While all eyes are on China’s intrusions into Ladakh, where its military seeks to aggressively enforce the 1960 claim line, the hitherto unarticulated motive behind Beijing’s bid to block India from having a free run on its near complete Darbuk-Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldie road link from Leh to the DBO airbase may stem from an altogether more complex challenge further south.
With one attack after another by Baloch insurgents on Chinese targets now spilling over into Sindh, the latest being the June 29 four-man assault by the Balochistan Liberation Army on the Karachi Stock Exchange (40% of which is owned by a consortium of three Chinese bourses), Beijing is growing increasingly nervous over Pakistan’s inability to curb the raging Baloch insurgency that has put the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project at risk.
As inept as the KSE attack may have been, giving rise to speculation that it was a false flag operation by Islamabad to tar India with the Baloch terror tag, the November 2018 attack by the BLA on the Chinese consulate in Karachi was an early warning that despite the drop in the number of attacks by Baloch separatists, the anger among ordinary Balochis over the rising number of disappearances is unlikely to dissipate.
China is not taking any chances. In sealing off Ladakh after the June 15 clash, the People’s Liberation Army has ensured it now controls access right up to the so-called ‘Y-Nallah’ at the strategic confluence of the Galwan-Shyok rivers. In effect, Indian forces will be denied unfettered access to the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan-held Gilgit Baltistan, Tibet and Kashgar in vulnerable Xinjiang, where India could fish in troubled waters given that the native Uighurs are being intimidated into silence with forced sterilisations and disappearances. And for all of India’s bluster on retaking Aksai Chin, military strategists are now having to factor in the new reality—a twin pincer threat posed by China and Pakistan working in tandem to pin India down on both its western and eastern borders.
The CPEC, which runs from Xinjiang through Gilgit-Baltistan and Punjab to the sprawling port city of Gwadar in Balochistan, is integral to the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s flagship Belt and Road Initiative. But its import may well be far wider, with India not only caught napping on China’s ingress into the Galwan Valley, but also blind to how far Beijing will go to secure its interests. The warm water port of Gwadar and access to the Indian Ocean is central to the BRI, as it secures China’s quest for an alternative land and sea route if the Indo-Pacific maritime sea lanes through the Malacca Straits and the South and East China sea are thwarted by the coming together of a new-found alliance of nations ranged against it.
But in a demonstration that China sees the need to step away from the threat posed by the belligerent Baloch, Xi’s ‘two-ocean strategy’ of securing the Indo-Pacific as well as the Indian Ocean region with a Plan ‘B’ unfolded last week when the nimble-footed Chinese not only cocked a snook at the US by pitching to buy Iranian oil but also leaked details of plans to invest in the Iranian port of Chabahar that India has long had an eye on. Iran’s quibble over building the railway line to Zahedan delivered the final coup de grace to a waffling Delhi, caught between jeopardising longstanding ties with Tehran and the new-found commonality of interests with Washington.
The challenge ahead for China will be how it navigates the treacherous waters of the Gulf, where a link up with Iran could mean it has to cut ties with Iran’s enemy and America’s main ally in the region, Saudi Arabia. Pakistan runs the danger of angering the Saudis and the UAE, who have kept the Pakistan economy afloat. Iran and Pakistan, long suspicious of each other over terror groups Jundullah and Jaish-e-Adil that foment trouble in Balochistan and Iran’s Sistan Balochistan province, must also find a new equilibrium.
For China, Chabahar may not be the well-established port cities that Gwadar or Karachi are, where it has built container terminals, and nuclear and coal power plants. But unlike the other naval outposts in its zone of influence such as Kyaukpyu in Myanmar, Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and even Djibouti, both Gwadar and Karachi are under threat from Baloch separatists, casting a shadow over the big prize, CPEC. The Iranian port on the critical Straits of Hormuz could be China’s new fallback port of choice. And in the continuing geopolitical outflanking of India, Afghanistan could be next.
As America goes into election mode without completing the drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan or the peace talks with the Taliban, China is looking at building greater links with Kabul by investing in its natural resources and connecting through the tiny sliver of land—the 46-mile Wakhan corridor through the Wakhjir Pass—on the historic Silk Road. Despite the harsh terrain, China has quietly built a road network that connects Kashgar to Islamabad and into Central Asia. Security analysts believe the greater import is that it presages a wider Chinese military footprint, if American troops leave as planned.
India’s foot-dragging on capitalising on the weakest link in China and Pakistan must therefore end. In 2016, with a mention of the Baloch people’s aspirations in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the hopes of Baloch leader Brahmadagh Bugti, grandson of Nawab Bugti (hunted down and killed by former Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf’s forces in 2006) and Hyrbyair Marri. Both were seeking asylum in India and a bully pulpit from which they could launch a vocal—not armed—campaign for an end to the use of CPEC as a means to keep their people under subjugation.
Under the Imran Khan government, voices of dissent have been brutally silenced. The mutilated body of Baloch journalist Haji Abdul Razaq, who disappeared four months ago, was found days ago. Four social workers of Ost, the Balochistan-based welfare organisation who have peacefully protested the disappearances, have not been heard from. Pakistan believes—as does China—that with alleged Indian spy and former naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav, accused of espionage in Balochistan—not terrorism—they have a tool to keep India off balance. Perhaps it’s time for Delhi to shed its reticence and play the Baloch card. Or risk being geopolitically outflanked by the enemy in the north.
Independent journalist and author (email@example.com)