Saturday, 16 January 2016

The China-Pakistan economic corridor and Baluchistan's insurgency

Published in Analytical Articles

By Sudha Ramachandran

January 18th, 2016, The CACI Analyst

As the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project gathers momentum, concern is mounting over the security situation in the restive Baluchistan province. The Pakistani government has promised to beef up security for the project, but will this work? Its strategy to deal with Baluch nationalism, which has focused on military operations, has contributed to the emergence of an array of armed militias – Baluch nationalist, Islamist and sectarian. Can the economic corridor thrive or even survive in the midst of this bubbling cauldron?

cnpk-beltBACKGROUND: Pakistan has handed over 2,281 acres of tax-exempt land adjacent to Gwadar port to China on a 43-year lease. This is part of the ambitious US $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which envisages linking China’s trading hub of Kashgar to the Arabian Sea via a network of roads, railways, oil and gas pipelines and fiber optic cables. The project also involves setting up power generation projects and special economic zones (SEZs) en route. The operator of Gwadar port, the China Overseas Port Holding Company, will develop an SEZ on the leased land.

The CPEC project has begun to inch forward. However, problems loom. The security situation in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province is volatile. This is of concern to Pakistan and China as Baluchistan holds the key to the project’s success. It is in Baluchistan that Gwadar port, which is the heart of the CPEC project and the gateway to the corridor, is located and it is through this insurgency-wracked province that much of the western route of the Gwadar-Kashgar corridor runs. In a bid to alleviate apprehensions over the fragile security situation in Baluchistan, Pakistani has promised to deploy a 10,000-strong special force to beef up security for CPEC’s infrastructure and workforce. It will also step up military operations against armed groups operating in the province.

Will this work? An examination of Pakistan’s handling of the Baluch conflict since it first erupted in 1947 indicates that the use of military force has been the core of its strategy towards Baluch nationalism. It used coercion to get all of Baluchistan’s princely states to accede to it. The army was sent there to crush the resistance. While this put a lid on the insurgency, the conflict has persisted, escalating in 1947-48, 1958-59, 1960-69 and 1973-77. The present escalatory phase, which began in 2004, is the most violent. In recent years, the military’s operations in Baluchistan have reportedly weakened the Baluch militant groups. However, the tactics it used to achieve this has not only deepened Baluch anger but empowered a variety of other militant groups. This will have implications for the CPEC project.

IMPLICATIONS: Baluch alienation from the Pakistani state stems from three issues: Pakistan’s failure to fulfill its pledge of meaningful autonomy to Baluchistan, its use of force against the Baluch people and the lack of development in the province. The province became part of Pakistan on the condition that it would be given maximum autonomy. However, successive federal governments tightened their grip on the province and decisions of importance to Baluch have been made in Islamabad, the political capital of Pakistan, or in Rawalpindi, where the military headquarters is located. Baluchistan’s elected representatives are rarely consulted. This was the case, for instance, in 1998 when nuclear tests were carried out in Baluchistan’s Chagai district.

Adding to the problem is Baluch anger with Islamabad’s “colonial exploitation” of Baluchistan i.e. its extraction of the province’s rich resources to benefit the rest of Pakistan rather than the local population. In fact, Baluchistan’s gas fields hold three-fourths of Pakistan’s estimated 25.1 trillion cubic feet of proven gas reserves. Whereas commercial exploitation of the Sui gas reserves began in 1954 and its fruits were first enjoyed by Punjab province, Pakistan’s politically most powerful and richest province, it took over 30 years for the gas to reach Quetta, Baluchistan’s capital. Baluch nationalists point out that while draining out Baluchistan’s resources, Islamabad has ignored its development. Not only is Baluchistan the worst off among Pakistan’s provinces, but also the few infrastructure projects initiated in recent decades tended to benefit “outsiders” i.e. non-Baluch rather than locals.

Baluch nationalism would not have turned as militant as it did had the Pakistani state prioritized dialogue to resolve issues. It did not, instead choosing repression as the core element of its Baluchistan policy, deployed tens of thousands of troops in the province, aerially bombed the province, and assassinated rebel leaders. Critics point out that this military-centric approach fueled Baluch nationalism and pushed moderates to turn militant in their demands and actions.

What is more, Pakistan’s tactics to weaken the nationalists by luring them with lucrative deals and pitting them against each other, as well as setting up and encouraging rival militias has complicated the conflict scenario. It has used the “Islam card” to turn Baluch youth against the nationalists and set up pro-government Islamic militias to fight them. Thus the volatile situation in Baluchistan today is the outcome of multiple conflicts involving Baluch nationalist groups, Afghan and Pakistan Taliban fighters and their various splinters, Islamists, sectarian outfits, and drug mafias. In the words of a Pakistani political commentator, Baluchistan is a “cauldron of ethnic, sectarian, secessionist and militant violence, threatening to boil over at any time.” The Islamization of the nationalist confrontation in Baluchistan by the Pakistani state may even have laid the foundation for the entry of the terrorist organization calling itself the Islamic State. Can the CPEC project survive in this environment?

Besides Chinese personnel, the CPEC project will attract a large number of workers from outside Baluchistan. A change in Baluchistan’s ethnic demography, already a sore point with nationalists, is likely. Baluch militants attacked “outsiders” living and working in Baluchistan. The influx of foreigners in the wake of the CPEC project will provide them ample opportunity for such attacks. Abductions for ransom by the array of armed outfits operating in this province can be expected to soar.

CONCLUSIONS: Pakistan’s political and military leaderships claim success in dealing with the unrest and insurgency in Baluchistan, but this accomplishment is at best ephemeral and temporary. They may have weakened the Baluch nationalist militancy by dividing them but in the process, Pakistan has created new problems for itself in Baluchistan. Its Islamization of the nationalist Baluch struggle has let loose dangerous forces that have set the stage for a more volatile phase ahead. In the circumstances, the CPEC project’s future seems uncertain.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher / journalist based in India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues. Her articles have appeared in Asia Times Online, The Diplomat, China Brief, Himal, etc. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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