An unprecedented Chinese financial and construction effort is rapidly developing Pakistan’s strategically located Arabian Sea port of Gwadar into one of the world’s largest transit and transshipment cargo facilities.
The deep water port lies at the convergence of three of the most commercially important regions of the world, the oil-rich Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia.
Beijing is developing Gwadar as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, known as CPEC. The two countries launched the 15-year joint mega project in 2015 when President Xi Jinping visited Islamabad.
Under the cooperation deal construction or improvement of highways, railways, pipelines, power plants, communications and industrial zones is underway in Pakistan with an initially estimated Chinese investment of $46 billion.
The aim is to link Gwadar to landlocked western China, including its Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, giving it access to a shorter and secure route through Pakistan to global trade. The port will also provide the shortest route to landlocked Central Asian countries, including Afghanistan, through transit trade and offering transshipment facilities.
Chinese fuel imports and trading cargo will be loaded on trucks and ferried to and from Xinjiang through the Karakoram Highway, snaking past snow-caped peaks in northern Pakistan.
Gwadar will be able to handle about one million tons of cargo annually by the end of the year. Officials anticipate that with expansion plans under way, the port will become South Asia’s biggest shipping center within five years, with a yearly capacity of handling 13-million tons of cargo. And by 2030, they say, it will be capable of handling up to 400-million tons of cargo annually.
China has in recent months begun calling CPEC the flagship project of its global Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI. The “qualitative change” from an experimental project to flagship project underscores the importance Beijing attaches to CPEC, said Zhao Lijian, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Islamabad.
Out of 39 “early harvest” projects under CPEC, 19 have since been completed or are under construction with a Chinese investment of about $18.5 billion, Lijian told VOA. The progress makes it the fastest developing of all of at least six BRI’s corridors China plans to establish, added the Chinese diplomat.
Gwadar is a “symbol of regional peace and prosperity” because it will connect countries around Pakistan to serve their trading interests, said port Chairman Dostain Khan Jamaldini.
Jamaldini dismissed as “not true” concerns that skilled Chinese laborers, engineers and businesses will flood Pakistan, hurting domestic industries. About 65 percent of the labor force on construction and other projects at Gwadar is Pakistani, and the number of Chinese is currently just over 300, he added.
Security concerns and India’s claims over some of the territory crossed by the massive project remain key challenges for Gwadar and CPEC in general. Pakistani and Chinese officials dismiss reported assertions that Beijing is expanding its presence at Gwadar to be able to handle naval ships and military transport planes.
The collaboration has “no strategic or political” aims against a third country, insisted Lijian. He went on to assert that the purpose of CPEC” is to help our iron brother Pakistan” to improve its economy and to strengthen the bilateral relationship.
Pakistani officials have trained and deployed about 15,000 troops and paramilitary forces to guard CPEC-related projects and the Chinese working on them. Islamabad alleges that the Indian intelligence agency has been tasked to plot subversive acts to derail CPEC.
Sleepy fishing town
Gwadar, with a population of around 100,000, mostly fishermen and boat makers, is often referred to as a sleepy fishing town.
The costal city’s poverty-stricken residents are hoping new employment opportunities will be created for them in the wake of the massive development underway in Gwadar.
But their immediate challenges are shortages of clean drinking water and hours long daily power blackouts.
“We are happy Chinese are building port, hospitals, schools and roads but right now we out of power during most of the day and limited water availability,” said fisherman Khalil Ahmed.
The family, like other fishermen in Gwadar, has been plying unspoiled crystal blue waters of the Arabian Sea for decades with age-old fishing techniques and barely surviving on limited income because financial resources do not allow them to buy modern fishing tools.
However, ongoing massive economic activity will “qualitatively” change the lives of its poverty-stricken residents for the better, says Mushahid Hussain, who chairs a parliamentary committee on CPEC.
He says a fisheries processing plant is being installed at the port and arrangements are being planned to train and equip fishermen to improve and export local fish to other parts of Pakistan and China.
Senator Hussain believes economic projects under construction in Gwadar will help its people and address long-running grievances of the province of Baluchistan, where the port is situated.
The poverty-stricken largest Pakistani province has long been in the grip of a low-level Baluchistan separatist insurgency, which mainly stems from demands from the federal government for local control over Baluchistan’s vast natural resources.
Gwadar’s existing 50-bed government hospital is being extended to 300 beds, a technical and vocational institute is being constructed, a 300-megawatts coal-based power plant and a desalination plant are being installed, a new international airport and a six-lane international standard expressway are being built to connect Gwadar port with the rest of Pakistan and neighboring countries, including Iran and Afghanistan.
Local officials say most of the projects, including the new airport, are being built with Chinese financial grants. The rest of the projects in Gwadar and elsewhere in Pakistan under CPEC are being built with “interest-free” and “soft-loans” from China.