Pakistan Port City Erupts Against China’s BRI Project

CPEC’s ‘Development by Dispossession’ rankles Gwadar natives

By: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Beijing’s “win-win” narrative over its trillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative risks losing its appeal not only among the nations it targeted to expand its economic and political influence, but also among the populations that it promised to uplift and change their lives.

That is especially true in Gwadar, the so-called ‘jewel city’ of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, where continuing protests epitomize how, while developing’ the port city, the US$46 billion project is directly contributing to a sociological crisis underpinned by displacement and dispossession of the native people.

Their concerns are echoing worldwide. According to a recent study by AidData, a research lab at the College of William and Mary in the United States, the BRI is losing its momentum in the wake of rising opposition to its mode of development, which involves debts, dispossession, corruption and unsustainable projects.

“When China initially launched the BRI in 2013, countries from every corner of the globe were eager to participate,” according to the report. “However, with the passage of time, enthusiasm has waned. There is a growing appreciation for the fact that, while Chinese infrastructure projects often generate short-term economic benefits, their long-term risks need to be carefully managed.”

Many foreign leaders “continue to lavish praise upon Beijing for addressing unmet infrastructure needs (lest they alienate a uniquely important patron),” the report continues, “but China is facing ‘BRI backlash’ in a growing number of countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Central and Eastern Europe. Some LMIC policymakers have canceled or mothballed high-profile BRI projects because major changes in public sentiment have made it difficult to maintain close relations with China.”

China’s systematic insensitivity to local interests and politics is a cause of concern for ethnic minorities, with protests erupting in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, Kenya, and other countries over projects. In Sri Lanka, for example, the Tamil population, which is mostly concentrated in the north and east of the island, sees in the Rajapaksa government’s increasing reliance on China a shift towards more exclusionary and authoritarian model of politics and development.

Mano Ganesan, who leads Tamil Progressive Alliance, recently said that the Chinese appear “ignorant” of the ethnic and religious diversity in the island country, and that the Rajapaksa regime’s growing ties with Beijing will allow the regime to not only tighten its political grip but also exclude Tamil areas from development.

While the Sri Lankan Tamils have always favored strong ties between Sri Lanka and India, the Rajapaksa regime’s growing tilt, especially in the wake of the ongoing financial and economic crisis in Sri Lanka, is a cause of concern for Tamils, who are already feeling unsettled by the growing presence of China in the Palk Bay area.

The massive Gwadar development, which has thrown Pakistan deep into debt, is a poster child for those attitudes. Since August, residents of the city, who have for decades used the Indian Ocean port for fishing and other businesses, have been protesting acute shortages of water and electricity and lack of access to the shore to continue their fishing business. Their existing material deprivation – poor living conditions, lack of access to basic health and education facilities, etc. – have been exacerbated by the preferential treatment being accorded by the Pakistani military to Chinese trawlers. As locals have pointed out, the military’s demand from the locals to adjust their fishing routines according to the Chinese has forced the fishermen to mobilize and protest.

“Even in conceiving and impending CPEC related projects, such as the construction of Gwadar Eastbay Expressway, local business interests have been completely ignored and no compensation to the locals has been offered”, said a local Baloch involved in the protests.

Their position has been compromised, and their interests adversely affected, by the deteriorating security situation in Pakistan, an after-effect of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. In the past two months, at least two separate attacks have targeted Chinese personnel operating in Pakistan. In August, an attack claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) killed a Chinese worker in Gwadar along with two children.

The Gwadar unrest, many believe, could allow the otherwise weak Baloch insurgent groups to reinvent their anti-Pakistan insurgency. While the Baloch ever since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 have resisted the Pakistan state’s direct and indirect political, economic and military interventions, the collusion between Pakistan and China presents a novel challenge in that it not only promises ‘development’ but also systematically excludes the local people from its fold.

“There is as yet no ‘trickle down’ from the CPEC, or from the development of the port of Gwadar”, said a local Baloch activist, adding that “we are facing a situation in which our own resources, including Gwadar, are being sealed off. CPEC is promising development by dispossession and occupation by the Chinese capital.

“Instead of sensitizing local business interests, and how deprivation and dispossession could directly fuel Baloch insurgency, the Pakistani state (the military) is forcing the local populace out of their homes and businesses, thus directly creating conditions for large scale deprivation”, he added.

The model of development that China is implementing in Pakistan, or in other multi-ethnic states, doesn’t foster local development. In Gwadar, it is the very changing ‘public sentiments’ about the supposed benefits of CPEC that is driving the mobilization against both the Pakistan state (the military) and the Chinese.

The ‘CPEC backlash’ is not only an outcome of an exclusionary model of development that China is implementing with the Pakistan state’s help, but also happens to be pushing the already marginalized ethnic group to its limits where the possibility of yet another full-scale insurgency gripping Balochistan may not remain entirely impossible.

“Even though local people have yet not recovered from the trauma of the insurgency that erupted in Balochistan following Akbar Bugti’s (the leader of Bugti tribe) killing in 2006 in a military operation, the Pakistan state is not doing anything to mitigate the plight of the local people”, said a Baloch politician associated with National Party, adding that even though the 1973 Constitution makes provinces ‘joint and equal’ owners of natural resources, “the ever increasing securitization and militarization of local resources may directly feed the new narrative of insurgency.”

China’s CPEC is, therefore, not just ‘developing’ a port in Gwadar; it is also directly laying the seeds of conflict, he said.