In A Remote Seaside Town, China Envisions A New 'Silk Road'

Oct 20, 2015
Originally published on October 20, 2015 12:15 pm

History has not been kind to the people who scratch out a living in Gwadar, on the arid coastline of the Arabian Sea.

They have received a few exotic visitors over the years, including Alexander the Great's army and marauding Portuguese explorers. For a couple of centuries, their land belonged to sultans in Oman, just across the ocean.

But the world has mostly passed Gwadar by, preferring gentler and more prosperous pastures to the dust, sand and jagged mountains of what is now southwestern Pakistan.

Now, however, a foreign visitor has arrived who is not only promising to stay, but also to help transform this ramshackle place into the gateway of a major new trade route that some hope — despite daunting odds — may stabilize a turbulent region.

The Chinese have moved in on Gwadar, viewing it as a valuable part of their strategy of creating a modern variant of the ancient Silk Road, a network of paths linking China to the world's markets and energy reserves.

Western journalists are rarely allowed to go to Gwadar. Months after applying for permission, NPR was finally given clearance by Pakistan's government to pay a three-day visit.

There are only a handful of flights each week, all operated by the state-run airline, PIA. We flew in on an ATR-42 propeller plane from the city of Karachi, on a humid and hazy morning.

The current airport is a worn-out building, not much larger than a modest house, although on the day of our arrival, because of the lack of air conditioning, it bore a closer resemblance to a rather grubby sauna.

Awaiting us was a senior police officer, and a group of commandos from the anti-terrorism force, equipped with Kalashnikovs, sneakers, black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "No Fear," and even blacker sunglasses.

Gwadar is in Pakistan's poorest province, Balochistan, where separatist insurgents are waging a guerrilla war against the government. The conflict is low-level but has produced numerous atrocities on both sides.

The police were courteous but firm: They were under orders not to allow us to go anywhere in Gwadar without them; this was not negotiable.

Gwadar is one of the more weirdly shaped pieces of real estate on the planet. It is on a narrow peninsula which has at its end — at right angles — a long, low mountain that erupts suddenly out of a flat landscape and is shaped like a hammerhead. This acts as a breakwater for Gwadar's deep sea port.

The port's potential as a major maritime hub derives from its location: Gwadar is at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Not far away is the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck through which passes large amounts of the world's oil.

Much of that oil sails to China, and takes weeks to get there. An overland route via Pakistan would — in theory at least — be cheaper and quicker, and offers China the advantage of bypassing rivals and fractious neighbors in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Earlier this year, China's President Xi Jinping announced plans to provide $46 billion in investment and loans to help Pakistan develop "an economic corridor" running the length of its territory, through the Himalayas, to western China.

Plans have been drawn up for pipelines, power plants, road and rail links and other infrastructure. Pakistan's civilian and military leadership is highly enthusiastic. Officials say there will be a security force, at least 10,000 strong, to protect the corridor from insurgents and bandits.

Driving through Gwadar, amid a convoy of commandos, you see little evidence that these ambitious plans have so far delivered any significant economic dividends.

There are a lot of low-lying, scruffy concrete homes, surrounded by scrub and sand, and, on either side, long beaches leading to a waveless, milky-blue ocean, punctuated by scores of brightly decorated wooden fishing boats.

The place has spent most of history as an obscure coastal village. Fishing and boat-building are still the main source of income for most. Yet city planners are now daring to dream of a glorious future.

A giant map hangs from a wall in the offices of the Gwadar Development Authority, depicting the Gwadar of 2050. Areas are set aside for luxury beachside hotels, a big revolving restaurant, a marina and a sweeping suburbs.

At present, about 100,000 people live in Gwadar; officials say their master plan represents a cyber-connected Smart City of 1.7 million.

That utopia seems a long way off. China has, however, underlined its commitment to the corridor by taking out a 40-year lease on the port of Gwadar, through a state-run company.

The Chinese have also agreed to build and pay for an international airport that's slated to be the biggest — in acreage — in Pakistan.

