For Balochistan, its strategic location is both a blessing and a curse. With its vast natural resource wealth along with being South Asia’s gateway to the Middle East, Balochistan holds the keys to Pakistan’s next phase of economic development. However, given its vast mineral reserve, geostrategic location and geo-economic potential, Balochistan finds itself at the very epicentre of a conflict being fought by various actors at multiple levels.
Terrorism and regional dynamics: Separatist Baloch groups waging war with the state along with terrorist elements including offshoots of the al-Qaeda, ISIS and Taliban has only ensured greater instability, unpredictability and a tragic loss of life.
Meanwhile, India’s interests in achieving commercial access to the Middle East and Central Asia are in direct competition with Pakistan’s goal of achieving trade access through the Balochi port of Gwadar. With an Indian port in the southern Iranian city of Chabahar set to be operational in two years time according to the Indian government, it is not inconceivable that it would be in India’s interest to thwart Pakistan’s access and allow China to indirectly benefit. The capture and subsequent arrest of the alleged RAW agent Kulbushan Yadav in Balochistan earlier this year would lend credence to Indian operations in the region.
It would also be in Iran’s interest to ensure the success of Chabahar and become the gateway for India rather than allow its ‘Sunni neighbour’ to capitalise through Gwadar. It may also explain Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s refusal to discuss India’s potential involvement in Balochistan so as not to irk its regional ally. Iran also has a Balochi insurgency on its side of the border, and any economic prosperity through Gwadar in Pakistani Balochistan could energise and amplify the desires of the Iranian Baloch.
Yet these aren’t the only factors influencing and driving the conflct alone. Balochistan also finds itself at the centre of a greater war over global trade routes.
The China-US-Russia connection: To avoid ruffling the feathers of the US and its western-backed allies by challenging US maritime supremacy, China has opted for a strategy it has dubbed the “New Silk Road” — a vast network of highways, railways, pipelines and ports that will reduce China’s dependence on long sea routes. China currently relies on the Straits of Malacca, a narrow, 805-kilometre stretch of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, to supply close to 40 percent of its oil. Given the US Navy presence in the region and the threat of piracy, diversification of those trade routes is essential.
Enter Balochistan and $46 billion worth of Chinese investment into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which will enable China to import Middle East oil through Gwadar port, and up to its western-most Xinjiang province. Not only would this strategy lead to greater development in a province prone to secessionist tendencies, it would also reduce China’s reliance on the South China Sea. Any potential extension of CPEC northwards could tie South Asia, Western China with Central Asia and Russia — a nightmare scenario for US interests.
It is no surprise, therefore that the US has been active in Balochistan. A 2009 article in UK’s The Guardian stated that Blackwater, the notorious US private mercenary firm, was operating in Balochistan based on the claims of an ex-US official. The killing of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour by a drone strike in Balochistan earlier this year indicates continued US surveillance and involvement in the region.
Hawks inside US military circles also do no make any secret of their hopes of redrawing the Middle East and South Asia, which is perhaps best reflected in the “Blood Borders” map published in the Armed Forces Journal that depicts a “Free Balochistan.” For the US, a Balochistan in turmoil is in its best interest to ensure China remains on the back foot.
Connecting the Dots: Based on this analysis, a simple pattern emerges. The US, India and post-nuclear deal Iran stand on one side, and Pakistan, China and Russia on the other. with Gwadar being at the focal point. The almost 160 people killed in Balochistan so far in 2016 due to terrorism-related incidents may seem, on the surface, as a local conflict between the Pakistani military establishment against a lawless, backward area festering with homegrown terrorism, and although that might be partly true, it is also true that various regional and international players benefit from the same chaos that helps further their own geopolitical designs.