As the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor begins to take shape, the troubled province of Balochistan could become a flashpoint for regional competition.
Could the Great Game in Asia shift from Afghanistan to Balochistan? According to watchers of the complex geostrategic region, including a former general of Pakistan’s army, it already has. With rising political tension in the region, brought to the fore by the ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the central players, Pakistan and China, are contending with many unexpected factors, including India.
Balochistan is one of the least developed and most troubled areas of Pakistan, having witnessed regular insurgencies and military campaigns. Several militant separatist groups are responsible for various attacks against Pakistani security forces and construction workers. In addition, Balochistan has seen numerous attacks by Islamist militant groups, including the August bombing of the government hospital in the province’s capital Quetta, which was carried out by Pakistani Taliban groups.
The government and military have also been implicated in human rights violations in Balochistan, with Human Rights Watch accusing Pakistani security forces of “continue[ing] to unlawfully kill and forcibly disappear suspected Baloch militants and opposition activists in 2015”. In reaction to the suicide bombing in Quetta, European Parliament member Alberto Cirio urged the international community “to take notice of a situation created due to years of concerted government use of extremist groups as proxies against political activists, journalists and intellectuals.”
Balochistan’s troubles stem from its fraught history and many paradoxes. After the Partition of India, the province, which comprised of four princely states and was guaranteed independence, was forcefully occupied by Pakistan in 1948. It constitutes half of the country’s landmass, but only 3.6 per cent of its total population. It is rich in natural resources, like oil, gas, copper and gold, and yet it is one of the poorest regions of the country. The Baloch insurgency, a result of ethnic nationalism, peaked in the 1970s, at the time of the creation of Bangladesh. It was repressed by the Pakistani state until recently, when the conflict shifted to a battle for control of the region’s rich resources, at the centre of which lies the CPEC.
Islamabad hopes that the region will become a major trading hub, linking the deepwater port of Gwadar with the Western Chinese province, Xinjiang, via the CPEC. The CPEC could be a major driver of employment for those underdeveloped regions. However, several observers in Pakistan interviewed by ECFR experts recently warn that the CPEC might exploit Balochistan rather than develop it, while the government in Islamabad and other provinces benefit the most. Increasingly, the CPEC has been a target for domestic political opposition in Pakistan, amid fears that the $46 billion package of Chinese investment will be distributed inequitably and fail to benefit those communities, which need it most -in particular Balochistan, but also Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“The problem so far is that Chinese investment is focused on monumental infrastructure and not on rural development”, ECFR was told by an academic in Pakistan, and that “the locals have no role” in CPEC. The latter refers not only to including local voices in the decision-making process of CPEC but also failing to include local people in newly created jobs.
One of the dilemmas might be the lack of skilled and educated people in such underdeveloped regions. Estimates of CPEC creating up to two million jobs may be exaggerated but, nevertheless, there will be newly created job opportunities in fields ranging from construction and engineering to architecture and IT. The question, however, is how many Baloch (or other minorities) are educated and skilled enough to qualify for these new jobs.
So far China’s only response to the complex issues and disputes in Balochistan has been to call on Pakistan’s army to ensure security. “China ignores human rights issues in Balochistan, but unless we do something for the local people CPEC will not succeed,” a professor in Islamabad told ECFR. Another stated, “70 people killed in Quetta and the army chief only talks about CPEC”. Indeed the military has significantly increased its efforts to protect the project. A security division of the Pakistani army of up to 15,000 soldiers have been allocated to provide security for construction as part of CPEC. On several occasions Pakistan’s army chief general Raheel Sharif reaffirmed the army’s commitment to ensure the development of the CPEC and Gwadar port at all costs.
There seems to be a security dilemma for China: As long as the security issue remains, CPEC cannot reach its logical purpose, but on the other hand CPEC is also fuelling tensions within Pakistan and beyond, notably between Pakistan and India. India is concerned at the growing closeness between China and Pakistan, and particularly of Chinese control of the port at Gwadar, which it fears could turn into a naval presence. In response, India has been developing Chabahar Port in Iran to access a trade route to West Asia that bypasses Pakistan via Afghanistan.
India appears to care about human rights violations in Balochistan, but within Pakistan the neighbour is seen trying to set back construction on CPEC and supporting militant groups in Balochistan in retaliation for Pakistan’s support for anti-Indian militias in Kashmir.
What is clear is that Modi’s recent comments on Balochistan - and his government raising the issue before the United Nations - has further escalated the issue. The recent attack by the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba on an Indian army camp at Uri in Kashmir was seen by many as retaliation by Pakistan for India highlighting the Balochistan issue.
This has not been unnoticed in China. Hu Shisheng of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations recently commented on India’s actions, saying , "If this kind of plot causes damage to the CPEC, China will have to get involved".
In the meantime, the political cauldron is likely to stay on boil. Baloch separatist leaders, living in exile, have welcomed India’s stance. The effects were felt as far away as Europe, where Baloch people came out on the streets in Leipzig, waving the Indian flag and raising slogans against Pakistan. Brahumdagh Bugti, leader of the Baloch Republican Party (BRP), and the biggest bugbear for the Pakistani establishment, who has been living in exile in Switzerland, has been making pro-India statements, and has announced he will be seeking asylum in India. Sher Mohammad Bugti, spokesperson for the BRP, told ECFR from Geneva that, “We are hoping that India will help us, like it helped Bangladesh.”
Policy experts in India are unsure if the changed stance will pay off. “You get on the wrong side of China if you support any form of separatism and bring in Baloch asylum seekers to India. China will naturally question India’s stand on Tibet and the Uyghurs,” says Alka Acharya, of the Institute of Chinese Studies, in Delhi.
The conflict in Balochistan is an illustration of the challenges China meets in its attempt to build a transportation network throughout Asia. For now, it is settling for the time-tested wait-and-watch policy.
Europe, for it's part, needs to take notice of developments in Balochistan not only in view of the massive human rights violations, but also due to the impact the conflict has had and could have on the region as a whole. Balochistan illustrates that Pakistan has an increasingly central role in the emerging competition between China and India. Although the EU can only play the role of an observer, it should urge Pakistan and India not to begin a proxy conflict in Balochistan – the danger for regional stability is too great.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.