Monday, June 10, 2013

China in Balochistan: Election Outlook-XXI

June 10, 2013 SARFARAZ AHMED

Seen from Pakistan's perspective, China's presence in Balochistan could be a game-changer or a newly introduced element that changes the existing situation in a highly significant way. Not only does the world's second largest economy's arguably quasi-ownership of Gwadar port throw up a challenge (in the mid-term) to all Iranian ports in the Persian Gulf-from Chabahar to Bandar Abbas and from Bushahar to Khurumshahar-and the UAE's premier port Dubai, but the possible construction of highways and railway tracks between Gwadar and Khunjrab/Karachi are developments that clearly indicate the advancement of Beijing's geostrategic interests in South Asia.

Although, Nawaz Sharif did not make any mention of the historic Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline deal in his maiden speech after his election as prime minister for an unprecedented third term, yet he was full of praise for the same outgoing government's decision to hand over Gwadar port to China. In this regard, a visibly excited Nawaz recalled his meeting with visiting Chinese premier Li Keqiang and the latter's readiness to undertake mega development projects, including construction of highways and laying of railway tracks, without any further loss of time. There will be constitution - on an urgent basis - of a high-powered task force to conceive, plan and execute these projects, according to him.
Chinese aircraft carrier
That China is in Balochistan is a profoundly bad news for many, particularly the Baloch insurgents and the outside powers that feel threatened by optimal operationalization of Gwadar port. They now find themselves in a state of paralysing dismay mainly because of the fact that the crisis of Sudans-from where China meets its six percent of oil needs and where it has made over $10 billion investment in two decades-had thrown up an opportunity for Beijing to consider for the first time whether or not it should continue to pursue the Mao-era non-interference policy even in the face of certain geo-strategic developments that pose direct challenges to its energy and raw material needs.

There exists no incriminating evidence to suggest that China has abandoned its policymaking cardinal principle of non-interference that it formulated decades before it embarked on an economic journey with the arrival of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. Seen from the prism of economic imperatives, the situation in Khartoum and Juba had necessitated for China to defuse tensions between the two countries on oil revenue sharing and violence on both sides of their border, although it knew well that keeping both sides happy was a difficult juggling act which required an extraordinary degree of diplomacy.

Moreover, the end of 27-year old Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka also lends credence to arguments that China has begun to look at its responsibilities as a rising economic superpower from a different perspective. China's highly increased involvement warranted by its geo-strategic and economic needs and the PML-N government's eagerness that clearly stems from a combination of factors such as country's economic woes and the urgency to provide security to Punjabi settlers who constitute the single largest minority in almost all Baloch-dominated districts of Balochistan strongly indicate that the province is going to witness a profound paradigm shift in its relations with Islamabad.

A beginning in this regard seems to have been made: not only has the participation of Baloch and Pushtoon nationalist parties in the May 11 vote provided legitimacy to the general election, the unchallenged election of a nationalist Baloch as Chief Minister and appointment of a Pushtoon party (PkMAP of Mahmood Khan Achakzai)-nominated governor have given birth to some legitimate hopes insofar as the Balochistan issue is concerned.

Last but not least, it was after the disintegration of the Soviet Union that travelers leaving Delhi's Indira Gandhi international airport would immediately spot a huge hoarding carrying an announcement "Ukraine is in India". This was a bold admission of growing economic ties between India and a newly independent former Soviet state. There is little doubt that Balochistan areas undergoing massive development will soon be witnessing road signs-in addition to English and Urdu languages-in Chinese language. Central Asian countries where China has been carrying out massive development/infrastructure works already present the usual pictures of road signs in Russian and Chinese languages. This is surely an act that does not undermine any country's national sovereignty.

The writer is newspaper's News Editor. He's member of the American Economic Association (AEA)

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