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Balochistan and a New “Great Game” in Central Asia?

Submitted by on May 20, 2011 – 11:36 pm 17 Comments |  
Map of the rivalry between Chabahar and Gwadar“Pakistan has given China a base at Gwadar in the heart of Baluch territory. So an independent Baluchistan would serve U.S. strategic interests in addition to the immediate goal of countering Islamist forces.” – Selig Harrison, 2011

Balochistan is an impoverished region beleaguered by insurgency and ethnic strife. But it is rich in resources and it occupies an increasingly vital geo-strategic position. As a result, Balochistan has been the focus of massive infrastructural projects. Iran and Pakistan are developing competing port, rail, and highway networks, hoping to funnel the trade of Central Asia through their own national territories. As neither country can handle the costs and technical challenges on its own, both are partnering with other states; Pakistan has turned to China, and Iran to India. As a result, rivalry between Iran and Pakistan is mounting. Baloch insurgents, not surprisingly, have targeted the new projects, provoking military escalation.

Google Earth Image of Gwadar, PakistanPakistan’s main initiative in Balochistan begins at the port of Gwadar, not far from the Iranian border. Gwadar was a minor fishing outpost on a sparsely settled coast through most of the 20th century. In 1993, the Pakistani government selected it for port development, hoping to ease the congestion at Karachi and to tap the future trade of Central Asia. Construction, carried out by China, began in 2002, and by 2008 the facility was operational. Management of the tax-free port is currently contracted out to PSA International, formerly the Port of Singapore Authority.

As the harbor was going in, so too were transportation lines. Prior to the construction of the Makran Coastal Highway (2002-2004), travel between Gwadar and Karachi required several days over rough dirt tracks; now it can be done in six hours. Another new road links Gwadar to northern Sindh, and 2007 saw the development of the New Gwadar International Airport. Other plans for Gwadar include shipbuilding facilities, natural gas pipelines, and a military base. According to the official website, the port will “act as a catalyst for a large number of related projects like: trans-shipment of bulk cargo; oil storage, refinery, and petrochemicals; export processing and industrial zones; export of minerals/livestock; and services (hotels, accommodation, tourism).” In April 2011, Pakistan announced that it was negotiating with China to connect Gwadar with the Pakistani rail network, which would entail laying more than 900 kilometers of track. In the same month, general Ashfaq Kayani announced plans to establish a military institute of technology in the city.

China’s involvement with the project extends well beyond construction and financing. The Chinese government foresees Gwadar as the terminus of a “back-door” transportation corridor into western China. A proposed pipeline would carry crude oil from the port to Xinjiang, enhancing Chinese energy security. Several US security analysts claim that China will also use Gwadar for military purposes, part of its “string of pearls” strategy designed to project power into the Indian Ocean and secure access to key Middle Eastern and African resources. China denies military ambitions, claiming that it seeks a “harmonious ocean.” The United States and India are not convinced that Chinese designs are fully peaceful. It has thus been suggested—notably by the Heritage Foundation—that the two countries will need to forge an alliance to counter-balance China in the region. Such a partnership may yet materialize, but it faces a huge obstacle in Iran. New Delhi is already collaborating with Tehran on a competing port, located only forty-seven miles (seventy-five kilometers) from Gwadar.

Google Earth Image of Gwadar and ChabaharThe Iranian port of Chabahar was also a relatively small town before it was selected for infrastructural development. The initial plans were hatched under the shah, with help from the United States. The Iranian revolution of 1979 put the project on hold, but it was revived during the Iran-Iraq war, when shipping through the Strait of Hormuz was periodically paralyzed. Hoping to jump-start its economy, Iran created the Chabahar Free-Trade Industrial Zone in 1992. Chabahar is now slated to become a tourist destination and a center of higher education. The International University of Chabahar, established in 2002, offers engineering, business, and computer science degrees, in collaboration with the University of London and the London School of Economics.

Iran has been expanding Chabahar’s port facilities in hopes of capturing some of the foreseen Central Asian trade that would otherwise be funneled through Gwadar. India has signed on, helping upgrade the port and building new road and rail linkages. The plan is to connect Chabahar to Afghanistan, former Soviet Central Asia, and Russia; ultimately a “multi-modal transport link” is supposed to reach St. Petersburg. Iran and India are also discussing a possible natural gas pipeline that would snake along the seabed from Chabahar to India, by-passing Pakistan.

