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Sleepy Pakistani Village Rises as China's Gateway to Middle East


Before a surge of Chinese investment, Gwadar was a nondescript fishing village. Parts of the town still look that way. (N. Hoodbhoy/VOA)

Over the last six months, the skyline over the sleepy fishing city of Gwadar has been transformed by machines that dredge the Arabian Sea and cranes that set up shipping berths in what is projected to become Pakistan’s biggest international port.

Infrastructure developments have enabled the hammer-shaped Gwadar peninsula to emerge as the centerpiece of China’s determined effort to shorten its trade route to the Persian Gulf and obtain access to the rich oil reserves there.

A mini-“Chinatown” has appeared, with prefabricated living quarters, a canteen and a karaoke center. After hours, the workers have the grounds to play their favorite game, badminton.

A spokesman for the Chinese team in Gwadar said in an interview that his government had invited employment bids in China, then brought the workers here.

He proudly touted the successful test run conducted by China in November when it used Pakistan’s land route from Kashgar to Gwadar to transport a convoy of 60 containers for export to the Middle East and North Africa.

Prior to that, he said, China had sailed materials through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean to reach Gwadar.

The Chinese propose to cut down that 12,000-kilometer sea route by about one-fourth once they adopt the land route from the northwestern province of Xinjiang to Gwadar.

So eager is China to save on distance, time and expense — and the challenge posed by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea — that it has weathered Pakistan’s unstable law-and-order situation to build its economic corridor.

Small wonder that the Chinese spokesman omitted an incident — related by locals to VOA — that the test convoy came under fire in Hoshab, Baluchistan, despite protection from a special security force.

Since then, Pakistan has enhanced its 12,000-plus security force to protect the Chinese. That has turned Gwadar into a military zone, with strict checks of vehicles and ID cards, plus an encampment of intelligence officials.

Still, Baluch insurgents use attacks on “soft targets,” like laborers from other provinces, to drive away investors from the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. On April 5, as road workers from Sindh were gunned down in Kharan in targeted killings claimed by the Baluchistan Liberation Front, former army Col. Farooq Ahmed said suspicion fell on militants operating from Afghanistan.

The Chinese, for their part, have taken heart from the security provided by Islamabad to plan ahead. A prefabricated coal plant will be brought from China to Gwadar to fire up its energy needs. Moreover, China will finance Gwadar international airport, according to the spokesman.

Distances inside Pakistan have shortened as the Frontier Works Organization builds a 3,000-km network of roads funded by Chinese investment.

Cranes designed to hoist shipping containers onto cargo ships are already in place at the pier in Gwadar, where a major seaport is being built with Chinese backing. (N. Hoodbhoy/VOA)
Cranes designed to hoist shipping containers onto cargo ships are already in place at the pier in Gwadar, where a major seaport is being built with Chinese backing. (N. Hoodbhoy/VOA)

Symbolizing skepticism

Despite Pakistan’s ongoing military operation against the Taliban, sporadic terror attacks are the biggest hurdle to the country’s development. After 9/11, when Pakistan allied with the U.S. in combating terrorism in Afghanistan, militant organizations put down their roots and threatened the nation from inside.

As social indicators fell and Pakistan became one of the world’s most food-insecure nations, it opened its doors to China — one of America’s rivals — to help fight poverty, a key factor in fundamentalism and terrorism.

When U.S. envoy Nikki Haley recently spoke of nations that use their United Nations veto to stop non-state actors from being designated as terrorists, it was seen as a reference to China’s refusal to let Kashmiri militant Masood Azhar be so named. Pakistani analysts interpreted this to mean the U.S. would move closer to India, even while revisiting ties with Pakistan because of its key role in Afghanistan.

Now the road from Karachi to Gwadar is smooth and empty, with awe-inspiring, wind-carved hills and mysterious canyons that dip into golden sands that run for kilometers along the deep blue-green Arabian Sea. It has enabled locals to rediscover their country -- even as some marvel at the speed of construction.

But in a country that suffers from grinding poverty, little industry and high unemployment, the benefits of China’s investment are still hard to sell to the average person.

Gwadar symbolizes the skepticism. A miniscule amount has been spent by Islamabad and Beijing on people’s welfare, including a vocational training center, a hospital and school. The peninsula’s natural beauty belies erratic electricity, scarce drinking water and lack of proper sewerage.

Gwadar Port Authority Chairman Dostain Jamaldini explains to delegations arriving daily from across the country that revenue generation is the key to uplifting the area.

He showed off a huge quadrangle in the center of Gwadar that “can even be seen on Google Earth.” There, he has recommended to Islamabad that a multipurpose lighthouse be constructed to guide incoming ships and generate revenue.

Until that happens, the fishermen who build wooden boats along Gwadar beach will likely lose their livelihood as their shanty homes are removed.

Already, the vacant plots in Gwadar’s Sinjhaar area overlooking the sea have been repossessed by the Pakistan Navy and earmarked for sale to military officials and politicians.

For the well-connected, a real estate boom is on the horizon. Trader Abbas Rashanwala said he waited for years for peace to come to Gwadar. Now his real estate business has taken off, with investors flocking in to buy land.

Many realtors are betting on Gwadar as on the stock market — making deals online or on the phone. Several sit in the Punjab, selling property they have never seen in Gwadar, all on speculation that prices will soon skyrocket.

Meanwhile, China’s investment in Gwadar is helping control maritime crime. Officials tell how traffickers from Africa and the Middle East used to dock on the beach at night to swap slaves for narcotics.

In February, 36 nations, including the U.S. and Russia, participated in the Pakistan Navy’s multinational patrolling of the Arabian Sea in a global recognition of China’s role in making the waterways safer.

Still, China’s emerging role in Pakistan has raised many questions. The most prominent criticism is that China will become Pakistan’s “East India Company” — a metaphor for the British empire’s plunder of India.

Notwithstanding the doomsayers, there also is a readiness to accept that development and peace are inextricably linked to Pakistan’s future.

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