So far, Gwadar port has made a slow start under its Chinese tenants. The landlord, Pakistan's government-run Gwadar Port Authority, says only a couple of cargo ships come in a month, carrying wheat and fertilizer.

The authority's chairman, Dostain Khan Jamaldini, blames the poor infrastructure, and insists the corridor is going ahead, and will eventually become a major route to China and Central Asia. Why else, he asks, would he have made 15 visits to China in the past two years?

"These visits are not just sightseeing, " he says, "These visits are serious engagements. We sit together, we discuss, we brainstorm. This China-Pakistan economic corridor, it's not just a slogan or a piece of paper."

Jamaldini does have one big caveat. Ultimately, for the corridor to succeed, there will need to be peace in neighboring Afghanistan.

"Whatever is cooking inside Afghanistan, the first spill-over comes to Pakistan," he says. "All will depend on peace in Afghanistan."

There are other obstacles. Pakistan is blighted by corruption and bad governance. Most of the population of Gwadar are ethnic Baloch, who have lived with decades of poverty, dismal education and general government neglect. Local residents suspect they will gain little from the corridor.

"There is a lack of trust. There is gulf between the government and people," says Hussain Wadheela, of the Balochistan National Party.

Wadheela says people fear that they'll be marginalized by Pakistan's other ethnic groups if Gwadar starts booming and people flood in.

So far, there is no flood, but there is a trickle.

Niaz Akhter is a property investor who has flown in to hunt for bargains. He seems in a buoyant mood.

Although Akhter only arrived two days ago, his trip appears to be going remarkably well, delivering two deals so far that he says have earned him "tremendous profits."

"If you compare the prices of other places like Singapore and Bombay, I think it is very lucrative right now," says Akhter as he takes tea in the Pearl Continental, Gwadar's only luxury hotel.

His cheery attitude contrasts sharply with the scene in the hotel itself. Fewer than 20 of its 114 rooms are occupied. The reception lobby is elegant and sparklingly clean, but swelteringly hot because the management has turned off the air conditioning to cut costs.

The challenges facing Gwadar, and the architects of the new Silk Road across Pakistan, are symbolized by one other small but compelling detail: The hotel's Wi-Fi is down; Baloch insurgents have sabotaged the network.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of China's spreading influence. To follow the story, it helps to have a map of China in your head. You know, its coastline and its seaports face eastward toward the Pacific.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

China would like to have a seaport facing the other direction toward the Persian Gulf, and now China is getting one.

INSKEEP: If you head southwest out of China, you reach Pakistan, which is upgrading a port for China on the Arabian Sea. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled to that port.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're bouncing along in a propeller plane. Nineteen-thousand feet below us, in a steamy blue haze, lies the Arabian Sea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen (unintelligible) we'll be landing in Gwadar International Airport.

REEVES: Our destination used to be an obscure fishing village. It's a place called Gwadar. Western journalists are rarely allowed to visit Gwadar. It took NPR months to get permission. Our plane lands, and we bump along the runway towards Gwadar's tiny, tumbled down airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bye, have a nice day.

REEVES: Thank you.

A reception committee is waiting for us in the form of the police. Gwadar's in Pakistan's poorest province, Balochistan, where separatists are waging a low-level guerilla war. The police tell us we're forbidden from going anywhere without a police escort. We've no option but to get inside their pickup truck and set off, along with several other trucks carrying black-clad commandos from the anti-terrorism squad.

You're not going to get a full picture of a place when you're driving along in an armed police escort, but I'm looking out the window and I can see lots of low, flat-roofed concrete buildings. There's a lot of sand, and there's a lot of dust.

Gwadar's a peninsula with a big, rocky outcrop at the end, shaped like a hammerhead that juts into the sea. This acts as a breakwater for Gwadar's deep water port. Not far across the water is one of the world's most important sea lanes, the Strait of Hormuz. Huge amounts of oil and container traffic from the Gulf sails past here. A lot goes to China, taking weeks to get there. So here's the plan. It's far quicker to move stuff over land through Gwadar, up the length of Pakistan to western China. A corridor across Pakistan also gives China a far more direct route to international markets.

MUAZAFFAR KHOKAR: We really foresee that this area will be developed within the next two or three years as a potential hub for Chinese cargo moving through to Persian Gulf and Arabian Gulf area, to India, to South Africa, Europe.

REEVES: Muazaffar Khokar is an executive from a shipping and cargo handling company. Gwadar's position on the map gives it great strategic importance, he says.

KHOKAR: This is a very huge maritime area. It is the key warm water area. This place is really a gold mind.

REEVES: China seems to agree. It's pledged to invest $46 billion to help Pakistan develop the corridor. There are plans for power plants, pipelines, road and rail links and a big international airport in Gwadar. A Chinese company has taken over operations at Gwadar's port. In the city's harbor, fishermen in brilliantly decorated wooden boats sail in and unload their catch. A man drags a big swordfish across the quay to the market, where it's chopped up. Most of Gwadar's people still survive by fishing. Most are very poor. There's an acute shortage of fresh water here. For many hours every day, there's no electricity. We've come to see what Gwadar might look like if Pakistan's dreams come true and it becomes a major maritime hub.

Here, at the Gwadar Development Authority, there's a big map showing the city of the future. There are beachside luxury hotels, a revolving restaurant, a marina and block after block of new homes. One-hundred-thousand people live in Gwadar right now. The map envisages a population 17 times that number. At present, Gwadar only has one luxury hotel. Today, it has a handful of guests. The Wi-Fi is down because insurgents have sabotaged the network. Hussain Wadheela, from the Balochistan National Party, has come to the hotel restaurant to meet NPR. Like almost everyone in Gwadar, ethnically he's Baloch.

HUSSAIN WADHEELA: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: Wadheela explains that after decades of poverty and neglect, Baloch people don't trust Pakistan's government. He says they fear being marginalized by Pakistan's other ethnic groups if Gwadar starts booming and people flood in. But Pakistan's blighted by conflict and corruption.

WADHEELA: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: And Wadheela thinks it's be a very, very long time before all the grand plans for Gwadar become reality, if at all. Certainly, Gwadar's port has made a slow start under Chinese management.

DOSTAIN KHAN JAMALDINI: This is a 12-months, 365-days, 24-hour open port.

REEVES: Are you doing a lot of business at the moment?

JAMALDINI: Not at all. Not - we are doing very less business because of the lack of infrastructure.

REEVES: Dostain Khan Jamaldini is chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority. He says the port's only handling a couple of ships a month right now, but that'll change. There's a reason, he says, he's made 15 trips to China in the last two years.

JAMALDINI: These visits are not just, you know, sightseeing. So these visits are serious engagements. We sit together. We discuss. We brainstorm. This China-Pakistan economic corridor, it is just not a slogan or a piece of paper.

REEVES: So you believe this is going to happen? You believe...

JAMALDINI: Yeah, definitely the level of engagement that I see, it gives me surety, surety that this is going to happen.

REEVES: You're certain?

JAMALDINI: Yes.

REEVES: Jamaldini does have one, big caveat. He says ultimately, for that corridor to succeed, there'll need to be peace next door in Afghanistan.

JAMALDINI: Whatever is cooking inside Afghanistan, the first spillover comes to Pakistan. All will depend on the peace in Afghanistan.

REEVES: But the Afghan conflict is getting worst. Peace in this region seems a long way off. That doesn't dampen the optimism of some. The first people to spot a place on the rise are Pakistan's property investors. Gwadar has caught the eye of Niaz Akhter, a retired army captain.

NIAZ AKHTER: I believe the interest of China in Gwadar is tremendous.

REEVES: Akhter's flown in to hunt for bargains. He's only been in town a couple of days, but he says he's already reaping rewards.

AKHTER: Yes, yes, yes. I've made few deals and I've earned tremendous profits. It's very lucrative.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gwadar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.