Strategic significance of Balochistan —Shaukat Qadir

Whether through the volume of potential commercial activity, or the Iran gas pipeline project, or the enormous untapped mineral resources in Balochistan; Pakistan’s prospects of economic prosperity in the future are inexorably linked to Balochistan
Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province in terms of land mass, almost 50 percent of the total land mass of the country; has a population of only about 10,000,000 inhabitants, a mere sixteenth of Pakistan’s population. 35 percent are ethnic Baloch, 25 percent Pashtun, and the rest a mixture of Brohi, Mekrani, Sindhi, Hazarvis and Punjabi. However, the recent influx of Afghan refugees coupled with migration of some ethnic Baloch in recent times, has brought the Pashtun population at par with the Baloch, and the influx is an ongoing process, increasing the ethnic imbalance in favour of the Pashtuns.

Bordering Iran to the west, where it lies at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and southern Afghanistan to its north, it shares borders with each of the other three provinces of Pakistan. It is Pakistan’s richest province in terms of mineral resources; some of the known gas, iron ore, gold, copper, and coal resources are being tapped, but not all. Far greater reserves of oil, gas, gold and other minerals are suspected but remain unconfirmed due to a variety of reasons, insecurity being the leading one.

Not only does the bulk of Pakistan’s coastline lie in Balochistan, the province’s coastline is particularly significant because almost the entire length of it is along a deep shelf, ranging in depth from one hundred to almost three hundred metres. During hostilities with India this has enabled ships to hug the coastline under protection of the naval air arm before making a run for the port at Karachi.

It is this shelf that makes it possible for the strategic deep sea port to be built at Gwadar. For the uninitiated, at a deep sea port, because of the depth of the sea close to shore, naval vessels as well as commercial ships can berth very close to shore. This not only makes loading and unloading ships easier and cheaper, since if berthed at a distance, goods have to be ferried ashore, which adds to the expense, but also provides additional protection in case of hostilities.

Gwadar port is being built with Chinese assistance in three phases, to be completed by 2015, when it will have twenty six berths. Numerous speculations have been made on Pakistan having offered the Chinese a naval presence at Gwadar as an incentive for them to assist in its construction and also construct the strategic coastal highway connecting Karachi to Gwadar.

While there is no disputing that this would provide a major incentive for Chinese assistance, but it does not account for the number of berths, which would be wasted without significant increase in commercial activity.

To understand this, we need to move on to China. Historically, major industrial development in China has been along their East Coast, for ease of shipping. However, conscious of the potential for unrest in the predominantly Muslim province of Xinjiang, to its west, bordering Pakistan and Central Asia, in the aftermath of the fall of the USSR, China constructed an oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and also set up the national oil refinery there.

Consequently, in addition to the beginning of a demographic shift in this province, over the last fifteen years there has been an enormous growth of industry in this region.

A cursory look at the map will confirm that Urumqi is almost equidistant overland from China’s eastern ports and Gwadar. However, while eastern Chinese ports open onto the Pacific Ocean, leading directly to the Americas, to access European markets or the Middle East, Chinese ships go via the Straits of Malacca across the Indian Ocean to reach the Gulf of Aden; a distance of almost 5000 miles. Whereas, at Gwadar, they are not only at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, but also only 1100 miles from the Gulf of Aden.

China already has a rail link from Almaty, the ex-capital of Kazakhstan, which also lies on the border of Kyrgyzstan, to Urumqi. In addition, a memorandum of understanding has been signed between Pakistan and China for a joint venture constructing a rail link parallel to the Karakoram highway ending at Havelian, for which feasibility studies have been prepared, and from where Pakistan will provide a direct rail link to Gwadar.

Thus not only all Chinese goods produced in western China, but also products from a bulk of Central Asia will be able to take advantage of this route, even if the instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province denies them the more direct route. Obviously, if these regions stabilise, Gwadar port will be utilised to its fullest capacity.

Analysts have frequently adverted to Pakistan’s ‘strategic location’; linking the Middle East via Iran, Central Asia, China, and South Asia. While Balochistan provides the only direct link to Iran and onwards to the Middle East, the truth is that without Balochistan, the remaining linkages that Pakistan provides to other regions are reduced to less than half their strategic value, since the only other port at Karachi could never handle the magnitude of the potential commerce.

Whether through the volume of potential commercial activity, or the Iran gas pipeline project, or the enormous untapped mineral resources in Balochistan; Pakistan’s prospects of economic prosperity in the future are inexorably linked to Balochistan.

Regretfully, not many decision makers in Pakistan display a consciousness of this fact; nor of the fact that decades of latent dissatisfaction amongst the Baloch is about to spill over the brim.

The author is a retired brigadier. He is also former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI). This article is a modified version of one originally written for The National

Source: Daily Times, 16/8/2008


Leave a Reply