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Chinese project at Balochistan port: local protests and global concerns

Since the second week of November, there have been continuous protests in Gwadar, Balochistan against mega development plans of the port city as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

The protesters, rallying under the Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek (Give Rights to Gwadar Movement), have sought to draw attention to marginalisation of the local people in the development of the port. They are angry that not only are they being excluded, their present livelihood too has been endangered. They are from Gwadar and nearby areas of coastal Balochistan including Turbat, Pishkan, Zamran, Buleda, Ormara and Pasni.

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This is not the first time Gwadar is seeing protests, but this one has now run for 26 days. Despite the severe conservatism of Balochistan, women protesters have come out in large numbers.

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Another significant aspect of the protest is that it is led by a Jamat-e-Islami leader of the area, Malauana Hidayat ur Rehman. The JI has traditionally been an ally of Pakistan’s military establishment. The national leader of the JI, Siraj Ul Haq also visited Gwadar in a show of solidarity with the protesters.

The local concerns

Balochistan is among the least developed even though the most resource-rich of Pakistan’s four provinces. The main means of livelihood for people in the region is fishing. Balochistan has the lowest access to drinking water, electricity, and even the gas that is the main resource of the region.

The protesters have made 19 demands, according to Dawn newspaper. One is that more people from Gwadar should be employed by the Chinese company developing the port. On top of this list is that the government should crack down on foreign “trawler mafia” who are stripping the Gwadar Sea of its marine resources.

This demand was first raised in June, when hundreds of fishermen, political workers and members of civil society had staged a protest against the government’s grant of licences to Chinese fishing trawlers. The National Party and Baloch Student Organisation, and a fishermen’s organisation held a dharna outside the Gwadar Press Club.

Protesters pointed out that while Gwadar fishermen had given up their fishing spots for development of the port after assurances that it would greatly improve their economic condition, their existing condition was only worsening because of the unequal competition with the Chinese fishing vessels, which were also harming the eco-sytem.

They expressed anger and disappointment that Pakistani government officials including the federal Fisheries Minister were not supporting their case and giving statements in favour of the Chinese fishermen, and demanded that the licences be cancelled.

After a Voice of America report this week, linking the protests to Chinese fishing trawlers, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed it as “fake”. Global Times, a Chinese-state run media, too ran down the VOA report but also said the Chinese construction giant China Communications Construction Co (CCCC), which is constructing a $144 m expressway in the area, was planning to donate 75 fishing nets to local fishermen soon. It quoted the company as saying the nets worth 100,000 yuan ($15,701) and “a donation ceremony” would be held together with local residents at Gwadar.

The port development at Gwadar is perhaps the single most strategically important project of the CPEC, and Chinese involvement there predates the CPEC by at least a decade. Work there began during the 10-year rule of General Pervez Musharraf, who pitched it as a strategic energy corridor that would provide the Chinese an alternative to the sea route for its oil imports from the middle east. Now it is integral to the President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Ever since, Baloch nationalists have been angry at their exclusion, and separatist insurgent groups like the Baloch Liberation Army and others have targeted Chinese interests in and around Gwadar. The attacks have only risen after the CPEC took off. An attack on the Serena in 2019 took place during a visit by an official Chinese delegation. In response, more Pakistani troops have flooded the port city. One of the protesters’ demands is a reduction in the number of checkpoints.

Concerns of India, West

India has been concerned that Gwadar, which gives China strategic access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, is not just being developed as a trade entrepot but as a dual purpose port for use by PLAN (the Chinese Navy) and is intended to expand Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Region alongside Kyaukpyu in Myanmar and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. With vital military interests in West Asia, the US too is concerned about the Chinese presence in Gwadar.

In an interview to the BBC earlier this week, Pakistan’s NSA Moeed Yusuf denied that the Chinese had been offered any military bases in Pakistan. He said there were Chinese-Pakistani “economic bases” in the country, “where any country can invest. The same were offered to the US, Russia and the Middle East”.

But the concern will remain, given China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, and Pakistan’s close military ties with it. The recent discovery of a secret Chinese military base in the UAE can only heighten the concerns.

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