The New Great Game and Failing Balochistan
by Dr. Mir Sadaat Baloch
Historically in all the great games Central Asia always played a pivotal role, the region has the capacity to turn any game[i]. In contemporary times Pakistan holds a vital strategic place in sphere of international politics as it is positioned on the entrance of the affluent Middle Eastern kingdoms like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE etc. Out of these countries Iran envisioned to spread its resources of gas and oil through pipelines to as many countries as possible like Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, and Qatar. Other than that, Western countries also pursue for assets of oil and energy in Central Asia. After collapse of USSR cooperation, a new doctrine started that focuses mainly on policies of energy and oil. Pakistan is central to this doctrine as it is situated in the crucial region of Central Asia and positioned next to energy rich countries i.e., Iran and Afghanistan[ii]. All the major powers of the World are interested in Balochistan vis-à-vis Pakistan because of its strategic location.
Brahma Chellaney a political analysts stated that “There is a new Great Game in Asia where major players are trying to create alliances and partnerships”. China’s rise already suggests an unchecked desire to dominate Asia. Robert D Kaplan declares the Indian ocean is one of the busiest trade routes, for catering 50% of all the containers traffic passes and particularly 70% of the world oil tanker passes through it[iii]. Implying that the port city of Gwadar can be the nexus in new silk route. Russia desires to reach the Gwadar port and currently trying to develop its relations with Pakistan. USA is seeking to sabotage this route and Port because it would assist in expanding the China economy by providing the shortest route for trade, toward Middle East and African countries[iv]. In the backdrop of this international politics and due to its geostrategic situation Balochistan has a definite influence on domestic, regional, and global affairs.
This importance does not go unnoticed, and the province is facing the consequences. Balochistan, is deliberately plunging into anarchy due national inactions and global actions. We are facing an assortment of biases and aversion in shape of inorganic political discourse, sub nationalist movements, ethnic and sectarian violence. Any social structures capable of limiting the rise of radicalism have been undermined by authoritarian policies. A power vacuum is evolving, building a theoretically explosive situation for days to come. Since the start of recent insurgency, the state lacked ingenuity or will to take it seriously. Primarily it was recognized as merely another expression of restlessness in a region habitually uncomfortable with Pakistan’s central government—after all, the two parties had come into conflict on four occasions in the past. Today, Balochistan is slowly but surely descending into anarchy.
According to Frederic Grare of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “Balochistan is a bubbling cauldron of ethnic, sectarian, secessionist and militant violence, threatening to boil over at any time”[v]. As rightly pointed out by him the Balochistan issue cannot be resolved, or at least mitigated, by addressing the socioeconomic grievances of its people—that time is long gone. Those grievances remain, but the political forces willing to negotiate them within the framework of the Pakistani federation have been marginalized and forced to harden their positions. We cannot reinforce state power in Balochistan by destroying traditional & local structures, however in the process we are weakening Pakistan & advancing hardliners tendencies. It is the time to find a social solution to the Baloch conflict because radicalization suicide & violence are social issues. Before resolving the conflict in Balochistan we must understand how and why we got here on the first place.
Geoffrey Kemp and Robert Kaplan have written about the rising role of China’s involvement in Pakistan. In their works, they begin to show a broader international context regarding Balochistan’s significance in world affairs[vi]. Kemp points to the outpouring of money by the Chinese throughout South Asia as they attempt to place themselves in economic or distribution centres in an attempt to corner the global market[vii]. Kaplan also describes the strategic importance of Gwadar Port in Balochistan, as well as planned road and pipeline networks that originate or traverse Balochistan in a broader economic context[viii]. He explains how these initiatives have the ability to bring peace and stability to the region as governments pursue economic vice naive strategies.
Global interest in the region of Balochistan is not likely to fall down anytime in the near future. As South Asia continues to develop at exponential rates, the demand for energy will only increase in intensity. With the existing recognized sites of natural gas and petroleum as they are, Global powers are expected to draw in considerably growing struggle for access to these crucial resources. It is no surprise then that the natural gas fields in Pakistan and Central Asia are given so much attention. These sources will guarantee privileged access and lower prices.
On the other hand, Gwadar port and the development of Balochistan under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is claimed to be a game changer for Pakistan’s socio-economic development. A fully operational Gwadar port will enhance Pakistan’s commercial activities and its connectivity with oil-rich Gulf states, the Central African Republics (CARs), Afghanistan, China and with the rest of the world. However, it has also added to the concern of the adversaries of Pakistan and China, particularly India and the US. To counter the viability of Gwadar, India has started to invest considerably in the development of the Iranian Chabahar port. Since China’s rivalry with the US and India’s with Pakistan has been a recurring theme in the global and regional politics respectively.
Furthermore, the construction of Gwadar port has never been in the interest of India or Iran, rather both considered it to be a potential menace to their strategic concerns in the region. In reaction to this danger, they are mutually working on Chabahar port. India’s interest in Chabahar port intensified when Pakistan handed over the control of Gwadar port to China on the lease, which New Delhi realises as an extension of China’s policy of the “String of Pearls”[ix]. India is fixated with the idea of importing oil and gas at affordable prices from the Central Asian region. It also wants to export its manufactured goods like cars, computer related items to Central Asia. On the other hand, India and Iran are extremely anxious about the tactical significance of Gwadar port. A fully established and functional Gwadar port near the Strait of Hormuz enables China to obstruct India’s dream of controlling the regional waterways. New Delhi feels that the Gwadar port would have severe strategic consequences for India.
