Hoping to extend maritime reach, China lavishes aid on Gwadar

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.— File photo


GWADAR: China is lavishing vast amounts of aid on a small Pakistani fishing town to win over locals and build a commercial deep-water port.

Beijing has built a school, sent doctors and pledged about $500 million in grants for an airport, hospital, college and badly-needed water infrastructure for Gwadar, a dusty town whose harbour juts out into the Arabian Sea, overlooking some of the world’s busiest oil and gas shipping lanes.

The grants include $230 million for a new international airport, one of the largest such disbursements China has made abroad, according to researchers and Pakistani officials.

The handouts for the Gwadar project is a departure from Beijing’s usual approach in other countries. China has traditionally derided Western-style aid in favour of infrastructure projects for which it normally provides loans through Chinese state-owned commercial and development banks.

Pakistan has welcomed the aid with open hands.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters.

Beijing and Islamabad see Gwadar as the future jewel in the crown of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to build a new “Silk Road” of land and maritime trade routes across more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa.

The plan is to turn Gwadar into a trans-shipment hub and megaport to be built alongside special economic zones from which export-focused industries will ship goods worldwide.

A web of energy pipelines, roads and rail links will connect Gwadar to China’s western regions.

Port trade is expected to grow from 1.2 million tonnes in 2018 to about 13 million tonnes by 2022, Pakistani officials say. At the harbour, three new cranes have been installed and dredging will next year deepen the port depth to 20 metres at five berths.

But the challenges are stark. Gwadar has no access to drinking water, power blackouts are common.

Beijing is also trying to overcome the distrust of outsiders evident in Baluchistan, where indigenous Baloch fear an influx of other ethnic groups and foreigners. Many residents say the pace of change is too slow.

“Local people are not completely satisfied,” said Essar Nori, a lawmaker for Gwadar, adding that the separatists were tapping into that dissatisfaction.

Pakistani officials are urging Gwadar residents to be patient, vowing to urgently build desalination plants and power stations.

“We welcome this assistance as it’s changing the quality of life of the people of Gwadar for the better,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees CPEC, including Gwadar.

China and Pakistan jointly choose which projects will be developed under the CPEC mechanism, Sayed added.

HEARTS AND MINDS

There are early signs China’s efforts to win hearts and minds are beginning to bear fruit in Gwadar.

“Baluchistan is backward and underdeveloped, but we are seeing development after China’s arrival,” said Salam Dashti, 45, a grocer whose two children attend the new Chinese-built primary school.

But there are major pitfalls ahead.

Tens of thousands of people living by the port will have to be relocated.

For now, they live in cramped single-story concrete houses corroded by sea water on a narrow peninsula, where barefoot fishermen offload their catch on newly-paved roads strewn with rubbish. Many of the fishermen say they fear they’ll lose their livelihoods once the port starts operating.

Indigenous residents’ fear of becoming a minority is inevitable with Gwadar’s population expected to jump more than 15-fold in coming decades.

On the edge of town, mansions erected by land speculators are popping up alongside the sand dunes.

Analysts say China is aware that previous efforts to develop Gwadar port failed partly due to the security threat posed by Baloch separatists, so Beijing is trying to counter the insurgents’ narrative that China wants to exploit Baluchistan.—Reuters

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