Google Earth Image of ChabaharProgress on the Chabahar port has been slower than planned. According to a March 2011 Reuters report, “Indian officials now believe that Iranian reluctance to move faster on Chabahar may be linked to its anxieties about the troubled Sistan-Baluchestan region where Shi’ite Muslim Iran is trying to put down a Sunni Muslim insurgency.” India wants to expedite the project, as it is desperate to obtain a backdoor corridor into Afghanistan that avoids Pakistan. India has already, at great cost and danger, built the 218-kilometer Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, which it hopes to connect to the new port.

The geopolitical and economic intrigue currently underway in Baluchistan fits into what is sometimes called the “New Great Game” (the original having been the 19th century contest between the British and Russian empires for influence in the same region). As before, the geopolitical considerations can be intricate. According to the Wikipedia, the New Great Game involves “competition between the United States, the United Kingdom and other NATO countries against Russia, the People’s Republic of China and other Shanghai Cooperation Organisation countries for ‘influence, power, hegemony and profits in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus.’”

The Wikipedia’s depiction of the New Great Game does not match the competition being waged between Gwadar and Chabahar. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is not a real alliance, and its two largest members, Russia and China, find themselves on opposite sides of this particular rivalry. It is also questionable where the United States and the rest of NATO figure in. Despite its (fraying) alliance with Islamabad, the US is excluded from the Pakistan-China linkage, and despite its evolving ties with New Delhi, it is excluded from any nexus that involves Iran. And despite Selig Harrison’s fond desires, it is highly unlikely that the United States will be able to partner with an independent Balochistan anytime soon. The US and NATO, it would seem, are sitting out this round of the New Great Game.

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  • “The foreseen Central Asian trade”… besides the infamous Pipelinistan (i.e. oil and gas trade, mostly through projected and we’ll see if ever finished pipelines) what trade is to expect into/from that semi-desertic area? Uzbekistan’s cotton? Afghanistan’s opium? Weapons for all the wars stirred with oil and strategical routes in mind?

    As you describe it, a reader could think that there are major markets in Khazastan or the Caucasus. There are not: they are at best strategical transit zones for oil, notably for China and Russia… not so important for India and the USA, which operate mostly through the sea.

    What is interesting is the attitude of India: India has ample naval interests in the Indian Ocean and is in perpetual collision course with the Beijing-Islamabad axis. India may feel threatened by the “string of pearls” and definitively wants a subdued Pakistan, divided better.

    Compared with India’s the interests of the USA, who plays all cards at the same time, are much less straightforward. Surely the USA is only supporting India so much and as far as it is not able to question the US imperial supremacy in the Indian Ocean. Naturally, India would like to totally replace the USA in that naval power role but knows it cannot… yet. India, as mentioned would like Pakistan torn to pieces, the USA does not… so much (though it is a playable card and a Damocles’ sword to wield against the ISI).

    The main difference between the Old Great Game and the New Great Game is that India is not part of the US Empire but an independent player with its own interests – among them good relations with Russia and Iran… and most other countries but Pakistan and China.

    I always think that this China-India rivalry is essentially wrong for both countries and very badly played by specially China. IMO China and India are natural allies, not natural enemies at all. However this is something that does not seem to catch in the respective political spheres, and I do not know why.

  • Mr Martin nice article but as you wrote that “it is highly unlikely that the United States will be able to partner with an independent Balochistan anytime soon”. However what if we call this a suicide? Sooner or later Balochistan will be an Independent Country, USA got no choice, they can’t trust on Pakistan, if they will than they should be ready for another 9/11.The Baloch is only an option which can secure the Interest of Both Nations. Baloch and USA


    • uma siddiqi

      Mr Jamal Nasir Baloch
      your words clearly described how to safe the world, I agree with you, independent Balochistan is very important for peaceful world.

  • Thanks again to Maju for the informed commentary. Maju makes an important point about limitations on Central Asian trade, which I was why I used the word “foreseen.” But oil and natural gas deposits in the region are significant: Kazakhstan is not so much a transit zone zone for oil, but is rather a major producer in its own right. It ranks 11th in the world in reserves of both oil and natural gas, and Turkmenistan is 12th in natural gas. Other mineral resources are significant as well. China has been investing in copper mines in Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan is a major gold producer. If security and good transportation linkages were to be obtained, mineral production and exports would increase. But it is still highly uncertain whether the value of such trade, barring hydrocarbons, would bear the costs of the projects discussed — hence the focus of the post on geopolitics.

