“There Is No CPEC in Gwadar, Except Security Check Posts”

China’s Trade Route through Pakistan Promised Investment but Faces Regional Backlash

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of the major spokes of Beijing’s multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious attempt to remake global trade and transport infrastructure. CPEC’s terminus is Gwadar, a port city in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, near the Iranian border. The plan for CPEC is to connect Gwadar with Xinjiang, the enormous “Uyghur Autonomous Region,” through a network of highways, railways, and pipelines. CPEC would boost trade between Pakistan and China, and give China access to the Indian Ocean for exports as well as a shorter route for imports of Middle Eastern oil.

Despite growing local discontent and an insurgency that targets Chinese interests, Pakistani and Chinese officials continue to talk up Gwadar’s potential. During a press junket last year in Beijing that included journalists from Pakistan, Assistant Foreign Minister Nong Rong called Gwadar “the second Shenzhen,” likening it to the onetime southern Chinese fishing village that has become a symbol of China’s economic and technological success.

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“There is no CPEC in Gwadar, except security check posts that exist in the name of CPEC in Gwadar. So, if you ask me, CPEC projects in Gwadar are the name of security check posts.”

Next to the village of Gwadar is a developing port complex. China first began investing in its development in 2002 with an initial commitment of $248 million. More than 20 years have passed, but Chinese officials continue to evince optimism about its future: “Gwadar is the future, which has the potential to change the fate of the region with the help of CPEC,” said China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Jiang Zaidong in an interview in Islamabad. “It will take some time to develop Gwadar. However, we have already set up a vocational center so that the people of Gwadar may get some training and skills. Moreover, we have asked the local Chinese companies to hire the locals, as we want to help them through the CPEC projects, which is meant, among other things, to help the locals.”

But the locals themselves don’t all share the enthusiasm. Over the last two years, there have been frequent protests in Gwadar by local residents who feel their needs and rights are being neglected. A previously little-known politician named Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman has attracted national and international media attention by organizing protests by Baloch people in Gwadar. (The Baloch people live mostly in Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan and speak their own language.)

“Instead of resolving our woes, the CPEC projects and the arrival of Chinese in Gwadar have further doubled up our issues,” said Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman in an interview in Gwadar. One issue that is causing particular resentment is the security infrastructure that has been built up together with the port development: There are a number of security checkpoints that locals have to go through when moving around Gwadar port and the surrounding district. These checkpoints have had more impact on people’s daily lives than anything else. “There is no CPEC in Gwadar, except security check posts that exist in the name of CPEC in Gwadar. So, if you ask me, CPEC projects in Gwadar are the name of security check posts.”

Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman grew up in Surbandan, a small coastal town with a population in the thousands in Gwadar district, about 15 miles from the main port town. In 2021, five Chinese trawlers were spotted off of Gwadar, prompting local fishermen to take to the streets to defend their waters. Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman led a 32-day-long protest, and he would go on to lead more demonstrations throughout Gwadar in the months afterwards.

He does not, however, see himself as anti-Chinese: “I am not opposed to the CPEC projects,” he says. “I have always read about and admired China and the developments taking place in their own country. But I protest in Gwadar for the rights of fishermen, traders, and common people, among others, who are not included in CPEC and the development of Gwadar. So people follow me and come to my protests because I talk about the issues that confront them.”

Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman is a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) party, an Islamist political party that is not particularly popular in Gwadar, so he has gathered Baloch protestors under the banner of Gwadar Ko Huqooq Do Tehreek (Give Rights to Gwadar Movement). During his first protest in 2021, tens of thousands of Baloch people joined him to demand rights for Gwadar.

One of them was Maasi Zainab, 65, who has become the female face of the protests in Gwadar. She says she joined Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman because he had removed the “fear” from their hearts and minds to speak up for their rights, including the hardships many women faced after their husbands were prevented from fishing in the name of security.

According to Zainab, when important Chinese visitors arrive at the port town, Pakistani military personnel stop local fishermen from going out to sea. Those who have already set sail are not allowed to dock until the VIP movement ends, and they sometimes end up waiting as long as 12 hours. While waiting in their boats offshore near the town, they are unable to deliver their catch to market.

“Under these circumstances, how can we earn a livelihood for our children?” Zainab says.

The protests continued to take place, even after Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman himself was arrested along with some supporters in January 2023 following two months of protests in front of Gwadar port that stopped road traffic in and out of the port. Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman’s release in May 2023. In early February, he was elected to the provincial assembly of Balochistan, representing Gwadar.

Chinese officials have taken notice. “Yes, we are concerned about the protests in Gwadar,” says Li Bijian, former Consul General of the Chinese Consulate in Karachi.

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Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Balochistan Abdul Zahir Mengal says that aside from the protests in Gwadar, “the political uncertainty in Pakistan has made the Chinese unhappy about their increasing investments under CPEC.”

In October 2023, China held its Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, hosting leaders from all over the world. One of them was Pakistan’s interim Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, who visited Beijing and Xinjiang. Kakar was welcomed warmly in Beijing, where he met Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan.

