by Ali Minai
Two recent events – the visit to Pakistan by Chinese President Xi, and the horrific assassination of Pakistani human rights activist and social entrepreneur, Sabeen Mahmud – have once again put Pakistan's restive province of Balochistan “on the map” – at least for those who pay attention to the affairs of this turbulent region. Balochistan – where the ancestors of whales once grazed on land and through which the armies of Alexander and Queen Victoria passed on their way to unforeseen futures – is once again today a land of boundless opportunity and endless tragedy, depending on who one listens to. Let us begin by listening to the ghosts of history.
For millennia, Balochistan – or Gedrosia as the Greeks called it – has been the land between lands: A vast and arid expanse lying between the West and the East that ambitious conquerors or hardy travelers have occasionally chosen to brave at their own risk. Eight millennia ago, one of Earth's oldest civilizations thrived in the north-central part of the province, leaving their traces in the ruins of Mehrgarh. At some ancient and uncertain date, a great pilgrimage site arose at Hinglaj on Balochistan's Arabian Sea coast. Revered as “Nani ka Mandir“, Hindus hold it sacred to the goddess Durga. Others have suggested that its original association was with the Sumerian goddess Inanna – also known as Ishtar, Nannai, Nana, Naina Devi, and possibly the same as the Persian Anahita – Naheed – and the Greek Athene. It is even reported that a Khariji hyper-Islamist state on the lines of today's ISIS once existed in the heart of this land, though time has erased its memory from the land much as it has largely erased the land of Balochistan from the historical memory of great civilizations. But that may be about to change.
Arguably, Balochistan is one of those places where the facts of geography are now attempting to supersede the facts of history in significance. In an otherwise disappointing book called The Next 100 Years, George Friedman, the founder of Sratfor, makes a remarkably interesting point. He notes that the primacy of the United States as a world superpower is greatly facilitated by its open access to both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and thus to the Indian Ocean in between. This allows it to project naval power over the entire globe quite easily. In contrast, China – the next aspiring superpower – is forced to “face east” into the Pacific, and must go around complicated landmasses and perilous waters such as the Straits of Malacca to get access to the where the action lies in the world. What is more, for a China wishing unfettered access to Africa and the Middle East, all land routes westward would need to branch out through politically difficult regions and would be subject to numerous geopolitical hazards . In a plan of breathtaking brilliance, China is attempting to solve all these problems in one move by creating an access corridor through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea port of Gawadar in coastal Balochistan. Already having access to Northern Pakistan through the Karakoram Highway, a link to Gawadar will mean that China would need to depend on only one country – Pakistan – and would be able to connect with all points across the Indian Ocean from its northern apex. And, as a bonus, it turns out that Balochistan itself is one of the world's richest unexplored regions in terms of mineral resources, which China will need in its quest for superpower status.
None of this is inherently problematic. As geopolitical plans go, this one is quite a constructive and logical one – far better than harebrained schemes such as the U.S. attack on Iraq or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. In the right circumstances, the plan could be a win-win for both China and Pakistan – and even for the world, if it creates greater incentives for stability in the region. And therein lies the immediate problem: Right now, the region is anything but stable. In particular, Pakistan is in the grip of multiple internal conflicts – a well-publicized campaign against Taliban extremists; a many-sided implicit struggle between ideological forces seeking to shape the Pakistani identity; a hot-and-cold war with India; and a largely unacknowledged insurgency in Balochistan. All of these are problems for the Great Corridor of China – officially known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – and must be “solved” one way or another. How they are solved, however, matters a great deal for Pakistan, China and the world. The proposed corridor plan is like a magic screen onto which every region and every group in Pakistan – and beyond – can project their hopes and fears. But many of these hopes and fears are all too real.
The exact plans for the route that the corridor will follow appear to be secret, but many maps are circulating in the press and social media – each embodying its own opportunities and threatening its own hazards. The most direct route would take the corridor down the southeastern flank of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and then all the way across central Balochistan. In the current context, most of this route would traverse areas torn by insurgencies, which would thus have to be quelled completely before the corridor could be realized. And it would take a lot of realization, since the entire highway and ancillary networks would have to be built almost from scratch. On the positive side, such a route would bring development to vast areas sorely in need for it, and this alone could help end the insurgencies. It could also allow easier access by the people of these regions to the rest of the country, and vice versa, potentially increasing interaction and understanding, and moving Pakistan towards a national identity less grounded in Punjab and Karachi.
Another route map circulating in the media would take the corridor from the southern end of the Karakoram Highway near Abbottabad, along the partially built but fully planned National Motorway through Punjab, take a neat detour around Sindh and eventually join the coastal highway to Gawadar. This plan would clearly leverage existing infrastructure, but would leave large parts of Pakistan out of the equation. In particular, critics note that most of its benefits would go to Punjab, which dominates Pakistan. It would completely marginalize the smaller provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, and have only minimal effect on one corner of Balochistan, leaving its remaining vast expanse as it is – to be suppressed, exploited, fought over, and generally held out of the national consciousness.