    In regard to the “New Great Game,” Maju is certainly right that India is an “independent player with its own interests.” But the same is true in regard to Pakistan — and China and Iran for that matter. (In the original “game,” China and Persia were nominally independent, but were pawns.)

    I am not sure why India and China should be regarded as “natural allies,” or as” natural enemies,” as some might think. The history of geopolitics is one of shifting alliances: France and Austria were utter enemies until they became allies before the Seven Year’s War; Britain and France were long “natural” enemies before they became “natural” friends. Classical geopolitical theory, dating back to the Arthashastra of ancient India, holds that adjacent states are natural enemies, and that states located at one remove are natural allies, but such checker-board considerations have long ceased to have any meaning.

    That said, the territorial conflict between India and China does seem easily solvable, simply by accepting the status quo: if India could acknowledge Chinese control of Aksai China, China could acknowledge Indian control of Arunachal Pradesh. Yet, as is so often the case, neither country wants to make the necessary concessions.

  • Jim Wilson

    I’m sorry if I’ve missed it in one of your other posts, but do we have any idea how popular the idea of Baluchistan is among Baluchis, or perhaps how popular the idea of Pakistan is?

  • To respond to Jim Wilson, I image that support for independence is very high, but I have not seen any public opinion polling (which would, at any rate, be difficult to carry out.) Perhaps Jamil Nassir Baloch would like to respond to this question.

    In response to Mr. Baloch’s comments, all that I can say is “perhaps.” I simply don’t view future geopolitical arrangements as predictable. But thanks for the comments!

  • Erik

    I really like the new site, just saw it since I follow your work through RSS. 🙂

    I thought you might find this article interesting, about China allegedely not only helping Pakistan construct “civilian” infrastructure but a military base as well at the Gwadar location. (found via and @attackerman at twitter)

    This clearly fits in the new “Great Game” category if true. I sure can see why Manmohan Singh has already publicly worried about this, he probably knew of this then (?).

  • @Martin : Thanks

    @Jim Wilson: As Martin said that The Demand is very high ,It is a fact.However as you wrote that Idea of Baluchistan but I will prefer words ‘’ Idea of an Independent Baluchistan’’, because if we try to locate the Balochsitan which belong to Baloch Nation than It will be little difficult to understand the boundaries.

    First Balochistan was occupied by British in 1839 after that attacked they divided Balochistan into 3 Parts :

    1) Iran (Baloch areas 80 percent of Sistan va Balochistan and some other areas): They built Goldsmith Line :(now the international border b/w Iran and Pakistan)

    2) Afghanistan (Baloch areas Helmand and Nimroz): They built Durrand Line: Some non-Baloch areas belong to Afghanistan included to Balochistan(now the international border b/w Aghanistan and Pakistan )

    3) British Balochistan ( before 1947. They took Quetta ,Karachi and other areas of Balochistan ) Now some parts are included in Province Balochistan and some are not . Pakistan took many part of Balochistan and merged these Parts in Sindh and Punjab Province of Pakistan.

    4) Kalat State or Balochsitan ( Kalat was Capital of Balochistan , British accepted Kalat as an Independent state form 1839 until 1947.British Balochistan and Kalat Balochistan merged on 11 August 1948. Unfortunately occupied by Pakistan on 27 March 1948)

    I mention these things only to show you that Balochistan is not’’ Province Balochistan’’ but the whole Baloch Land. Baloch as a Nation demand for Independent Balochistan . There are some group who believe in Pakistani Parliament but are in Minority or they are just working for Pakistan(not all but majority ), I wrote working for Pakistan because some of them are collaborating Pakistan Army …against Baloch students .Collaboration with Pakistan means intention to kill those Baloch students or Freedom fighters who demand for an Independent Balochistan . The Baloch as a Nation demands Complete Liberation of Balochistan.

