Pakistan a weak link in China's energy plan

Syed Fazl-e-Haider says sectarian violence is delaying a gas pipeline important to Beijing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 2:26am


The recent surge in sectarian violence in strategically located border areas in Pakistan could be part of a larger plan to curtail Beijing's profile in the region. Violence appears aimed at frustrating efforts to complete the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project and its proposed extension to China.

Baluchistan, Pakistan's southwestern province, has witnessed a surge in killings of Hazara people belonging to the Shiite sect of Islam as Islamabad expedited its efforts to finish the US$7.5billion gas pipeline, a project fiercely opposed by the United States because of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Baluchistan is considered a strategic part of the pipeline corridor, which was originally planned in 1993 to supply Iranian gas to India via Pakistan. India withdrew from the project in 2009 under US pressure.

As part of its energy security plan, China has the option to join the pipeline, which links Iran's South Pars gas field through Baluchistan, to western China, in tandem with the Karakoram Highway, which connects Pakistan's northern Gilgit-Baltistan region with Xinjiang .

China has not only built Gwadar port in Baluchistan; it is the biggest investor in the city. It has also rapidly increased its stakes in Gilgit-Baltistan over the past five years. A fully operational Gwadar port gives China a guaranteed land-based oil supply.

China needs a safe passage through Pakistan to maintain economic and strategic connectivity with South Asia. Chinese participation in the pipeline project would create a new overland energy link that could complement China's energy diversification strategy.

But the growing involvement of China in Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan has created anxiety in regional and global power centres including Washington and New Delhi.

A Sunni sect, the Lashkar- e-Jhangvi, has claimed responsibility for the sectarian attacks in Baluchistan. The sect is believed to have close ties to the Jundallah group, a militant organisation fighting for the rights of the Sunni Baluch population that has also launched terror attacks in Iran.

Iran claims the US is supporting Jundallah and also accuses New Delhi of fuelling unrest in Baluchistan through its bases in neighbouring Afghanistan.

Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan are key to China's plan to set up a transport and trade corridor by establishing new road and rail links. A volatile Baluchistan dampens prospects for construction of the pipeline.

Moreover, sectarian tensions prevail in Gilgit-Baltistan after Shiite-Sunni riots in April that killed dozens and prompted the government to impose a curfew. The restive region could frustrate Chinese moves for energy security.

Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst and author in Pakistan