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Why is Pakistan fencing China's Belt and Road port?

S. Khan Islamabad
December 22, 2020

Locals have slammed the government's decision to put up barbed wires around large parts of the Gwadar port city in Balochistan. China has invested heavily in the area.

Gwadar is at the center of the $50 billion (€41 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project
Gwadar is at the center of the $50 billion (€41 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projectImage: picture-alliance/MAXPPP/Kyodo

According to Pakistan's The News newspaper, the Gwadar Fencing Project kicked off last week under supervision of the country's army and provincial authorities.

Naseer Khan Kashani, chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority, told the daily that the fencing project will change the security dynamics in the port city.

Balochistan's provincial government plans to fence off 24 square kilometers of the city, which is at the center of the $50 billion (€41 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. According to local media, there will be two entry points to the fenced part of the city, and more than 500 surveillance cameras will be installed.

The main reason behind building the fence in Gwadar is to protect the Chinese-funded projects from Baloch separatists, who oppose CPEC. Many Baloch politicians believe the fencing will force locals to relocate from the strategically important city.

China announced the CPEC project in 2015 with an aim to expand its trade links and influence in Pakistan and across Central and South Asia. 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 CPEC can certainly stir the much-needed economic activity in the country.

CPEC would also link Pakistan's southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China's western Xinjiang region
CPEC would also link Pakistan's southern Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea to China's western Xinjiang regionImage: DW

Anger against Chinese projects

Balochistan remains Pakistan's poorest and least populous province, despite several development projects initiated by 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.

The strategically located Gwadar port is close to the Strait of Hormuz and Baloch nationalists fear that the Chinese are not only after the province's natural resources but also want to exploit the port, which is already being operated by the Chinese.

Armed rebels continue to attack security forces in Balochistan. In November 2018, Baloch separatists attacked the Chinese consulate in Pakistan's southern Karachi city. Earlier this year, four gunmen belonging to the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the Pakistan Stock Exchange building, killing at least three people including two guards and one policeman, while the four assailants were also killed by gunfire.

A 'human rights violation'

Pakistani officials say that Gwadar fencing, which is part of the Smart Port City Project, is aimed at transforming the city into a modern town with industrial zones, trade centers and housing areas. Authorities believe all this cannot be achieved without securing the city.

Zubaida Jalal, the federal minister for defense production, denied claims that the Gwadar fencing was taking place to appease China. "There are security reasons behind it; it will provide security to locals," she told DW.

A Gwadar official told DW on condition of anonymity that the fencing had already started in the Pishokan area of the city. "It will be completed within months. It will be like a gated community."

The government's claims about securing the city have failed to impress Baloch nationalists, who fear the fencing will displace local population and subsequently change the city's demography.

"They are trying to relocate the local population in the name of security. We will resist it and work with other political parties," Abdul Malik, a former chief minister of Balochistan, told DW.

Rahim Zafar, a leader of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, dubbed the Gwadar fencing a human rights violation. "It will hamper people's freedom of movement. It is also illegal and unconstitutional. The fencing will increase resentment among the local population against Islamabad," he told DW.

Is fencing necessary for development?

Pro-government security analysts say the Gwadar fencing is necessary to ensure development in the area. Ijaz Awan, a retired military official and defense expert, says that those who are opposing the Gwadar fencing are foreign agents.

"Why are they opposing it? Chinese and Pakistani security forces have previously been attacked in Balochistan. We have the right to protect the city from those that don't want the country to progress," Awan told DW.

"They are against all development projects. The fencing will be carried out and will be completed," Awan vowed.

However, independent analysts say the fencing will be counterproductive as it is likely to alienate the local population. "It (fencing) is an apartheid legacy. It will harm the country," Ammar Ali Jan, a Lahore-based political analyst, told DW.

Mohammad Aslam Bhootani, a member of parliament from Gwadar, last week slammed the government's decision to fence Gwadar.

"The people of Gwadar will consider themselves alienated from the game-changing mega project (CPEC)," he told local media, urging the authorities to review their decision.