    • uma siddiqi

      so true

  • Mr. Baloch is correct in noting that Balochistan, as a cultural region and perhaps nation, extends beyond Balochistan Province in Pakistan and Sistan and Balochistan province in Iran. Far southern Afghanistan is solidly Baloch, and scattered Baloch-speaking communities extend as far north as Turkmenistan. Oman also has a sizable Baloch community (Gwadar and other parts of the Makran coast were long under Omani rule). I considered devoting further GeoCurrents posts to these areas, but I decided that it was time to move on to other issues

  • Pouria

    It would be really interesting to read about history of Balochistan and how the currently pakistani part was seized from Iran by the British India in the first and second GoldSmith Agreements.

  • Good point by Pouria — in 1863, Britain took most of what is now southern Pakistani Balochistan from Iran in the first Goldsmid arbitration, and in 1872 toko most of northern Pakistani Bolochistan in the second Goldsmid arbitration. The Baloch were not consulted. For a map showing Iran’s territorial losses, see

  • Jim Wilson

    Just coming from the perspective of the East Central European experience, it strikes me that the Balochi independence movement is likely to get more international support if it does not insist upon a greater Balochistan, including all areas inhabited by Balochi speakers. If the international community suspects that any independent Balochistan carved out of Pakistan will push irredentist claims against Iran and Afghanistan, it may see such an entity as destabilizing. The various nation states carved out of the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Russian empires at the end of World War I all claimed parts of all of their neighbors on ethnic grounds. Those claims added to the miseries of World War II and continue to haunt Europe to this day. It is only since the end of the Cold War, as these states have renounced territorial claims on their neighbors, that the threat of border wars has ebbed.

  • Great point by Jim Wilson. In 1990, I anticipated major problems in Central Europe, thinking that Hungarian nationalists would demand all Magyar-speaking areas. But only a relatively small minority did so, and hence peace prevailed. Still, the threat remains latent; the current Hungarian government has some authoritarian tendencies, and bumper-stickers showing Hungary’s pre-Trianon boundaries abound in Budapest.

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  • Aadam Baloch

    independence of Baluchistan or greater Baluchistan will remain a dream …sorry to say but to be honest this is simply not possible..why ?

    1) For any Independence movement a massive popular support is needed ….we have not seen any popular movement…yes there is support for insurgent groups in districts, like Kohlu, Dera Bugti etc but these areas are landlocked and close to Sindh and Punjab and to be honest leaders of these areas like Sardar Akhtar Khan mengal, Bramhdag Bugti etc have influence only in these areas but lack massive public support because most of the Bloch families are employed or settled in Karachi, lahore ,Islamabad, faisalabad etc and even these leaders have local rivals in there areas. Even if you are going to exclude Baloch families conection with rest of the Pakistan, i have not heard any independence movement successfull whose leaders live in exile e.g. so many insurgent leaders living in Uk and europe.

    2) Even if Baluchistan gains any significant Independence movement Iran will never allow this to happen .Why ? because there is similar insurgency in Sistan Baluchistan. For ex. 70’s and 80’s it was Iran who supported Pakistan to militarily wipe out insurgent groups.

    3) Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan all have a pie of Baluchistan and these countries no mater have so many differences against them but none of them would like any independent Bauchistan carved out of them. There is only string and that is Baluchistan that unites these three countries and this is a fact.

  • Shakil

    It looks like demand for breaking Pakistan into size and carving Baluchistan as a country come more from outside of Baluchistan rather than from within Baluchistan. A limited insurgency we see currently in Baluchistan is only result of India and other powers providing funding and training from across the border from Afghanistan. Sixteen Indian counsellor offices in desert across Pakistan western border are not for issuing visas! After the pull out of NATO forces from Afghanistan and possible regime change, this insurgency will die its own death. This had happened in the past with soviet plans to dissect Pakistan. If Pakistan withstood this mini insurgency that doesnt have support apart from few villages for last decade, it will not succeed. Everyone ignoring Pakistan and its forces with nuclear assets, will not just standby and watch getting dismembered. Greed only from outsiders will not make this reality!

  • Khalid Rahim

    Before the US Congress decides on nation of Baluchistan by taking land from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The West should look into the plight of the Kurds in Middle East and the Palestinians. Next the Native American Tribes to have their own Independent Nation. Following the route to Kashmir and creation of Kashmiri nationhood thus ending the tussle between India and Pakistan. If a free referendum
    is held in South India asking if they wish to have a nationhood of their own, follow it in Bengali speaking region of the East.

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