The Balochistan Tinderbox Sunaina Kumar And Angela Stanzel
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.
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.