Last year, China announced an economic project in Pakistan worth $46 billion (about 41 billion euro). With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Beijing aims to expand its influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia in order to counter US and Indian influence. The CPEC would link Pakistan's southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China's western Xinjiang region. It also includes plans to create road, rail and oil pipeline links to improve connectivity between China and the Middle East.
Pakistan is grappling with an acute economic crisis. Experts say the CPEC can certainly stir the much-needed economic activity in the country.
But the much-vaunted CPEC has not impressed residents of Gwadar who believe they should be the main stakeholder of development projects in their port city.
"Just look at the condition of our roads, our homes and towns; we still lack basic necessities of life," Farhad Baloch, a Gwadar resident, told DW. "Even drinking water is a rare commodity in the area. We are facing a drought-like situation," he added.
K. B. Firaq, president of the Gwadar Educational Welfare Society, complains that the locals are being driven out of the city's port area to make way for Chinese workers and engineers. "The Gwadar fishermen are not allowed near the port boundaries. Thousands of fishermen have been asked to leave the harbor," Firaq claimed.
Exploitation of economic resources
Balochistan remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province, despite a number of development projects initiated by the government in Islamabad. Rebel groups have waged a separatist insurgency in the province for decades, complaining that Islamabad and the richer Punjab province unfairly exploit their resources. Islamabad reacted to the insurgency by launching a military operation in the province in 2005. There have since been reports of grave human rights abuses committed by the military and its intelligence agencies in the province.
Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan, leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League party, admits that the people of Balochistan are unhappy with some of the government's policies, but he denies that Islamabad is usurping the province's economic resources.
"Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government allowed a Baloch nationalist to become the chief minister of the province. Our administration has also launched a number of development projects for the benefit of the locals," Senator Khan told DW.
"An international airport in Gwadar is being built. We are also constructing a 90-kilometer long road connecting Gwadar to the coastal highway, and establishing economic zones in the cities of Khuzdar and Zhob. Ultimately, the Gwadar port will benefit the whole Balochistan," he added.
Fear and optimism
But nationalist leader Abdul Hai Baloch is skeptical about the government's claims, as he says the issue is more political than economic. He believes the Gwadar residents resent the CPEC because they fear that with the arrival of workers from China and Pakistan's other provinces, they will soon become a minority in their own town.
Dr. Abdul Aziz, a Gwadar resident, echoes Hai Baloch's sentiments. "Our resources are being plundered, and we are being deprived of our livelihood. Many people had to move to remote areas after the government started the construction work on Gwadar port," he said, adding that non-locals were already buying land in the city. "More dislocations are on the horizon."
"We should be the masters of our resources, but we are being treated like slaves. This will have catastrophic consequences," he continued.
A Gwadar Port Authority official dismissed these fears. "Two dams are being constructed to deal with the water crisis in the area. The locals will be given jobs. A 50-bed hospital is being upgraded to a 300-bed facility, and roads and other infrastructure work is being done. Who will benefit from these projects? Of course, the residents of Gwadar!"
The Lahore and Karachi-based real estate companies appear to be cashing in on the situation in Gwadar.
Ali Masood, a Karachi-based real estate agent, reports that business is booming with housing projects in Gwadar. "In some areas, a residential plot that was worth 12 million Pakistani rupees ($114,600) last year is now being sold for around 20 million ($191,000)," Masood told DW.
But the trickiest part of the proposed Sino-Pakistani economic projects could be their implentation in the face of Islamist militancy and a protracted separatist insurgency in Balochistan.
The Baloch separatist groups have vowed to resist these projects, claiming the CPEC is a further exploitation of their resources and rights.
Ruzhn Baloch, a senior leader of the Baloch Student Organization, an independent group that advocates Balochistan's separation from Pakistan, says the new projects in Balochistan will not be any different from the ones that the Pakistani government had launched in the past.
"Today, Balochistan is the poorest province in Pakistan despite being rich in natural resources," she told DW. "We are against this colonization."