereignty of the Kashmiri people.

That Kashmir’s status is ‘disputed’, and to this day eludes resolution, has been recognised consistently by Pakistan. In fact, this recognition, that the region’s political status is still unresolved, is why certain political rights, eg the right to vote, have not been extended to its residents. This understanding, that the political status of the region was still undetermined, was reflected in the 1963 Sino-Pakistan Agreement, which established the border between China and Pakistan. The boundaries were, as per Article 6 of the treaty, themselves subject to “the settlement of the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India”, with the parties agreeing that once the Kashmir issue was settled they would renegotiate the agreement to reflect changed geopolitical realities and “sign a formal boundary treaty to replace the present agreement”.

Mattis also appears tone-deaf to regional historical realities. The CPEC initiative is not the first time China has invested heavily in the region; in 2008, Beijing entered into an agreement with the Earthquake Re­­construction and Rehabilitation Authority to engage in infrastructure development in Kashmir following 2005’s devastating quake. Rehabilitation works in Bagh, Muzaffarabad and Rawalakot were assigned to the China Interna­tional Water and Electricity Cor­po­ration and the China Xinjiang Beixin Group — both state-owned contracting firms.

Similarly, the Neelum-Jhelum hydroelectric project was also a joint Pakistan-China programme initiated in 2008. The Karakoram Highway, the land route connecting Pakistan and China via Kashmir, was a product of bilateral collaboration dating back to 1959. The KKH was upgraded following a devastating landslide in 2010 — again with Chinese assistance.

Such development work in the ‘disputed territory’ is not unique to China-Pakistan ventures, however; India has also committed to many infrastructure projects in the region’s Indian-held portions and the US has never considered such projects in Kashmir a problem in the past.

Fixating merely on the nomenclature of One Belt, One Road obfuscates the real reasons behind US unease with the initiative. Mattis’s statements speak to an ahistorical, idealised notion of ‘full-spectrum dominance’ in which the US sees fit to ‘project power’ across the world. The ‘disputed’ nature of Kashmir is not novel, nor is the Kashmiri peoples’ right to self-determination under international law. What is novel is America’s growing chagrin at possibly being rendered strategically irrelevant in South Asia.

Sikander Shah is former legal adviser to Pakistan’s foreign ministry, and faculty, Lums Law School.

Abid Rivzi is an expert on international law.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2017

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