Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan angered India after declaring that part of the contested Kashmir region will provisionally become a full province of Pakistan.
Pakistan has administered the area, now known as Gilgit-Baltistan, since shortly after the country's birth in 1947, while New Delhi asserts the mountainous territory bordering China and Afghanistan is an integral part of Kashmir that belongs to India. Meanwhile, China has spent years developing infrastructural projects in Gilgit-Baltistan, home to an estimated 1.3 million people, including a long stretch of the Karakoram Highway, a key component to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure development plan worth $65 billion, according to Reuters.
"We have decided to grant provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan, which was a long-standing demand here," Khan said in a speech in Gilgit city Sunday, adding that any change in status would require a constitutional amendment in Pakistan, which must be passed by two-thirds of Pakistan's parliament. If finalized, it would make Gilgit-Baltistan Pakistan's fifth province.
The move comes after New Delhi last year imposed direct rule over Indian-administered Kashmir, upending the status quo that lasted several decades and drawing strong condemnation from Islamabad.
Khan, who was speaking ahead of local elections to a Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly slated for Nov. 15, did not provide a timeline for the move, but stated that the modern and well-maintained road had brought important progress to Gilgit-Baltistan and making the region a province would "uplift backward areas and poor segments of society." The Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, which was created in 2009, has little power, and the region is largely governed directly by Islamabad.
Indian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Shri Anurag Srivastava said Delhi "firmly rejects the attempt by Pakistan to bring material changes to a part of Indian territory, under its illegal and forcible occupation."
"Such attempts by Pakistan, intended to camouflage its illegal occupation, cannot hide the grave human rights violations, exploitation and denial of freedom for over seven decades to the people residing in these Pakistan-occupied territories," Srivastava said in a statement.
Both sides control parts of Kashmir, which is divided by a United Nations-mandated "Line of Control." Two of the three wars the rival neighbors have fought since independence have been over Kashmir, which is home to the shrinking Himalayan glaciers viewed as a vital lifeline to the water-stressed countries. U.N. observers are still stationed in the region.
Kashmir has held vague constitutional status in both countries since 1947 to accommodate for a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution on the dispute. While the full details were not immediately disclosed, Khan's proposal appears to likely bring the region closer to the status of Pakistan's other federal provinces.