Last Christmas there was love in the air. Flying home from Afghanistan, Narendra Modi suddenly decided to stop over in Lahore to pay his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif a surprise visit, the first Indian prime minister to go to the estranged neighbour in nearly 12 years. The occasion for the unprecedented outreach: Sharif’s birthday and his granddaughter’s wedding. Sharif later hosted the wedding wearing a pink turban Modi brought as a gift.

Pakistan happy to aid in China’s quest for land route to the west; India, not so much

The turban has come off and so have the gloves, as the brief “bromance” – as media on the subcontinent had then put it – proved short-lived. India and Pakistan are back to their default setting of trading charges and fire, only this time dragging one of China’s key infrastructure projects in the region into the line of fire.

The current round of hostilities between the two South Asian neighbours erupted in grenade explosions last Sunday. Four terrorists, who India says belonged to a militant outfit sheltered by Pakistan, crossed the border and raided an army base in Uri in the Indian-administered province of Jammu and Kashmir, killing 18 Indian soldiers.

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As public demand for retribution mounts, the tough-talking Modi, who as an opposition leader would mock his predecessor for being soft on Pakistan and China, finds himself in a difficult situation as his options look woefully limited against a nuclear-armed neighbour. Short of an appropriate military option, the sniping has moved to the global diplomatic stage. While Pakistan last week was drawing the world’s attention to the ongoing protests in Indian-administered Kashmir that have claimed more than 80 lives, India has been trying to isolate Pakistan diplomatically at the ongoing United Nations General Assembly by painting it as a rogue state sponsoring terror.

But according to Shashi Tharoor, an opposition lawmaker and former minister of state for external affairs, “Isolation is a challenge since various countries have bilateral reasons not to isolate Pakistan. The US needs Pakistan because of Afghanistan, and China has major strategic interests there, especially the US$46 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that is China’s single biggest overseas development project. As long as major powers choose to stay engaged with Pakistan, overlooking its misbehaviour, diplomatic isolation will have its limitations as a policy.”

The CPEC links the Pakistani port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea with Xinjiang ( 新疆 ), providing western China easy access to fuel imports from the Middle East and Africa while creating an export route for its landlocked western states.

Gwadar is located in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province, where a low-intensity separatist insurgency for nationhood has been bubbling for decades. Many Chinese workers have been attacked and killed amid the violence, forcing large-scale security arrangements. About US$460 million, or 1 per cent of the corridor’s project cost, is to be spent on security, with two armed guards assigned to every Chinese worker.

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With limited diplomatic or military options, experts believe it is this showpiece project – part of China’s “One Belt, One Road” strategy of integrating the regional market with infrastructure investments – that India is targeting to force China to rein in its “all-weather friend” Pakistan.

“India playing the Baluch card is part of a more complex signal to the Chinese that their plans for the CPEC are contingent on wider regional stability, and thereby tacitly nudge the Chinese to play a constructive role in reorienting Pakistan’s world view and foreign policies,” said Zorawar Daulet Singh, co-author of India China Relations: The Border Issue and Beyond.

India, which opposes the economic corridor as it gives China a maritime toehold on its western flank and passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir that India claims as its own territory, has recently upped the ante on Baluchistan. In India’s new strategic calculus, fanning a smouldering Baluch resistance is tit-for-tat for Pakistan’s support of separatists in India-administered Kashmir. In an unprecedented move, Modi voiced his support for the Baluch cause in his independence day address to the nation last month.

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“Pakistan has as much cause for concern over Baluchistan as India has over Kashmir. The province is not merely the most mineral- and energy-rich but being home to Gwadar, it is the destination of the biggest single foreign investment in the country,” said Subir Bhaumik, author of Insurgent Crossfire, on state-backed insurgencies in South Asia.

Baluch leaders have been regularly appearing on Indian television articulating their cause and Indian public service broadcaster All India Radio has announced it is starting a Baluch-language service. New Delhi has hinted it may also give asylum to Baluchistan Republican Party (BRP) leader Brahamdagh Bugti, who recently told Indian media that he would take China to the International Court of Justice for helping the Pakistani army trample on the rights of the Baluchis.

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“Bugti’s asylum suggests that India will make Baluchistan a central plank of its strategy, politically and diplomatically. China is beginning to worry about all these,” said noted Pakistani television host Najam Sethi.

That China has been noticing the fresh stirrings in Baluchistan is evident in a recent piece on Global Times, which expressed concerns about the high costs in the volatile region. “China may not want to put too much focus on the region. At the very least, it would be unwise to put all its eggs in one basket,” the state-run paper advocated.