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New Pakistani port is Chinese pearl

world Updated: Sep 15, 2009 22:20 IST
Kamal Siddiq
Kamal Siddiq
Hindustan Times
Kamal Siddiq

Dust storms blow now through empty streets in the half-finished Pakistani port town. At its only five- star hotel, rooms are vacant. And in the streets, the Chinese customers of the fish sellers are gone.

After staying here for five years, most went away last year from Pakistanis southwestern Gwadar town, on its sleepy Arabian Sea coastal backyard, after threats from suspected Baloch rebels. But the Chinese have transformed it into one of the region's most important trading hubs, a strategic foothold for China in the Asian heartland, a crucial gateway of trade between the Gulf countries and Central Asia.

When commissioned -- there is no fixed date -- it will be a tax free port set up with investments from both China and Pakistan that authorities hope will create at least 2 million jobs.

Gwadar, located at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, was inaugurated last year and has already become a key part of China's plan to build "a string of pearls", a series of ports across the Indian Ocean that it doesn't own, but where it can use its warships.

The port has not taken off because a highway that the government has promised would be built to link Gwadar with the Punjab province and Afghanistan on the other side has not been completed.

Most cargo is shipped in to Gwadar's bulk terminal and then must go to Karachi before being distributed across Pakistan.

But all the attention has taught Gwadar's youth to dream big. The young men who hang around the Gwadar Club and on the pristine beachside say their goal is to find work in Muscat, or to go to Karachi, the nearest city - about 700 kilometers away.

And it is sending incomes soaring for local businessmen, after the construction of the grand Coastal Highway that connects Karachi with Gwadar and has opened up endless possibilities.

"Earlier, it took three days for my products to reach Karachi. Now it takes one day," said Haji Abdul Qadir, president of the Gwadar Chambers of Commerce, who also owns a seafood processing factory. Qadir said the Chinese presence helped give the town "international exposure."

The port project was inaugurated in the spring of 2007 by Pakistanis then-military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, with Chinese Communications Minister Li Shenglin, on his side. It is now being expanded into a naval base with financial and technical assistance from China.

Many Chinese still remain but keep a low profile.

All that has made America and India view it with deep suspicion.

"The Indians see the Chinese presence in this area as somewhat of a threat. But it is an economic presence not a military one," said defence analyst Ayesha Siddiqa.

Some think that with most Chinese gone, all is over.

"The Chinese brought with them good fortune," said Dr Muhammad Jamil, a local doctor. ôWhen they were here, we had prosperity. When they left, they took their fortunes with them.

But for most in Pakistan, Gwadar and its development has meant the opening up of economic opportunities for people in Balochistan, considered one of the most neglected and backward provinces in the country.

President Asif Ali Zardari is keen on Chinese help to complete the project. He has vowed to visit China "every few months" so he can bring back aid, investment and technical know-how to areas like Gwadar. In his most recent trip in August, Zardari signed deals with the Chinese for building dams in the province.

All that is plugging Gwadar into the world. Using binoculars, sitting at the grand Pearl Continental Hotel, one can spot the massive tankers that make their way in and out of the Persian Gulf.

The hotel, the only five-star property for hundreds of miles around, stands atop a hill overlooking Gwadar, a town of about 50,000. It was here that most of the Chinese engineers were relocated after attacks on them by what were described as Baloch nationalists. Now most of the rooms are empty as the Chinese have left.

At the Fishermen's Jetty next to the Gwadar Port project, fishermen recall Chinese men and women would come ambling by, looking for fresh fish.

"They even made requests on certain types of fish," said one fisherman, declining to be named in the town of great political sensitivities. They would give us extra money if we caught it for them.