Following the announcement of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2015, Gwadar has been showcased in Pakistan’s mainstream media as the gateway to a new era of Chinese investments meant to change the fate of both Pakistan and the region as a whole. As a result, Gwadar, a small dusty port town on the coastline of the Arabian Sea in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, has come enormously into the limelight since then. China has spent billions of dollars on building the port town, opening a 300-megawatt coal-fired power plant, and building an international airport at the cost of $230 million, alongside other projects that come under the CPEC umbrella.
Both the Chinese and their Pakistani counterparts wanted to carry out the development work quickly. But in doing so, they have overlooked the ground realities confronting the port town and the wider province. As a result, the overall development process has gotten somewhat derailed. Lately, the CPEC projects have slowed down in Gwadar and elsewhere in Balochistan, indeed the whole country, as I described in a previous article for The Diplomat. Instead of taking advantage of the pause to recalibrate, the authorities have continued to ignore the basic demands of the locals.
When CPEC was launched, the local Baloch community in Gwadar lacked access to water, electricity, and other basic facilities. They still don’t have those basic necessities, despite the influx of billions of dollars in Chinese investment into their hometown. Rather than lifting up the local population, the wave of investments has had the opposite effect: In the wake of the development work, locals have started losing their sources of livelihood. Many, particularly the fishermen, have become jobless. Due to the increasing security presence for the port town, meant to secure Chinese projects and workers from militant attacks, the local economy is in a shambles.
Under these circumstances, it has become clear to the indigenous Baloch that Gwadar’s development is not meant to improve their economic condition. Instead, it is going to wipe them from the scene, as well as cripple them economically. Finally, they have stood up against the authorities to demand access to basic facilities.
Baloch communities have been protesting for over three weeks now in the port town and elsewhere in the district of Gwadar, demanding clean drinking water, uninterrupted access to the sea for fishing, and a ban on deep-sea trawling. Due to these sit-ins and protests, the Chinese-funded project has become embroiled in Baloch grievances against the Pakistani state, which date back decades.
Protesters have closed main the highways connecting Gwadar to Karachi, the most populous city and the former capital of Pakistan, forcing the government to deploy 5,500 additional riot police in Gwadar, where security personnel have been a common sight ever since the announcement of CPEC. Earlier, thousands of women gathered in the coastal town for the biggest rally yet in a week-long series of demonstrations demanding basic civic facilities.
The ongoing protests and sit-ins are a clear sign that all is not well in Gwadar. People have come out on the streets to show their anger against the highhandedness of the authorities.
Protesters said that at the launch of the CPEC in 2015, both Pakistani and Chinese official, had promised them that Gwadar – then a small city centered around the strategically located fishing port – would soon be transformed into a glittering modern metropolis, similar to Dubai or Shenzhen. But despite the passage of six years, the reality is very different. About 100,000 people don’t have access to clean drinking water in Gwadar port town, let alone in other parts of the district.
Desperate locals in Gwadar have been rallying – in crowds numbering tens of thousands – around Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman, a religious scholar based in the port town. His Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek, or “Give Rights to Gwadar Movement,” has gathered support across restive Balochistan province, where criticism of Chinese-funded projects is rare and deemed anti-state.
Pakistan’s government has become worried about the large crowds gathering in order to demand their rights. Chinese officials too are concerned about the sudden and continued protests in Gwadar town, so much so that the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that media reports that protests have broken out in Gwadar against the issuance of excessive fishing rights to Chinese trawlers is “fake news.”
It seems the Foreign Ministry was responding to one of the protestors’ demands, which is that the government to address the question of illegal trawling – often by Chinese vessels – in the Gwadar Sea. In this sense, the entire fishing community in Pakistan is indeed protesting against the Chinese deep-sea trawlers.
A recent study by Stockholm University forecasts that by 2030, China is likely to need up to 18 million tonnes of additional seafood to satisfy projected domestic consumption – a demand it will meet in part by expanding its distant water fishing operations.
But fishing is not the only issue the protesters are concerned about. Gwadar, the centerpiece of CPEC, which itself is the “jewel in the crown” of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has become intensely securitized over the years. Baloch militants fighting the state have carried out attacks in Gwadar, viewing CPEC as a tempting target.
Since 2015, the number of security personnel in Balochistan in general and in Gwadar in particular has increased many times over. Following the deterioration of the general security situation in Balochistan province, security in Gwadar town has been beefed up, until it now resembles a military cantonment with the deployment of security forces in and around the port town. In recent times, the authorities even wanted to fence off the town, but they backed down due to uproar in the media from locals and Baloch nationalists.
One of the reasons behind the stringent security measures in Gwadar is the fact that Baloch separatists have explicitly opposed CPEC from day one, terming it a threat to the Baloch identity. They are apprehensive about the demographic change that could turn the Baloch into a minority within their own province following the mass arrival of Chinese and people from elsewhere in Pakistan, particularly from Punjab province. As a result, Baloch separatists have carried out attacks in Gwadar in order to deter development that they deem is anti-Baloch.
In May 2019, Baloch separatists assaulted the sole luxury hotel in Gwadar, which is built in an elevated location overlooking the port town. Dignitaries from Pakistan and China used to stay at the hotel, and reportedly the Chinese ambassador was in town, although not present, at the time of the attack. Despite the stringent security measures in place in and around the town, Baloch separatists attacked the hotel, killing five people. It was a huge blow for both the Pakistani authorities and their Chinese counterparts, as the jewel in the CPEC crown came under attack in broad daylight.
That was followed by a series of other attacks carried out by Baloch separatists against Chinese workers and installments in Balochistan and elsewhere in the country. The attacks forced Chinese authorities into a state of high alert regarding the work in Pakistan, especially in Balochistan. It has compounded their anxieties about the sad state of affairs in the province, where it wants to continue the CPEC work that is crucial to the BRI writ large. In response to Chinese concerns, Pakistani authorities further securitized the port town following these assaults. Now, as part of the ongoing protests, the people of Gwadar are demanding a decrease in the number of security check posts so that they can freely move in their own hometown.
The Chinese are concerned about the continued protests in Gwadar – perhaps even more concerned than their Pakistani counterparts. Gwadar, with its direct access to the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, is crucial to China’s geoeconomic and geostrategic interests. As a result, the Chinese are closely watching developments in Balochistan in general and Gwadar in particular. Gwadar could make China’s BRI successful in the region – but it could also prove disastrous if things do not proceed as planned. If the BRI cannot succeed in Pakistan, an “iron brother” of China that has given its full backing to CPEC, it calls the whole project into doubt. That’s why Chinese authorities have been pushing their Pakistani counterparts to ensure a secure environment for the purpose of implementing CPEC projects in Balochistan. As noted above, however, these stepped-up security provisions have backfired by increasing local resentment.
Ominous clouds always hover over Balochistan, which is already hit by a long-running insurgency. The sectarian and religious violence is also not alien to the province. Sectarian elements under the banner of flag of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Islamic State and Taliban affiliates including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, have wrought havoc in the province, step by step, in recent years. Balochistan is Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel, and the unrest there is threatening Chinese interests as well.
Now the increasing number of locals protesting for access to basic facilities has rung alarm bells in the port town being developed by China. It is high time the state of Pakistan addressed their demands as a first step to alleviate the concerns of investors, including but not only the Chinese. As recent history has shown, militarized security measures cannot ensure total safety for investors. The local community must be brought on board if Gwadar, and by extension CPEC, is going to succeed.