By B. Raman
Independently of each other, China and Iran seem to be developing doubts in their mind about the ability of the Pakistani Armed Forces to restore normalcy in Balochistan and put down the Baloch freedom struggle.
Despite brutal suppression, different Baloch organisations calling for greater autonomy or independence have managed to maintain their freedom struggle. They have been greatly disappointed by the lack of external support — particularly from India — to their freedom struggle, but this has not demoralised them. Nor has it deterred them from keeping the freedom struggle sustained despite a large number of deaths sustained by the Baloch youth at the hands of the Pakistani Armed Forces.
Both China and Iran have been paying even greater attention to the ground situation in Balochistan than India. They do not wish well of the Baloch freedom-fighters. In their perception, the secession of Balochistan from Pakistan would not be in their national interest. It could have adverse consequences for China in Chinese-controlled Xinjiang and for Iran in its Baloch areas. Any success of the Baloch freedom struggle in Pakistan could lead to a demand for a Greater Balochistan incorporating the Baloch areas of Iran.
While China and Iran do not want the Baloch freedom struggle to succeed, at the same time, they are increasingly skeptic about the ability of the Pakistani Armed Forces to put down the Baloch freedom struggle. In their perception, the Baloch freedom struggle will continue to keep Pakistan bleeding and prevent the restoration of normalcy in Balochistan. They are, therefore, avoiding further commitment of a major nature to assist Pakistan in Balochistan.
The Chinese reluctance to take up further commitments in Balochistan came out dramatically during the visit of Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani of Pakistan to China last month when Chinese officials, for the first time, openly indicated their lack of enthusiasm for the upgradation of the Gwadar commercial port built and commissioned by them initially into a naval base for use by the Pakistan Navy and subsequently into a base that could be used by the Chinese naval vessels operating in the Indian Ocean and Gulf areas.
The entire Gwadar project was a brainchild of Pakistan’s GHQ. Its ostensible commercial purpose of serving the external trade requirements of Afghanistan, the Central Asian Republics and Xinjiang in China concealed an ultimate military purpose of providing a strategic depth to the Pakistan Navy by reducing its dependence on the Karachi port which could be vulnerable to surprise Indian attacks in case of a military conflict.
Gen. Pervez Musharraf, when he was in power, was urging the Chinese Navy too to use the port not only to confront the Indian Navy with a new front, but also to use the Chinese military presence in Gwadar to brow-beat the Baloch freedom-fighters.
Till the beginning of 2010, there were indications that the Chinese were going along with the Pakistani ideas and urgings for the upgradation of Gwadar into a modern naval base on par with Karachi. Subsequent developments have poured cold water on the Chinese enthusiasm for the project.
Even the commercial port which was commissioned in 2006 has been a non-starter. The failure of the Pakistani authorities to develop roads and other infrastructure and to reach a peace agreement with the Baloch freedom-fighters have resulted in a situation where not only international shipping companies, but even those of Pakistan are reluctant to use it. Musharraf’s grandiose ideas of Gwadar becoming the port to serve the external trade of Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics have remained a pipe-dream. They are more interested in a port being developed by Iran with Indian assistance than in Gwadar.
By the middle of 2010, it became apparent that the Chinese interest in Gwadar was diminishing. In an assessment on the high-profile visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to China in July last year, I had written as follows: “Mr. Zardari once again took up with the Chinese the pending Pakistani proposals for the upgradation of the Gwadar port, the construction of an oil refinery and an airport in Gwadar and the construction of oil/gas pipelines from Gwadar to Xinjiang. While the Chinese have readily responded in a positive manner to various proposals for projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, they are still hesitant regarding new projects in the Balochistan area. While they do not anticipate any security problems in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, they are still worried about the security situation in Balochistan. Mr. Zardari’s disappointment over the Chinese hesitation in the Balochistan area became evident in his reported remarks to Prime Minister Wen that Pakistan desired that “China should take maximum benefits from the Gwadar Port.” From this it is evident that while Pakistan is keen for the quick implementation of the Gwadar-related projects, security considerations still inhibit the Chinese response.” (Please see my article titled PAKISTAN AS CHINA’S FORCE-MULTIPLIER AGAINST INDIA at http://ramanstrategicanalysis.blogspot.com/2010/07/pakistan-as-chinas-force-multiplier.html )
The Pakistanis were hoping that the openly-expressed Chinese backing for Pakistan in the wake of the widespread criticism in the US of the suspected complicity of elements in Pakistan with Al Qaeda which enabled Osama bin Laden to live undetected for over five years at Abbottabad might be translated into other benefits for Pakistan during Gilani’s visit to China last month. They were particularly interested in two benefits — a Chinese agreement to expedite the supply of military aircraft to the Pakistan Air Force to strengthen its capability to prevent any surprise raids by the Indian Air Force in emulation of the US commando raid on Abbottabad to kill OBL and Chinese acceptance of the Pakistani proposals for the urgent upgradation of Gwadar into a naval base.
While the Chinese did oblige the Pakistani request for the expeditious supply of more planes to the PAF, they continue to fight shy of more involvement in Gwadar. They took the extraordinary step of contradicting motivated briefings by members of Gilani’s entourage who sought to convey an impression that the Chinese had reacted more positively this time.
In a despatch of May 24 from Beijing, the Reuters news agency reported as follows: “On Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said she had no knowledge beforehand of the naval port proposal and it had not been discussed during Gilani’s visit. China and Pakistan are friendly neighbours. Regarding the specific China-Pakistan cooperative project that you raised, I have not heard of it,” Jiang told a regular news conference in Beijing.”
Simultaneously with the Chinese reiteration of their continued lack of interest in the Pakistani proposals for the upgradation of Gwadar into a naval base with a possible Chinese presence there, reports have been coming in that Iran has started dragging its feet on the construction of a gas pipeline from Iran into Pakistani Punjab through Balochistan because of the continuing freedom struggle of the Balochs.
The scepticism of China and Iran regarding the ability of the Pakistani Armed Forces to put down the Baloch freedom struggle should act as a morale-booster to the Balochs and encourage them to further step up their freedom struggle. Unfortunately, the continuing lack of unity among different Baloch nationalist organisations and the consequent in-fighting are coming in the way of a successful culmination of the Baloch freedom struggle.
Lack of unity and in-fighting had led to the collapse of the Baloch freedom-struggles in the past. Instead of uniting to succeed, if the Baloch leaders let history repeat itself because of their inability to unite, history will not forgive them. Since the days of Zia-ul-Haq the geopolitical circumstances in the region had never been more favourable for the Balochs. If they miss this opportunity, they may not get another like this again. Unite to succeed—that is the slogan that should be reverberating across Balochistan.