Kakar held several meetings and signed several agreements and memorandums of understanding (MOUs) with his Chinese counterparts. But Kakar is an interim prime minister who will hold the position only until the new leader takes office after the February 8, 2024 elections, and a new leader might revisit and re-negotiate these agreements. (On February 20, two of Pakistan’s political parties said they had reached an agreement to form a coalition government, after uncertainty in the wake of the elections.)

“When former Prime Minister Imran Khan assumed office in 2018 after the general elections, he too wanted to revisit the terms and conditions of CPEC with his Chinese counterparts,” Mengal says. “Khan was a rival of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who had welcomed President Xi Jinping in 2015 when he had to come to Pakistan” to formally announce the formation of CPEC.

CPEC was first mooted by the Chinese government in 2013, and Xi was originally supposed to visit Pakistan in 2014. But Xi’s trip was delayed until 2015 because of on-going protests in Islamabad led by Khan. Khan sought to overthrow Sharif’s government that year, alleging that Sharif had come to power through rigged elections.

Over the last several years, from one crisis to the other, political problems have taken priority over economic development.

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Along with growing political uncertainty is growing political violence. In July 2023, China’s Vice Premier He Lifeng arrived in Pakistan to kick off a 10 year anniversary celebration for CPEC. He was greeted in Islamabad by Pakistan’s ministers for planning and the interior. But just a few hours before his arrival, a suicide bomber killed himself and 44 others at a political rally in northwestern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, about 100 miles north of Islamabad on the border of Afghanistan. A planned CPEC route will pass through the province’s capital of Peshawar.

“Besides the Baloch separatists targeting China, in Afghanistan, the Pakistan Taliban and their allies have also started regrouping in the Afghan region bordering Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. That has raised the threat level for CPEC,” Muhammad Safdar, an Islamabad-based researcher, says.

Perhaps of more concern to CPEC is that Chinese nationals and CPEC projects in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan, have been increasingly targeted by militants.

“We have made a lot of effort to address the security issue for the Chinese and for CPEC projects,” says Pakistan’s former Ambassador to China Moin ul Haque, during an interview. “For instance, we established a force of 3,000, comprising two army divisions, for the purpose of protecting the CPEC projects. . . There are external forces that want to spoil the relations between Pakistan and China.”

“Terrorism has, of course, affected Pakistan’s national economy and other projects such as CPEC,” says Muhammad Feyyaz, a professor who researches violent behavior at the University of Management and Technology in Lahore, and who has taught counterterrorism studies at China National Defense University.

At a recent media briefing in Beijing, China’s Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Nong Rong admitted that terrorists do not want to see CPEC and other cooperative projects succeed.

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“The business is yet to come to Gwadar. . . CPEC projects have not benefited local businessmen and traders, and there is hardly any business in Gwadar these days, even though CPEC was launched back in 2013.”

All of this political turmoil has affected CPEC projects, and there is growing doubt about China’s commitment. Recent Pakistan media reports suggest that only around $25 billion has actually been spent.

CPEC was valued at $46 billion when Xi first announced it in 2015. In 2017, then Governor of Sindh province Mohammad Zubair said the planned investment had increased to $62 billion, a figure that is frequently cited in English-language reports about CPEC in the last few years. But Chinese officials have never confirmed that number—one of the very few mentions of the new number in official Chinese documents cites Pakistani media. The Pakistani news organization Balochistan Voices reported that the total planned investment is $50 billion, not $62 billion, and backed up the claim with scans of documents from Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives.

Whatever the official and actual investment amounts are, local businesspeople have been disappointed. Shams ul-Haq Kalmati, president of the Gwadar Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says he had thought Gwadar would become the epicenter of Chinese business activities in Pakistan, as the port was supposed to be a major node of CPEC. But, he says, “The business is yet to come to Gwadar. . . CPEC projects have not benefited local businessmen and traders, and there is hardly any business in Gwadar these days, even though CPEC was launched back in 2013.”

Not everyone blames China for CPEC’s failure to meet expectations. “The problem lies on our side,” says Islamabad-based economist Sajid Amin Javed, who works as deputy executive director of research at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, an Islamabad-based think tank. “We have political, economic, and security issues. At the same time, China’s industries and priorities are shifting toward Vietnam, while we have not been able to increase our trade exports with China, despite the close relations between the two countries.”

There is also almost certainly a reassessment of CPEC happening in Beijing. Hasan H. Karrar, an associate professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, one of Pakistan’s top universities, who has a Ph.D. in East Asian Studies from McGill University in Canada, says that after two decades of investing in developing countries, China is starting to reassess its strategy: “There is a reassessment in China happening as to whether these investments are successful or not. To my mind, Chinese investments are going to look quite different from now on, compared to the last 10 to 20 years.”

Even Chinese officials seem to be more willing to voice frustration with how CPEC is panning out. One Chinese diplomat said, under the condition of anonymity, that “in China decisions are taken once and for all by the central government, while in Pakistan it is not the case. There are federal and provincial governments who develop differences over matters related to CPEC projects.”

And there certainly is a limit to how much China is willing to invest if there are no returns. China’s ambassador to Pakistan Jiang Zaidong says that China knows Pakistan is going through economic challenges, and that “China is there to help their brother country Pakistan in any way possible.” But he quoted Mao Zedong and said: “Success requires you to stand on your own feet.”