“Gwadar is the future”: China and Pakistan’s troubled strategic port on the Arabian Sea

During a landmark visit to Islamabad in April 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project under the umbrella of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Initially valued at $46 billion, the investment pledges soon swelled to $62 billion, equivalent to one-fifth of Pakistan’s GDP, encompassing numerous high-profile energy and infrastructure projects connected to CPEC.

Pakistani officials consider CPEC to be a key pillar of their country’s “all weather” relationship with China, emphasizing its significance in Pakistan’s agenda for enhancing regional connectivity and promoting sustainable development. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif hailed CPEC as a “game changer.” Indeed, the corridor can be credited with improving significant portions of Pakistan’s infrastructure, mitigating power shortages, and generating tens of thousands of employment opportunities. Strategically located at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz on the Arabian Sea, Gwadar, once a derelict port, was revitalized as part of the broader development of CPEC and declared fully operational in 2021. The Pakistani authorities now regard Gwadar as the corridor’s “crown jewel.”

That said, Gwadar has not yet realized its potential as a bustling regional transit and trans-shipment hub; nor has the seaport, as anticipated, catalyzed local economic growth, facilitated Pakistan’s global connectivity, or provided China direct access to the Indian Ocean. Political turmoil and insecurity threaten to derail the Gwadar project and, by extension, undermine the potential of CPEC, which itself has already faced numerous challenges, including stalled timetables, allegations of corruption, and terrorist incidents. Can a renewed focus on the Gwadar port and the socio-economic and security situation of the surrounding region help Islamabad and Beijing rescue CPEC from failure?

Gwadar: A “second Shenzhen”?

The southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan is integral to CPEC’s success, given its role as the host of the main roads that link the project to the Arabian Sea through Gwadar’s deep seaport — the central feature of the corridor and one of the linchpins of China’s BRI in South Asia. Chinese officials have referred to Gwadar as the “second Shenzhen,” comparing it to the erstwhile fishing village in southern China that has since blossomed into a symbol of the country’s economic and technological transformation.

Zhang Baozhong, former chairman of China Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC), the port’s operator, was quoted in the Global Times as saying, “Gwadar Port is like a blank sheet of paper, and we can draw the most beautiful painting on it.”

But Gwadar is not a “blank sheet of paper.” On the contrary, the port and surrounding communities lie in Balochistan, a thinly populated but vast province comparable to the size of Germany. Decades of neglect by the central government, coupled with state repression, have fueled deep-rooted grievances among the province’s residents. Despite an abundance of natural resources, Balochistan remains the country’s most underdeveloped and impoverished region. Balochistan has long been underrepresented in politics, bureaucracy, and the military, while chronic underfunding has hindered critical infrastructure development there. Most of the province’s residents lack basic amenities, including proper drainage systems and clean water. Moreover, according to the World Weather Attribution report on the 2022 floods, Balochistan is acutely vulnerable to climate disasters.

Coupled with and symptomatic of the longstanding human security challenges in Balochistan, the province has faced recurring violence spanning decades. Baloch nationalists, perceiving themselves as economically marginalized relative to Punjabis — the country’s dominant ethnic group — have sporadically revolted against the government. Since the formation of Pakistan in 1947, Balochistan has experienced four insurgencies: in 1958-59, 1962-63, and 1973-77, with a renewed and broader movement emerging after Pakistan’s return to military rule in 1999. The use of force to quell protests, extrajudicial killings, and the unlawful detention of local political activists by Pakistan’s intelligence services have deepened the sense of alienation among the affected communities.

Militancy along the coastal belt of Balochistan is not new. Gwadar and its surrounding areas are ethnically diverse, with a mix of Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhi populations. Ethnic tensions, compounded by economic disparities and competition for resources, have contributed to localized militancy and violence. Additionally, sectarian dynamics involving Sunni and Shi’a communities have also fueled violence in Gwadar and Lasbela districts. But in recent years, the strategic importance of Gwadar has turned it into a focal point for militant groups.

Gwadar port and its surrounding areas have faced security threats from various militant groups operating in Balochistan, including nationalist insurgents, sectarian outfits, elements affiliated with the Taliban, and other extremist factions opposed to CPEC and perceived foreign influence in the region. Leveraging local grievances, these groups recruit fighters and launch attacks with the intention of disrupting Chinese investments and influence in the region, while also challenging the Pakistani state’s control.

Indeed, the central narrative revolves around exploitation, with armed resistance being viewed as the only viable method to combat it, especially focusing on Gwadar. The influx of “outsiders” has stirred apprehension and fear among locals, who worry that the changing demographic composition of the region may soon render them a minority. Until the inception of CPEC in 2016, there was no paved road running between Gwadar and the Pakistani heartland. Nevertheless, Baloch separatist groups in particular perceive these projects as mechanisms of colonization, catering to state interests without delivering tangible benefits to the province’s inhabitants.

Militant groups have targeted security forces, infrastructure, and foreign workers engaged in CPEC activities. In November 2018, three gunmen attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi, which serves as an important diplomatic mission overseeing Chinese interests in Pakistan, including CPEC and the Gwadar port. Six months later, sub-nationalist militants claimed responsibility for the killing of 14 security personnel on the coastal highway and an attack on the Zaver Pearl Continental Hotel in Gwadar, a prominent establishment often visited by foreign guests and businessmen, in an effort to sabotage the Gwadar project. Opposition to Chinese investments and Pakistani control by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) led to a flurry of attacks on Pakistan’s Frontier Corps in February 2022. In August of last year, two gunmen targeted a convoy of 23 Chinese engineers in Gwadar, but they were killed by security forces. That incident, coupled with the March 2024 attack on the Gwadar Port Authority complex, has reignited security concerns in the region. They have underscored the complex security challenges confronting Chinese interests, especially those associated with the BRI in Pakistan. At the same time, however, the justified worries about security threats have diverted attention from local grievances, the unrest they have sparked, and the state responses that have likely exacerbated them.

