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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Will Pakistan muddle through or will CPEC allow it to control its destiny?

Adnan Qaiser |

Indeed history keeps repeating itself. The 19th century’s Great Game – associated with the historic Silk Road – has since been reincarnated in a new great game linked to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt, OBOR and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road. With the development of Gwadar deep- sea port and China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), connecting Gwadar to Kashgar, Pakistan’s Balochistan province not only became restless but also attained strategic significance.

Gwadar port project (20022006)

With the launch of Gwadar port project (20022006), its operational control first handed over to the Port of Singapore Authority (20072012) and later to the China Overseas Port Holding Company in February 2013, Balochistan erupted into a separatist movement – quite different from previous four insurgencies in the past 68 years.

Pakistan merits much of the blame, owing to its perpetual disregard of Baloch rights through political neglect, economic deprivation, and military heavy- handedness. Yet the sudden international interest in this region is mysterious. Selig S. Harrison had noted in his book, In the Shadow of Afghanistan: Baloch Nationalism and Soviet Temptations,

“If it were not for the strategic location of Balochistan and the rich potential of oil, uranium, and other resources it would be difficult to imagine anyone fighting over this bleak, desolate, and forbidding land.”

Except for Pakistan’s nuclear explosions of May 1998 and the Metallurgical Corporation of China’s Saindak Copper- Gold mine project since 1995, Balochistan remained unknown to the world. However, the province generated a lot of controversies when Pakistan’s Supreme Court annulled Tethyan Copper Company’s Reko- Dik gold and copper mining agreement – a US$3.3 billion joint venture of Canada’s Barrick Gold and Chile’s Antofagasta Minerals, resulting in a loss of US$220 million in 2013.

Baloch separatist leaders found asylum

It is equally interesting that Baloch separatist leaders found asylum not only in Afghanistan and India but also in Britain and Switzerland. India’s External Affairs Ministry admitted the presence of Baloch leader Hyrbyair Marri in New Delhi in October 2015, further confirming their policy of extending support for separatist movement in Pakistan.

Read more: CPEC: Conspiracy Theories of Success & Failure

BBC also revealed that India supplied weapons, funds, and training to Pakistan’s ethnic Muttahida Qaumi Movement in past decades. Proposing a “defensive- offense” strategy (i.e., use of proxies) in February 2014, India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval had dared Pakistan to “do one Mumbai and lose Balochistan.” In a rare departure from diplomatic norms Pakistan’s military leadership not only warned India about causing terrorism in Balochistan, but the government also handed over three dossiers to the UN and the US carrying details of subversive activities in Pakistan by Indian intelligence (Research and Analysis Wing).

Congressional hearing on human rights violations in Balochistan

Furthermore, US Congressman Dana Rohrabacher headed a Congressional hearing on human rights violations in Balochistan on 8 February 2012, tabling a resolution (which was rejected) for Balochistan’s right to self- determination. Meanwhile, UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances also visited Balochistan in September 2012 to investigate the issue of ‘missing persons’ – miscreants allegedly picked- up by the intelligence agencies never to be produced in any court of law.

What CPEC gives China

Proposing a “defensive- offense” strategy (i.e., use of proxies) in February 2014, India’s national security advisor, Ajit Doval had dared Pakistan to “do one Mumbai and lose Balochistan.”

Gwadar’s development and its linkage to Xinjiang province through CPEC – a 2,395 km long corridor with economic and industrial zones en route, arising from a US$46 billion Chinese investment – has started an undeclared war for naval dominance in the Indian Ocean. CPEC not only shortens China’s crude oil route, which presently passes through the Straits of Malacca, but also grants it closer access to the resource rich Middle Eastern and African countries. China’s control of Gwadar can be seen as another “string of [naval] pearls” in the Indo- Pacific Corridor. A view into India’s western coast of Gujarat and Maharashtra as well as monitoring the hub of Strait of Hormuz has made India construct a sprawling naval base at Karwar. Iran has also begun establishing a naval base at Pasabander, while India and Iran have sped- up the development of Iranian Chahbahar port near Gwadar.

Geopolitics to geo- economics

Geopolitics, a game of competing for power interests, has turned lethal after been eclipsed by geo- economics. Therefore, as we would never see a stable Afghanistan (or Kashmir or India’s Red Corridor for that matter), there is little likelihood of having a peaceful Balochistan. Despite Pakistan bending over backwards for the realization of Gwadar and CPEC, several factors hinder what Pakistan calls a game- changer in the region.

