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Gwadar Port: China’s Midday Robbery

The Pakistani government has finally decided to take away the control of the Gwadar Port from the Port of Singapore Authority (P.S.A.) and hand it over to China. On Monday, President Asif Ali Zardari formally presided over a signing ceremony of handing over the Gwadar port to China Overseas Ports Holding Company Limited. He said he hoped that this step would open new economic opportunities for ‘our people’. The Chinese government had assisted the government of former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf to construct the controversial port in Gwadar. Despite its inauguration some years ago, the port has not been fully functional because of the inadequacy of road infrastructure required to truly connect the port with the Central Asia.

As expected, the Baloch nationalists have strongly opposed the government decision. The loudest criticism has come from the Balochistan National Party (B.N.P.) of former chief minister Sardar Akhtar Mengal. Mengal’s father, Sardar Attaullah Mengal, who served in 1970s as Balochistan’s first chief minister, termed the handing over of the Gwadar Port as the last nail in the Baloch coffin. The Balochs are outraged over the federal government’s absolute indifference toward their wishes and aspirations while making key decisions about the fate of their mineral-rich province. Neither the Balochistan government nor the Baloch nationalists were consulted before handing over the port to China. This adds to the Baloch sense of alienation toward the federal government which seemingly treats Balochistan like a colony. Islamabad has shown scant respect for the wishes of the Baloch people who have been fighting for almost a decade to control their own resources.

While Islamabad keeps discrediting the genuine Baloch political demands by billing them as the foreign-funded political movements, it is clear that there is more foreign involvement and cooperation on Pakistan’s side to exploit and usurp Baloch natural resources. Pakistan uses American weapons and Iranian intelligence expertise to kill the Baloch people and uses Chinese assistance to robe the province’s mineral wealth. Our past experiences with China at Sandak gold and copper project and the construction of the Gwadar Port show that they were least bothered about the Baloch interests. They greedily extracted Balochistan’s mineral wealth and gave nothing back to the Baloch communities in terms of employment opportunities and benefits. The Chinese brazenly bribe government authorities to win the contracts on major projects and show little respect for the laborers working on these projects.

By awarding significant contracts to foreign countries without the Baloch into confidence, Islamabad is contributing to Baloch frustration. In the past, Baloch armed groups, such as the Baloch Liberation Front (B.L.F.) had attacked Chines engineers working on the Gwadar Port. Nine years later, Gwadar has become a much more volatile and insecure place as compared to the 2004 attack. The Baloch insurgency, which was then confined to Marri and Bugti tribal areas, has now shifted to Gwadar and other parts of Mekran. Pakistan is also risking the safety of Chinese by offering them the control over Gwadar at a time when Balochistan is in a war-like situation and violence is omnipotent. The government should review its decision. Until the conflict in Balochistan is peacefully resolved, the situation on the ground is not favorable to any kind of foreign investment.

We urge all political parties of Balochistan to show the same level of unity and commitment as they did in early 2000s by opposing the construction of the Gwadar Port. These projects will not benefit the Baloch but will open doors for non-locals to cause a demographic imbalance against the indigenous Baloch people. The Baloch demands put forward Islamabad almost a decade back have still not been met. The Baloch had demanded that priority should be given to the local people in employment opportunities; outsiders should not be given the right to vote for at least 25 years and all investment in Gwadar should be done with the partnership of the local people. These legitimate demands are still unattended because Islamabad does not seem to be interested in the welfare of the Baloch people.

The Baloch should do whatever it takes to resist the Chinese presence in Balochistan because most of Pakistan’s foreign friends such as China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are not friends of the Baloch. Pakistan uses Balochistan as a ground for all types of experiments ranging from nuclear tests to constructing naval bases for foreign countries. The Balochs have historically opposed the use of their land against any neighboring countries, particularly Afghanistan. The Chinese will not suffice with the Gwadar Port; their next goals would be to establish naval bases in Balochistan and gain control of the province’s key mineral projects such as Reko Diq. At this chaotic situation involving the Baloch people and Islamabad, China should stay away from Balochistan.

There is nothing wrong with brokering agreements with foreign countries. However, we believe all such deals should be inked considering the wishes and the interests of the indigenous people. The terms and conditions of Islamabad’s handover of Gwadar to China remain elusive and unaccommodating of the Baloch aspirations. Political and business deals should be based on mutual respect and equality instead of being meant to legalize the usurpation of a weaker people’s resource by a powerful country. This is absolute midday robbery.

Malik Siraj Akbar is Editor in Chief, 'The Baloch Hal.'

Faiz Baluch