It appears appropriate that Balochistan’s woes owe much to the geopolitics of the energy resources. The players of the global energy game, in general, and India, in particular, are trying to hold their stakes in Balochistan at any cost, which is thought as a tactical part of the transnational pipeline corridors[x]. The transnational gas pipeline projects and the construction of a seaport, an oil refinery, and an oil city in Gwadar can turn Balochistan into an important energy hub in the region[xi]. The separatist groups in geostrategically significant ‘energy nodes’ would be the key players in the new Great Game.
Pakistan has a long history in improving relationships with Iran in economic and socio-cultural sectors. However, Balochistan appears to be an essential factor, which clearly influences Pak-Iran relations, both positively and negatively. Iran’s existing interest in Balochistan has three major components, the proposed gas pipeline, Jundallah organisation and increasing competition between Gwadar and Chabahar[xii]. The Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) pipeline project also known as, The Peace Pipeline, was designed at building a 1,620 mile (2700 km) long pipeline from Iran’s South Pars fields in the Persian Gulf to Pakistan’s major cities of Karachi and Multan and then further to Delhi, India. This venture is anticipated to considerably help Pakistan and India. It is four times lower than any other option, even after contemplating transit fee payments to Pakistan. Pakistan could earn about US$200-$500 million annually in transit fees from the pipeline which would allow it to pay the price of natural gas from the pipeline it consumed[xiii].
Despite this fact that Iran has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, it could never utilise its potential as a major exporter of natural gas[xiv]. This project would permit Iran to tap into a starving market for its gas, and Pakistan and India could gain access to much-needed energy for electricity. Regrettably, the project has seen serious resistance. The project can only benefit Iran and Pakistan if peaceful law and order situation exists in Balochistan. Therefore, Iran’s top interest in Balochistan should be in the framework of security. It will offer a foundation for the future economic growth, peace, and prosperity of the region.
Contemplating on the involvement of these players we cannot sit idle and wait for a miracle. In context of New Great Game, we need to be proactive (although we are very late), the policy thrust should be on following lines.
The policy makers need to understand that in current situation all economic projects are secondary for people of Balochistan. The main concern of Baloch is having confidence in state that has been dented by inactions of our central and provincial government. Pakistan’s Baloch policy should no longer be shrouded in mystery. If someone is guilty of conniving with non-state actors, including operatives from other countries, then he or she should be subject to normal court proceedings. Even a bit of transparency could take the region to new heights. Balochistan need to do away with inorganic political forces and civil administration. We need rapid institutional transformation, policy makers and political leaders would have to deal with the large government workforce, including many unskilled staff in lower cadres.
Balochistan’s resources should be developed in order to reap economic benefits for the 75% population that is living below poverty line not the elite. This time if we fail to change the social life of common people then Balochistan will for sure be the marketplace for foreign manoeuvrings and rebellion.
Political leadership must own Balochistan issues, and our armed forces should not exclusively be overburdened for it. Police must be depoliticized at all costs together with strengthening its basic unit: Police Station which is believed to be the nursery of intelligence gathering at the grass-roots level. The police station is a fundamental pillar of law enforcement and community engagement for gathering intelligence.
A national narrative should urgently be constructed and developed to counter the extremist worldview. We lack research and analysis culture, which is primary principle of coming up with practical and result-oriented policy discourse. The need of hour is a high level of community engagement using the social marketing framework. Political initiative focusing on broad base reconciliation bringing all stakeholders on negotiation table. Selective application should be avoided. A high-powered body with a balanced composition duly authorized for all encompassing negotiations by the federal and provincial governments needs to be constituted at priority. To address the poverty of Balochistan a better option could be considering Universal Basic Income (UBI) for a given period to support the residents of Balochistan. This approach will be rise above the issues mentioned as all will benefit. It will also encourage the entrepreneurial spirit and development of small businesses while ensuring people’s dignity. Finally, Balochistan needs a significant effort to improve revenue collection, to be able to expand its ability to finance its programmes. Altogether, significant reforms would have to be undertaken to improve institutional quality, strengthen business environment and improve accountability.
[i] Iqbal, M., & Afridi, M. K. (2017). New Great Game in Central Asia: Conflicts, Interests and Strategies of Russia, China and United States. Dialogue (Pakistan), 12(3).
[ii] Khetran, M. S. (2016). Economic Connectivity: Pakistan, China, West Asia and Central Asia. Strategic Studies, 36(4), 61–76. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48535974
[iii] Ali, M., & Asif, M. The Importance of Gwadar Port for Global Players. Balochistan.
[iv] Abbas, K. (2019). Socio-economic impacts of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) at community level: case study of Gwadar Pakistan (Master’s thesis, Universitetet i Agder; University of Agder).
[vi] Ismail, M. (2014). Geostrategic Importance of Balochistan: Baloch Insurgency and the Global Politics of Energy Resources. Journal of Political Studies, 21(2).
[x] Shah, A. Z. (2017). Geopolitical Significance of Balochistan: Interplay of Foreign Actors. Strategic Studies, 37(3), 126–144. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48537561
[xii] Sial, S. (2015). An analysis of emerging Pakistani-Iranian ties. Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre.