China is lavishing vast amounts of aid on a small Pakistani fishing town to win over locals and build a commercial deepwater port that the United States and India suspect may also one day serve the Chinese navy.
Beijing has built a school, sent doctors and pledged about $500 million (Dh1,835 million) in grants for an airport, hospital, college and badly-needed water infrastructure for Gwadar, a dusty town whose harbour juts out into the Arabian Sea, overlooking some of the world’s busiest oil and gas shipping lanes.
The grants include $230 million for a new international airport, one of the largest such disbursements China has made abroad, according to researchers and Pakistani officials.
Not a usual approach
The handouts for the Gwadar project are a departure from Beijing’s usual approach in other countries. China has traditionally derided Western-style aid in favour of infrastructure projects for which it normally provides loans through Chinese state-owned commercial and development banks.
“The concentration of grants is quite striking,” said Andrew Small, an author of a book on China-Pakistan relations and a Washington-based researcher at the German Marshall Fund think tank.
“China largely doesn’t do aid or grants, and when it has done them, they have tended to be modest.” Pakistan has welcomed the aid with open arms. However, Beijing’s unusual largesse has also fuelled suspicions in the United States and India that Gwadar is part of China’s future geostrategic plans to challenge US naval dominance.
“It all suggests that Gwadar, for a lot of people in China, is not just a commercial proposition over the longer term,” Small said.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. Beijing and Islamabad see Gwadar as the future jewel in the crown of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to build a new “Silk Road” of land and maritime trade routes across more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa.
The plan is to turn Gwadar into a trans-shipment hub and megaport to be built alongside special economic zones from which export-focused industries will ship goods worldwide. A web of energy pipelines, roads and rail links will connect Gwadar to China’s western regions.
No drinking water
But the challenges are stark. Gwadar has no access to drinking water, power blackouts are common and separatist insurgents threaten attacks against Chinese projects in Gwadar and the rest of Balochistan, a mineral-rich province that is still Pakistan’s poorest region.
Security is tight, with Chinese and other foreign visitors driven around in convoys of soldiers and armed police.
Beijing is also trying to overcome the distrust of outsiders evident in Balochistan, where indigenous Baloch fear an influx of other ethnic groups and foreigners. Many residents say the pace of change is too slow.
“Local people are not completely satisfied,” said Essar Nori, a lawmaker for Gwadar, adding that the separatists were tapping into that dissatisfaction.
China’s Gwadar project contrasts with similar efforts in Sri Lanka, where the village of Hambantota was transformed into a port complex — but was saddled with Chinese debt.
Last week, Sri Lanka formally handed over operations to China on a 99-year lease in exchange for lighter debt repayments, a move that sparked street protests over what many Sri Lankans view as an erosion of sovereignty.
The Hambantota port, like Gwadar, is part of a network of harbours Beijing is developing in Asia and Africa that have spooked India, which fears being encircled by China’s growing naval power.
On top of the airport, Chinese handouts in Gwadar include $100 million to expand a hospital by 250 beds, $130 million towards upgrading water infrastructure, and $10 million for a technical and vocational college, according to Pakistani government documents and officials.
“We welcome this assistance as it’s changing the quality of life of the people of Gwadar for the better,” said Senator Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the parliamentary committee that oversees CPEC, including Gwadar. China and Pakistan jointly choose which projects will be developed under the CPEC mechanism, Sayed added.
When China suggested a 7,000 metre runway for the new airport, Pakistan pushed for a 12,000 metre one that could accommodate planes as large as the Airbus 380 and be used for military purposes, according to Sajjad Baloch, a director of the Gwadar Development Authority. The scale of Chinese grants is extraordinary, according to Brad Parks, executive director of AidData, a research lab at the US-based William and Mary university that collected data on Chinese aid across 140 countries from 2000-2014.
Since 2014, Beijing has pledged over $800 million in grants and concessional loans for Gwadar, which has less than 100,000 people. In the 15 years before that, China gave about $2.4 billion in concessional loans and grants during this period across the whole of Pakistan, a nation of 207 million people.
“Gwadar is exceptional even by the standards of China’s past activities in Pakistan itself,” Parks said.
Winning hearts and minds
There are early signs China’s efforts to win hearts and minds are beginning to bear fruit in Gwadar.
“Balochistan is backward and underdeveloped, but we are seeing development after China’s arrival,” said Salam Dashti, 45, a grocer whose two children attend the new Chinese-built primary school.
But there are major pitfalls ahead. Tens of thousands of people living by the port will have to be relocated.
For now, they live in cramped single-storey concrete houses corroded by seawater on a narrow peninsula, where barefoot fishermen offload their catch on newly-paved roads strewn with rubbish. Many of the fishermen say they fear they’ll lose their livelihoods once the port starts operating.