Balochistan: all sides may lose

India’s new focus on Balochistan has more to do with the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) than with Kashmir. China understands that CPEC may not be achievable. But there are real dangers in reviving Pakistani fears of secessionism and in broadening the field of Indo-Pakistani conflict beyond the confines of Kashmir.

Balochistan, the largest of Pakistan’s provinces, has only rarely been front-page news. In 1839 the British made use of its passes to send an army into Afghanistan during the ill-fated First Afghan War. A huge earthquake in 1935 killed some 35,000 people in Quetta and neighbouring districts. And in 1947 Pakistani troops were despatched to prevent the local ruler, the Khan of Kalat, from enacting independence. Otherwise, apart from tribal disputes and smuggling, the province has been relatively quiet for centuries.

So it surprised many observers when Prime Minister Modi mentioned Balochistan during his August 15 Independence Day speech from the Red Fort in Delhi. It was only a fleeting reference but the implications may be considerable. Why has India decided to play the Balochistan card now? Officials have pointed to the continuing unrest in Kashmir since the death of the militant Burhan Wani in July and frustration in New Delhi at the perceived lack of cooperation from Islamabad over recent terrorist attacks. But the reason for choosing Balochistan rather than established disputes such as Kashmir, the Siachen Glacier or Sir Creek, is India’s concern about China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

A little background might be helpful. Balochistan comprises 44% of Pakistan’s territory but only 6% of its population. It is a vast area of harsh and arid terrain, stretching from the Afghan and Iranian borders down to the Arabian Sea. From the air Balochistan is like a moonscape, the colours varying only from ochre to volcanic black. The occasional towns are linked by long, thin strips of road snaking through the wilderness. The trade, much of it illicit, is carried by four-wheel drive vehicles and camel convoys on ancient desert tracks. Apart from the Sui gas installation and the Chinese-run copper and gold mine at Saindak much of the mineral wealth of Balochistan remains undiscovered. Ras Koh in the Chagai Hills is home to Pakistan’s nuclear test site.

The Baloch people themselves straddle the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan; victims of the Great Game during which Britain’s ‘forward policy’ argued for keeping Balochistan in India as a buffer against Russian designs upon Afghanistan. From 1876 the Khan of Kalat, the local chieftain, ruled two thirds of the province under British suzerainty. This is why in 1947 the Khan believed he had the right to opt for independence but the Pakistan army marched in to prevent secession in March 1948 — just as India forestalled any similar move by the Nizam of Hyderabad in September of the same year.

Following the loss of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971 Pakistan’s military hardened its views towards ethnic dissent. During a period of Balochi unrest in the 1970s the Pakistanis deployed such harsh repressive tactics that Balochi nationalist feeling increased. A further sense of outrage was fostered by the killing of Akbar Khan Bugti by Pakistani aircraft in 2006.

It was therefore inevitable that the announcement in April 2015 of the $46 billion CPEC from Xinjiang to the port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea would stir Balochi resentment. There was little effort to persuade the Balochis that they would benefit from the deal and it was evident from the outset that the huge project would be vulnerable to disruption along its enormous length. In June, Pakistan, under pressure from Beijing, announced the deployment of a Special Security unit of nearly 15,000 troops to defend the project.

India too has good reason to oppose CPEC. Not only does it suspect that China intends Gwadar to become a naval — as well as commercial — port, but part of the route crosses disputed Kashmiri territory. India has long had political contact with Balochi dissidents and has evidently decided that now is the moment to turn up the heat on Pakistan and China. Modi’s speech on August 15 and the referral of Balochi human rights to the United Nations therefore represents a significant escalation.

For Pakistan the Indian response provokes its worst fear: secessionism. Pakistan is already anxious about burgeoning Indian/Afghan relations, inter-ethnic conflict in Karachi, terrorism in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (KP) and by signs of a growing United States strategic preference for India. Pakistan has long suspected covert Indian assistance to secessionist groups; so Modi’s elevation of the rhetoric plays to some atavistic fears. The Pakistani response will be to rely more on China, their ‘all weather friend’ and perhaps to look for new ways to unsettle India’s own ethnic and communal vulnerabilities.

The Baloch too need to realise that ambitions of independence cannot be delivered by India or anybody else. No country will support Balochi independence and the United States has made its position crystal clear. Balochistan is not a sustainable nation state in any sense. Indeed Balochistan was always envisaged as a core component of Pakistan (and provides the ‘tan’ in Pakistan’s name).

China too has made a surprising error of judgement. Having mined copper at Saindak for many decades and having lost numerous workers to terrorism, China has always understood the vulnerability of its supply lines from Gwadar. That was doubtless why China agreed with Djibouti to build a naval base in the horn of Africa to protect its supply lines through the Red Sea and the Gulf, the same role which for Gwadar was probably intended. Furthermore, China already has the ability to use Karachi port for both commercial and naval vessels; in fact a Chinese nuclear submarine was seen there only in May. So why did China push ahead so fast with a vastly expensive project which may not be achievable? The likelihood is that hubris played a part; because CPEC is a subset of the new Silk Road initiative or One Belt One Road (OBOR) which has truly global ambitions.

A surprising article in the Chinese Global Times on September 13 (and not removed from its website) expressed security concerns about CPEC, and continued “…given the difficulty of protecting the personnel that are working in Pakistan, projects under the CPEC may need to be implemented and assessed step by step. This does not mean that China should give up on the idea of the CPEC because of the present challenges. However, China may not want to put too much focus on the region. At the very least, it would be unwise to put all its eggs in one basket”.

Iran and Afghanistan will also watch developments closely. However, Pakistan cannot afford to lose another province and the Balochistan issue will play to the Pakistan Army’s most fundamental instinct: that India is the main threat to Pakistan and not internal terrorism. Indeed some in Pakistan still believe that extremism can be used to destabilise India. Therein lies potential ruin for Pakistan and the seeds of a further Indo-Pakistan conflict.

(This article was first published on Gateway House)

Profile photo of Tim Willasey-Wilsey
Tim Willasey-Wilsey is Senior Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and a former British diplomat.