THE trilateral dialogue between China, Iran and Pakistan last month was a significant development following the Saudi Arabia-Iran peace deal facilitated by China earlier this year. This dialogue aimed to reduce mistrust between Iran and Pakistan, broadening the prospects for enhanced security and economic cooperation.
This could be good news for Balochistan, which faces security and economic integration issues. However, the benefits of any productive output reaching the province depend on the intentions of state institutions. In the regional security and political context, credit goes to Chinese diplomacy for resolving hurdles in bilateral relations among the countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and its associated projects.
For China, terrorism poses a major concern for the safety of BRI projects and regional cooperation, making it a prime enemy of terrorist groups. However, China is positioned to assume a leading role in the fight against terrorism, employing a distinct strategy compared to the US-led coalition in Afghanistan and the Middle East. China’s objective focuses on fostering trust and assisting nations in addressing their respective issues. But China does not intend to engage directly in military campaigns against terrorist groups in the region, including the TTP, Al Qaeda, IS-K, or Baloch insurgents targeting its nationals in Pakistan. From the Chinese perspective, establishing trust between Iran and Pakistan is important for regional stability.
China’s resolution framework aims to help states enhance their capacities to combat terrorism. Most terrorism threats are interstate, and weak counterterrorism cooperation between states undermines their ability to fight terrorist groups. For instance, Iran has frequently expressed concerns about the presence of Jaishul Adl in the bordering region with Pakistan, believing it to be a Saudi proxy with support from Western allies. Pakistan has formally lodged complaints about Baloch insurgents using Iranian soil against its security forces and CPEC-related projects.
China-Pakistan-Iran collaboration can enhance regional security.
In May of this year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif jointly inaugurated a marketplace and power transmission line at the border between the two countries. The China-Pakistan-Iran collaboration can enhance regional security and counter the activities of the Baloch insurgents who seek refuge in Iran.
It was hoped that Iran’s Saudi peace pact would facilitate counterterrorism cooperation between Iran and Pakistan, and that the Saudis would refrain from supporting anti-Iranian regime elements. Iran’s entry into the Shanghai Organisation Cooperation (SCO) has been portrayed as a move to bring the country into the border security-related cooperation fold. Many experts conceive it as a move by China to reduce Indian influence in Iran, which is tasting bitterness in their bilateral relations, and it has provided an opportunity for China to facilitate a dialogue between Iran and Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the regional security dynamics are changing fast; the terrorist groups are also feeling the heat, and changing their tactics and struggling hard to expand their areas of operations.
Recently, a series of attacks occurred on three checkpoints in the Sherani district along the Zhob-D.I. Khan highway, resulting in the martyrdom of four security personnel, including two officers. These areas have been facing TTP threats, including bombings of mobile phone towers and attacks on security checkpoints. The banned TTP claimed responsibility for these attacks. The Jamaat-i-Islami chief Sirajul Haq narrowly escaped a bomb blast targeting his convoy near Zhob. In response, security forces launched an operation in the Sambaza area of Zhob to prevent terrorists from using suspected routes to cross the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and infiltrate KP, endangering citizens and security forces.
Since the Afghan Taliban assumed power in Kabul in August 2021, religiously motivated groups such as the TTP have carried out 22 attacks in Balochistan, resulting in the deaths of 57 individuals. The majority of these attacks, about 14 in total, were attributed to the TTP, primarily targeting the Pakhtun areas of Balochistan, including Quetta, Pishin, Qilla Abdullah (Chaman border), Sherani, and Zhob. Some attacks also occurred in the Gwadar and Makran regions, which are crucial for CPEC projects and the Gwadar port.
The terrorist activities in Balochistan, particularly in the Pakhtun areas, indicate the hand of the TTP. Recently, attacks on checkpoints resulted in the martyrdom of four security personnel and the killing of a suspected terrorist. It appears that the TTP has decided to create disturbances in the Pakhtun areas of Balochistan and provoke the Baloch. The BLA and other insurgent groups are restraining themselves from joining an open alliance with the TTP. However, they desire to see large-scale disturbances in Balochistan, especially in the regions bordering south Punjab and northern Sindh, which already struggle with the problem of extremism. These developments not only threaten Chinese interests in Balochistan, as previously mentioned, but also jeopardise stability in the latter province.
The security institutions have successfully countered the plans of terrorist groups. However, even a few terrorist acts in a new region raise concerns within the country’s security circles and abroad. Establishing a trilateral security mechanism between China, Pakistan and Iran reflects their shared concerns regarding security in Balochistan. Stability in Balochistan is crucial for the successful implementation of CPEC projects there. China’s relations with Pakistan and Iran in and around Afghanistan acquire an interesting dimension within the regional framework of the SCO. The troubled situation in Afghanistan is a cause for concern.
Afghanistan, China and Pakistan are also part of a separate trilateral dialogue on security, and China aims to help resolve political issues between the two countries. However, the core strategy suggests China wants to increase diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime to take action against all terrorist groups wholeheartedly. Otherwise, these groups will continue to hinder transitional development projects in the region and allow China’s foes to exploit the situation against it.
This is a significant test for the Afghan Taliban leadership to address the apprehensions of its neighbours, especially China, which would be a key economic and diplomatic friend of the regime if it delivers on its promises.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, July 9th, 2023