Beyond all these factors, however, lies another interesting way of looking at the corridor plan: A topological view of Pakistan. Topology is the mathematics of connectivity and separation. Therefore, it applies just as certainly to countries and societies as it does to figures on a page or abstractions in the minds of mathematicians. All countries have a topological form in the minds of those who live there or think about them – defined by a mysterious combination of city locations, geological features and communication arteries such as highways and railways. Some are connected like webs, others laid out along an axis, and yet others arranged like spokes around a wheel. Surprisingly, the advent of air travel has not transformed these mental topologies as much as might have been expected – concepts such as “flyover country” notwithstanding – though it has certainly complicated them. Now the Internet is creating a much more decisive transformation, but in countries such as Pakistan, this is still a minor factor.
Though the highway network in Pakistan has ramified considerably in recent years, conceptually, the country has a linear structure defined by the axis running from Karachi to Lahore and thence to Islamabad and Peshawar. In times past, this axis was met by another great one running from Calcutta to Kabul, embodied in the Grand Trunk Road. But that axis was severed by Partition and remains so for the time being. Other smaller branches have connected the main axis from Karachi and Lahore to Quetta in northwestern Balochistan, but the insurgency in Balochistan has also weakened this connectivity. Now, as the planned economic corridor takes shape, it also represents an opportunity to reshape Pakistan's conceptual topology. At the very least, the corridor will orient Pakistan decisively towards China, and make it a supremely important part of the world's great trade network. But just as certainly, it will also trigger a process of internal reorganization within the country. Two factors will be crucial in this process. The first – already alluded to – is the route followed by the corridor. If it runs through considerable portions of all four provinces in the country, it can become a tie that binds the country with mutual economic dependency. But if its route creates clear winners and losers, it can also become a symbol of division in a country that is already divided by rivalries across many dimensions. A critical issue in this regard will be the way Pakistan's commercial hub and largest city, Karachi, is integrated with the corridor system. Though plans call for Karachi to be connected to the corridor at an upstream point, it is almost inevitable that the corridor will decrease the city's significance as a port for commerce. If Karachi cannot adapt to this reality and find some alternative utility within the new ecosystem created by the corridor, it will be marginalized. Archaeologists, puzzling over the sudden disappearance of the thriving cities of the Indus Valley around 1700 BCE, have suggested that a shift in the course of the Indus may have played a role. A shift in the economic axis of Pakistan away from its southern anchor in Karachi could play no less devastating a role for this and other cities of today's Indus Valley civilization in southern Pakistan.
The second major factor that will determine the topological role of the economic corridor is its nature. Will it be a truly national asset whose economic resources can be accessed by everyone in Pakistan? Or will it be a “strategic” route guarded by fences and soldiers, providing a safe passage to and from the Arabian Sea to China? If it takes the latter form, the corridor will divide Pakistan into two parts as surely as any large highway divides an ecosystem, and the common people of Pakistanis will appear on this great highway of commerce mainly as metaphorical roadkill. Some have read the announcement that Pakistan is creating a special force of 10,000 elite soldiers to protect the corridor as a sign that it will mainly be a strategic conduit, but that reading is probably too cynical. Given the circumstances in Balochistan, Sindh and even Southern Punjab, strong protection is essential for any commerce to occur. However, if the “master strategists” of Pakistan do plan an exclusionary corridor, they would do well to remember that by doing so they will be reinforcing a historical fault-line that runs through modern Pakistan, splitting it into areas traditionally ruled from the west (Balochistan and the tribal areas next to Afghanistan) and those historically connected to the east (Punjab and Sindh). Tempting history in this way is often unwise.
The decision on how to build and operate the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will require an inordinate degree of foresight and courage from the powers that rule Pakistan. A large change always creates uncertainties, and power hates uncertainty above all else. It would not be surprising if the corridor triggers a natural impulse to double down on control. But history also shows that many of humanity's greatest follies have been committed in the attempt to maintain power without embracing change. As the topology of the world is changed by technology at multiple levels, decision-makers in Pakistan would do well to seek a less linear, more connected, and more participatory arrangement for the country – one where simple strategies for maintaining control could be replaced by more complicated, but ultimately more successful ones.
As for China, in the context of geopolitical history, the corridor plan symbolizes the recent revolution in its outlook. This arguably greatest and oldest continuous civilization in human history has almost always been an inward-looking one – defending itself against outsiders by building a Great Wall, and forbidding its own people from traveling too far into the world. For the builders of great walls to think about building great corridors connecting distant regions is indeed a transformation worthy of an aspiring world power.
The world is full of Great Projects – tall buildings, long bridges, vast highway networks – but very seldom does a single project alter the geography of the world. The Suez Canal and the Panama Canal did this spectacularly, and now another great change in the connectivity of the world is beginning to take shape in Pakistan. The question is whether it will connect more or less than it will disconnect.