Engage the dragon on Balochistan

China, as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, sees the Balochistan port of Gwadar as an integral part of its One Belt, One Road initiative

Source: Wikimedia

The Pathankot attack has once again confirmed that Rawalpindi – as a rational strategic actor – realises that playing “bad cop” to Islamabad’s “good cop” allows it use of a sub-conventional space to strike at India and undermine any Indian strategy on Pakistan. The shrill “talk/don’t talk” debate in India post Pathankot is a case in point. The Indian strategic commentariat – predictably – went into overdrive with the usual liturgical analysis.

What, however, is significant this time around is how a cross-section of analysts openly advocated the need for India to acquire greater sub-conventional retaliatory capabilities. Among the pressure points that India could leverage are Balochistan’s festering separatist movements.

A year or so before Ajit Doval became national security adviser, he famously warned Pakistan that a repeat of the Mumbai 26/11attack could lead to Pakistan losing Balochistan. The Doval Doctrine – as it has now come to be known – involves what he calls a “defensive-offensive” strategy where India’s security establishment acquires a sub-conventional second strike capability, to be wielded as and when needed.

The Pakistan military establishment is aware that Balochistan is a natural weakness India could exploit with telling impact. In May last year, the Pakistan army’s media machinery all but accused India of fermenting secessionism there.

But here lies the twist. China – as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – sees the Balochistan port of Gwadar as an integral part of its One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Indeed, as former foreign secretary Shyam Saran recently wrote, Gwadar is significant precisely because it is where China’s Maritime Silk Route (“the Road”) meets its Eurasian land-based connectivity project (“the Belt”).

The geopolitical significance of Gwadar to China makes any Indian subconventional response in Balochistan exceedingly complicated. The reality is that the same Balochi rebels who want to secede from Pakistan have also opposed Chinese activities.

This was evident last March when Balochi rebels set fire to five oil tankers servicing a Chinese company. However, it is likely that unrest in that region, organic or manipulated, that hurts Chinese interests could be viewed by Beijing (or could be sold to them), as Indian provocation.

It is also inconceivable that China would sit idle if the separatists, allegedly backed by India, move from being a mere nuisance and acquire the potential to seriously jeopardise their prize – Gwadar – of the $46 billion CPEC investment. China could initiate and enhance its support for militants in the Indian northeast, or worse, encourage and abet Pakistan’s proxy warriors.

Meanwhile, an assertive US Asia-Pacific re-balance in the region – in response to China’s naval activism in the South China Sea – is likely to ensure greater US control of the Malacca Strait in order to deter the Chinese from revising marine territorial borders.

China, therefore, seeks alternative routes for its energy supply and goods, which would connect the Strait of Hormuz to a port in the Arabian Sea, along with better land connectivity through the Eurasian landmass.

Even as these new realities reshape multiple arrangements in the region, the challenge for India is to ensure that Balochistan does not transform from being Pakistan’s quagmire to another thorn in the Sino-Indian relationship. India must wean China away from the Gwadar port, and CPEC in general, by offering credible alternatives.

India could fast track its commitment to the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) corridor and invite the Chinese to set up a land connectivity corridor from Kolkata to Gandhinagar, passing through Mumbai. It should also offer to partner with the Chinese to refurbish the NH-6 linking Kolkata to Mumbai.

Finally, it should get the Chinese on-board the Sagarmala initiative, and allow the Chinese to co-develop a port off the coast of Gujarat, which would link up with the Indian-Chinese land connectivity corridor running roughly parallel to the Tropic of Cancer. The financial model for this land initiative could be along the lines of what has been proposed for the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor in collaboration with Japan, and implemented through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in which India is the second-largest shareholder.

The land corridor would cut through central India, which means that access can be controlled at will in event of an India-China conflict, vastly diminishing its dual-use potential. The fact that China should be made a partner in servicing India’s infrastructure needs has been argued for some time; the proposed connectivity projects could help India target its infrastructure deficit.

The Kolkata-Gandhinagar land corridor could be developed into a full-fledged manufacturing hub, linking one of the most resource rich Indian states to one of the least. From the point of view of domestic politics, West Bengal state assembly elections are scheduled this year. A credible proposal for the land corridor with Chinese backing will certainly do no harm to BJP’s electoral prospects there.

Geo-economics – as defined by the scholar and former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill – is the theory and practice of leveraging economic tools for strategic gains. A vigorous India-China connectivity partnership that offers China what it seeks on the Arabian Sea in return for the freeing up of sub-conventional space for India and/ or to encourage good behaviour from Pakistan, is a way by which India’s geoeconomic strategy would serve India’s security strategy.

This article originally appeared in The Times of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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1 Comment on "Engage the dragon on Balochistan"

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Vishesh
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The writer is perhaps in hangover  while writing this piece. There are no. Of reasons why China can’t be wean out of Gwadar and welcomed to an alternate OROB via India(connecting Gujrat-Kolkata-BCIM); 1.China is done with the construction of Gwadar port and now a state owned chinese firm got it on lease replacing a Singaporean firm. After investing billiins of $ in this ambitious tail of China’s grand OROB project it is naive to think that china will draw its feet out of it. 2. Statragically, China enjoys Al Weather Friendship with not just civilian government in Pakistan but also… Read more »
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