First, Pakistan has a capacity problem, amplified by mega- corruption and incompetence. The government is running on foreign and domestic loans mortgaging the future of the nation. Despite bypassing Pakistan Procurement Regulatory Authority’s rules of international bidding, granting all CPEC projects to Chinese companies, the sovereign guarantees for minimum 18 percent internal rate of return would be backbreaking.

CPEC not only shortens China’s crude oil route, which presently passes through the Straits of Malacca, but also grants it closer access to the resource rich Middle Eastern and African countries.

Even as the world abandons coal- run power plants, Pakistan plans to build a number of them in several economic/ industrial zones, which are yet to be earmarked and financial allocations made for land acquisition. Bureaucratic hurdles and slow pace of work would further frustrate China’s strategic patience. The water and power and petroleum ministers are already mud- slinging the minister for planning and development. Notably, China is not entirely relying on CPEC; developing the alternate Bangladesh- China- India- Myanmar (BCIM) Economic Corridor simultaneously.

Disagreement on CPEC’s route

Furthermore, the provinces and government disagree on CPEC’s route: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif prefers the route over his Punjab province, while the Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa government insists on its western alignment, which is not risk- free due to the ongoing insurgency in the tribal areas. Despite establishing four- layered security by the Pakistan army’s 12,000-strong special force, boosted by the Chinese military, safe passage over a 2,000 km long route cannot be ensured. More than 200 security- related incidents have already taken place on the 870 km Baluchistan stretch since the work began. While CPEC’s economic benefits may mitigate threats, in the long run, the route will remain prone to regional and geopolitical mischief.

Secondly, under Pakistan’s sham democracy, it is unlikely that the current semi- feudal and tribal system (Sardari Nizam) – in which ‘Chieftains’ pocket development funds and rule through their own militias – will be reformed. Pakistan’s continued neglect towards water- scarcity issue has further made the experts warn of Balochistan becoming a wasteland. Moreover, no one knows the fate of the country amid its ongoing civil- military frictions and power merry- go- round, especially if one projects over the 15 to 20 year completion period of the CPEC project.

Geopolitics, a game of competing for power interests, has turned lethal after been eclipsed by geo- economics.

Third, with the ‘missing persons’ issue and revelations of a ‘kill and dump’ game in Balochistan, Pakistan’s army and intelligence agencies have been further discredited. Pakistan is likely to come under increasing international pressure for its poor human rights record, especially after recently losing a seat at United Nations Human Rights Council.

Finally, Balochistan is likely to remain unstable, due to Pakistan’s encirclement by a hostile Afghanistan (owing to its support of the Taliban), an antagonized Shiite Iran (arising from Pakistan’s sectarian conflict, Saudi kowtowing, and anti- Iran Jundallah’s presence in borderlands), and a belligerent India. India’s backing by the US, evident by recent nuclear and defence pacts, has further encouraged New Delhi to call CPEC “unacceptable.” Moreover, CPEC’s conspicuous omission in US public statements during Mr. Sharif’s and army chief, General Raheel Sharif’s visits in October and November 2015 underline its disapproval.

Pakistan’s reliance on China

Pakistan is, however, relying on its time- tested friend, China. While prematurely announcing the end of Baloch insurgency, Lieutenant- General Amir Riaz (commander, southern command) highlighted Pakistan’s expectations: “Chinese influence in the region will lead to rebalance of power in the world and Pakistan will be a great beneficiary.” The general, however, was silent on the key issue of security of Chinese workers and their regular killings in Pakistan. Religious extremists and jihadi groups use the so- called persecution of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang by (atheist) China as justification for their terrorist attacks.

Read more: Map of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Projects

In his book The Future of Pakistan, Stephen Cohen had predicted the country to “muddle through” (from crisis to crisis). Pakistan urgently needs to extend its (reformed) democratic and constitutional reach not only in the lawless tribal areas but also to Balochistan. Until and unless economic dividends and prosperity reaches every deprived Baloch, Balochistan will remain a pawn on international chessboard.

The destiny of Balochistan, Gwadar, and CPEC lays betwixt cup and lips; with many a slip.


Adnan Qaiser is a political and defense analyst having had a distinguished career in the armed forces as well as in international diplomacy and public and social sector development. His email address is a.qaiser1@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.