Backlash to unresponsiveness from the authorities

Chinese officials continue to express optimism in public statements, proclaiming “Gwadar is the future.” Nevertheless, residents of Gwadar may have reasons to be less optimistic. During the development and approval of the city masterplan in the early 2010s, consultants neglected to involve the local community in the decision-making process. Since then, poor planning and skewed development have resulted in a failure to meet local needs and, in certain ways, proven detrimental. The absence of proper sewage and drainage systems has caused roads to impede the natural flow of rainwater, affecting inhabited areas. The construction of the six-lane Eastbay Expressway in 2017 worsened the situation, disconnecting the city’s low-lying eastern region from the sea. Nearby villages, despite being the most susceptible to coastal hazards, were excluded from Gwadar’s master plan and have benefited very little from development opportunities.

It is noteworthy that local communities’ reactions to the unresponsiveness of Pakistani central and provincial authorities, as well as the shortcomings of CPEC, have so far been peaceful. The emergence of Gwadar Haq Do Tehreek (Gwadar Rights Movement, or HDT), a protest movement that began in November 2021, is a case in point. The HDT ultimately struck a deal with the province’s chief minister on a list of 42 demands covering education, health, border trade, missing persons, and water availability. However, HDT leaders later claimed that the provincial government failed to fulfill its obligations under the agreement, triggering a new wave of demonstrations.

During the HDT’s month-long sit-in last December, protesters obstructed the entrance to the port and the East Bay Expressway leading to it, disrupting the supply chain and traffic flow between the port and the naval bases located on the southern hill of the town. In a public statement on Dec. 22, 2023, HDT leader Maulana Hidayat-ur Rehman demanded the withdrawal of the Chinese from Gwadar. He then warned that the HDT would disrupt all CPEC projects in the region.

Chinese officials have publicly acknowledged that without lifting the people of Gwadar and its surrounding areas out of extreme poverty, CPEC would never be deemed a true success. Accordingly, China and Pakistan have collaborated on several projects under CPEC aimed at tackling socio-economic challenges in the Gwadar region, with some already completed and others in the pipeline. Last December, two China-donated projects, including a seawater desalination plant and the upgrade of the Pak-China Friendship Hospital, were inaugurated in Gwadar district. Nevertheless, Pakistan remains mired in persistent economic distress, with local communities — particularly the most impoverished, such as those in the Gwadar region — bearing the heaviest burdens.

This past March, torrential rains and flash flooding inundated Gwadar city and surrounding villages. The deployment of rescue and relief operations and Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s vow to provide substantial financial aid for flood-affected areas while visiting Gwadar just one day after taking office are commendable. However, the “rain-induced havoc” experienced by residents revealed the authorities’ lack of preparedness and the shortcomings of the disaster response system. These deficiencies, in turn, exposed the government’s apparent neglect of the area’s current infrastructure in favor of new CPEC projects, reflecting a misalignment of priorities and emphasizing the urgent need for comprehensive urban planning that incorporates climate resilience and sustainable development practices.

Conclusion

CPEC’s origins and evolution are inextricably linked with Pakistan’s tumultuous politics. The scheme was initiated under the leadership of then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His successor, Imran Khan, though slow to fully welcome CPEC and accused by his political opponents of impeding its progress, ultimately embraced the project’s strategic importance and potential for spurring economic development. With the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz-led government back in power after the recent elections, there is an expectation of increased enthusiasm for advancing CPEC, fueled by the party’s and the Sharif family’s enduring commitment to Chinese investment and infrastructure projects. The recent statements from Chinese officials, affirming their commitment to expediting work on CPEC phase-II, indicate Beijing’s confidence in the new government’s ability to drive the initiative forward.

Gwadar Port, situated in Balochistan Province, is regarded as the “crown jewel” of CPEC. However, the Gwadar region and the province of which it forms a part continue to trail far behind in key development indicators compared to other areas of the country, with high poverty and unemployment rates, widespread illiteracy, and elevated child mortality. The security situation in Balochistan remains volatile, and growing public discontent has spawned a grassroots protest movement in and around Gwadar.

The influx of Chinese investment through CPEC has led to an increased presence of Chinese workers in Balochistan, intensifying existing fears of ethnic displacement among the local population and fostering an image of Chinese complicity in the Pakistani state’s suppression. Security concerns have become an increasing source of tension between Beijing and Islamabad due to frequent targeting of Chinese nationals by militants.

Given these pressures, the new government in Islamabad might yield to the temptation to rely predominantly on violent suppression and militarized investment zones to propel CPEC and the Gwadar port forward. However, such an approach is likely to reinforce the neo-colonial narrative portraying Balochistan as exploited by external forces for its resources, and ultimately backfire. Recognizing local grievances and embracing a development-centric strategy that prioritizes the socio-economic needs of communities and encourages grassroots involvement in decision-making and implementation is crucial for nurturing sustainable progress.

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