THE US and China, which are currently in a state not unlike the Cold War, may end up in a confrontation over the energy resources of the Caspian Sea area and Central Asia.
Worryingly for some, this confrontation could take place in the land of the Baloch comprised of the Pakistani province of Balochistan, Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan and some of Afghanistan’s southern provinces.
This factor enhances the strategic importance of Baloch land. The resolution tabled in the US Congress by Dana Rohrabacher in February this year said that the Baloch that are “currently divided between Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country”. The resolution has floated the idea of a ‘greater Balochistan’. The US has been raising the issue of human rights violations in the restive provinces of Pakistan, Iran and China. And those involved in separatist movements in these geo-strategically important ‘energy nodes’ would be the key players in a power struggle for the control of the region’s vast oil and gas reserves.
Geographically, the proposed ‘greater Balochistan’ would likely comprise of the troubled Baloch-majority areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.
The Baloch in war-torn Afghanistan are called the Western Baloch and live primarily in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz and Farah. Sistan-Baluchistan is Iran’s south-eastern province bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan. Although it is the largest of the country’s provinces, it is the most underdeveloped. Pakistan’s Balochistan is similarly the largest but least developed with respect to area.
Separatist movements in Pakistan’s Balochistan, Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan and China’s Xinjiang province could emerge as the most significant threat to any energy pipeline reaching South and West Asia from energy-rich Central Asia, Middle East and Iran. If the US were to launch drone attacks inside Balochistan, China’s interests would be threatened. China believes that its western flank has been rendered more vulnerable by the presence of US troops in Central Asia.
Separatist movements can also dampen China’s plans to gain access to energy-rich Central Asia through a Pakistan-China energy and trade corridor, and to the import of Iranian gas through a pipeline reaching Xinjiang via Pakistan. For some, when the US opposes the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, this is aimed at not just depriving Tehran of the economic benefits associated with the project but also at depriving Beijing of a possible land-based source of energy. Meanwhile, Gwadar in Pakistan provides China a strategic base for countering US influence in the region.
The US resolution, although not supported by the Obama administration, came at the same time as the leaders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan in a trilateral summit in Islamabad vowed not to allow any threat to emanate against each other from their respective territories. Some observers even believe that the US is exploiting the insurgency-like situation in the Baloch areas of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to achieve multiple objectives in the region.
Hypothetically, a ‘greater Balochistan’ would become the key node for gas pipeline projects from either energy-rich Iran or Central Asia to energy-hungry South and West Asia. It would ultimately serve American geopolitical interests for creating a ‘new world energy order’.
Secondly, any American interest in Balochistan and support for ‘greater Balochistan’ would pre-empt China, which has rapidly increased its stakes in Balochistan over the past decade.
China is presently the biggest foreign stakeholder in the development of this resource-rich province, which is poised to serve as a strategic base for China to spread its influence to oil-rich Middle East and Central Asia through Gwadar port. This is being built by China on Pakistan’s southwest coast.Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves have become the focus of energy-hungry China, which has reportedly negotiated with Islamabad for five oil and gas pipelines connecting to the Central Asian Republics. Located on the western end of the Balochistan coast, Gwadar lies just 624 nautical kilometres from the Straits of Hormuz, an important route for global oil supplies. It is 460km from Karachi on the east and 120km away from the Iranian border on the west. With a fully operational Gwadar port, Pakistan would become a key player in the Persian Gulf region and serve as an energy corridor for Central Asia, South Asia and western China.
Given the instability in the Persian Gulf, Gwadar provides a more secure corridor for China’s fuel and energy supplies. From Gwadar, imports could travel overland through Pakistan and into China.
Thirdly, some see the US as trying to use the ‘Baloch card’ to press Islamabad to abandon the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, the greater part of which has to traverse Balochistan. But Islamabad appears resolute in going ahead with the project.
Finally, Balochistan can serve as a strategically important base for fighting the war against Islamist extremists in the Af-Pak region. After the 9/11 attacks in the US, the province emerged for the second time as a frontline area in the American military campaign in Afghanistan. This happened earlier in 1979 when the US-backed Afghan ‘jihad’ against the forces of the Soviet Union was under way. There are fears in some quarters that the US intends to expand drone attacks to Balochistan where the Quetta Shura, a militant organisation reportedly composed of the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban, is believed to maintain a presence. Last year, Younis al Mauritani, a senior Al Qaeda leader, was captured from Quetta.
However, at present, ‘greater Balochistan’ appears to be merely an idea. But if things get worse in Baloch land and separatist movements gain momentum and get international backing, such a development could well become a possibility.
The writer is the author of Economic Development of Balochistan.