China-Pakistan relations: security fence at Gwadar port creates new tensions

Keegan Elmer
·5-min read

China and Pakistan will deepen cooperation on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), in particular Gwadar port and a railway upgrade project, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Pakistani counterpart, Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi, on Thursday.

Wang said it carried significance to call his “iron brother” friend – a term used to describe the strong relationship between the two countries – on New Year’s Eve to reaffirm their friendship and Beijing’s commitment to the CPEC.

The call came after protests at Gwadar port this week turned a spotlight on the problems facing the two countries with regards to infrastructure development.

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On Tuesday, Ziaullah Langove, the home minister of Balochistan, the southwestern region that contains the Chinese-operated facility, had to reverse plans to build a fence around it in response to protests from locals.

The reversal serves as a microcosm of the security, political and economic challenges ahead for the US$62 billion CPEC – part of Beijing’s broader Belt and Road Initiative – as the two countries prepare to celebrate 70 year of diplomatic ties in 2021.

Gwadar port, on the Indian Ocean coast, sits at the southern end of a network of railways, roads and pipeline projects built under the CPEC connecting Pakistan’s north with China’s westernmost province, Xinjiang.

Like other Chinese business and even diplomatic interests in Pakistan, Gwadar has suffered multiple attacks by terrorist groups active in Pakistan’s most volatile regions.

This month, media reports said Pakistan had started to cordon off large sections of the port to improve security. Critics called the move, which reportedly included more than 20km (12½ miles) of barbed wire fences, the creation of Pakistan’s first “sealed city”, built to protect foreign investment.

Zhang Baozhong, chief executive of Pakistan China Overseas Port Holding Company, which operates the port, was quoted by Chinese media this week as saying that the extra security measures had been agreed by Pakistani and Chinese authorities.

Because of the increased security, no Chinese citizens had been harmed at Gwadar, despite multiple terrorist attacks, he said.

China, Pakistan agree to push on with rail and power projects

But Langove said on Tuesday the fence-building around Gwadar had been halted amid criticism from local people.

“The local people will not be kept away from decision making about Gwadar and a decision about fencing would now be taken after taking the local people into confidence over the issue,” he was quoted as saying by Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

Terrorist attacks in the region have been frequent, sometimes targeting Pakistani state forces, others attacking Chinese investors.

In 2019, terrorist forces attacked the Pearl Continental hotel in Gwadar, a five-star facility popular with wealthy Chinese businesspeople. Four hotel workers, a Pakistani soldier and three terrorists were killed in the incident.

On Sunday, an unidentified gunman killed seven Pakistani soldiers in Balochistan.

“Recent insurgency in the Balochistan region has targeted our military troops and development projects. Unrest in the province is backed by rivals to restrict foreign investments,” Langove said on Twitter on Tuesday.

Du Youkang, a professor of South Asia studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said: “Pakistan has been working to better the security situation in dangerous areas, in particular Gwadar. Security has improved in some places, but attacks still persist in others.”

Apart from security concerns, the CPEC has faced other challenges in recent years, with Pakistan’s President Imran Khan curbing infrastructure mega projects due to the country’s debt problems.

“Khan has since shifted the focus of CPEC away from some of the biggest infrastructure projects, like dams and power plants, and instead wants to focus more work that raises people’s livelihood, like agriculture and education,” Du said.

The pressure would be on to show the best sides of both CPEC and China-Pakistan relations in the coming anniversary year when they would be expected to make a show of their close relationship, he said.

“If there are issues with CPEC, China and Pakistan will come together and negotiate through them to move things ahead,” Du said.

Gwadar port was built as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Xinhua
Gwadar port was built as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Photo: Xinhua

Problems have been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and the uncertain economic future for the global economy at the start of 2021.

Despite the problems, China’s foreign ministry on Monday rebuffed media reports that it had sought additional guarantees from Pakistan before approving the massive US$6.8 billion M1 rail line upgrade project.

Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian described the reports as groundless.

“Amid the Covid-19 epidemic, there is no stopping of construction, no job cuts and no withdrawal of the workforce from CPEC projects, which effectively supports Pakistan in fighting the epidemic and stabilising the economy,” he said.

China’s US$62 billion belt and road project in Pakistan risks becoming corridor to nowhere

Representatives from the two countries’ foreign ministries met this week in Urumqi, Xinjiang and agreed to push ahead on CPEC cooperation to boost economic growth.

“CPEC is not going away and neither is the China-Pakistan relationship,” said Claude Rakisits, a professor of international relations at Australian National University.

“It’s a relationship of convenience that has worked well for both sides. Pakistan is a force multiplier for China, and CPEC will effectively make China a two-ocean nation, with access to the Indian Ocean,” he said.

“CPEC is not a gift, however, and Pakistan is going to have to pay. But Pakistan has very little choice, and the results have been mixed so far,” he said.

Additional reporting by Catherine Wong

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