Multiple conflicts have intersected in the Southwest Asian cross-border region of Balochistan for decades. But the area does not get as much attention as other places in the Middle East and South Asia. Conflicts in the surrounding lands in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan have overshadowed the ethnic and nationalist struggles in the region. However, China's move to create a major economic corridor through Pakistan will elevate Balochistan's geopolitical significance.
In a rare move, Pakistan's army officially accused India's foreign intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing, of promoting terrorism in Pakistan. A press release issued by the army's public relations directorate after a routine corps commanders meeting stated that the army's top brass have noticed the intelligence service's involvement in stirring terrorism in Pakistan. Reuters quoted an unnamed Pakistani official privy to the discussion in the meeting as saying that the commanders "unanimously felt" that India is providing many kinds of support to Pakistan's enemies, including the Pakistani Taliban and elements in the southern port city of Karachi or Balochistan. The official said Islamabad would soon reveal "documentary proof" of India's activities. Separately, Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif, in an unusually hawkish tone, said the Research and Analysis Wing was created "to undo Pakistan and to wipe Pakistan off the map of the world."
Pakistan has been particularly worried about Indian support for the armed struggle waged by ethnic separatists in the country's southwestern natural gas- and mineral-rich Balochistan province. Accusing the Indian spy agency of backing Baloch militant outfits as well as Taliban rebels and anti-state elements in Karachi in unofficial settings is a normal occurrence. However, for the country's senior defense officials to say so on the record is not routine.
These statements come within weeks of Chinese President Xi Jingping's visit to Islamabad, during which Beijing and Islamabad signed an agreement on a $46 billion infrastructure project in Pakistan. The highlight of this massive undertaking is the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor between China's western Xinjiang province and Pakistan's southern port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. The Baloch insurgent threat is a major obstacle for this project, because a good portion of the route for this corridor runs through Balochistan. Gwadar is also located in the restive region.
In response, Islamabad is developing a new 12,000-strong security force composed of nine army battalions and six wings of civilian security forces from the paramilitary Rangers and Frontier Corps headed by a two-star general. Now more than ever, Pakistan needs to curb Baloch militancy, and it needs to ensure that the insurgents' external lifeline is choked off.
From the point of view of India, which is concerned about the Chinese investment and the threat of a stronger Sino-Pakistani relationship, the Baloch insurgency is an important tool for undermining strategic projects between its two main rivals. From Pakistan's perspective, Baloch rebels and India's support for them are not the only problem in Balochistan. This area is also a launch pad for Afghan Taliban fighters to support their strongholds across the border in southern Afghanistan.
Balochistan's areas along the border with Afghanistan and Iran are also where Islamist militants affiliated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have on numerous occasions attacked Shiite gatherings. Moreover, Pakistani Balochistan is also a haven for Iran's Baloch Sunni Islamist rebels who conduct attacks in Iran's Sistan and Baluchestan province. In recent months, increased activity from militant groups such as Jundallah and Jaish al-Adl forced Iran — which believes Saudi Arabia supports these groups and Pakistan tolerates them — to engage in unilateral cross-border raids on their sanctuaries. This kind of activity could escalate as Riyadh takes a more assertive stance against Tehran.
These events have created considerable tension between Islamabad and Tehran, which otherwise share concern for the threat their respective ethnic Baloch rebel groups and Islamist militants represent. So far, these conflicts have been brewing in the background and rarely make the headlines. However, Pakistani and Chinese interests in building the economic corridor will bring these issues to the forefront. Balochistan is in the process of becoming strategically important. The process will involve Pakistan, China, India and Iran, and it will intersect with the existing regional problems, of which there is no shortage.