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Pakistan and China signed various infrastructure and energy projects as part of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) In April 2015. Chinese President Xi Jinping called Pak-China cooperation as “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership.”Earlier in 2013, China Overseas Port Holding Company was transferred the operation of Gwadar Port, and the lease was extended up to 40 years in 2017. However,ever since the signing of CPEC, the limelight remained on infrastructure development and associated special economic zones (SEZs) on land, strategic significance of Gwadar Port for China, and its possible impact on alliance politics in the region.

Yet the primary component of CPEC is Gwadar Port and associated maritime infrastructure. The maritime dimension of CPEC is much more than providing an alternative route to Strait of Malacca for energy transport of China. Despite Karachi Port’s undergoing expansion to handle upto 3.4 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units), the port traffic chokes due to lack of direct connectivity between the Port and highways. The choked traffic at Karachi outbound for western and northern parts of Pakistan can be redirected to Gwadar in order to improve transport efficiency and manage shipping traffic from choking at Karachi.

Strategically too, the view of CPEC as a driver of ‘alliance politics’ and possibility a “pearl” in the so-called String of Pearls have overshadowed the transforming strategic scenario of Makran coast after CPEC. Jinnah Naval Base at Ormara was initially planned to base Pakistan Navy (PN) both, far enough from Karachi to avoid major losses to Port and Navy, and close enough to react swiftly in case of any attack on Karachi or further east. The rest of Makran coast stationed only a forward operating base and arms depot of PN at Gwadar, and an air station shared with Pakistan Air Force at Pasni.

However, Pakistan’s maritime security infrastructure at Makran coast also developed along with developments on CPEC and Gwadar Port. In 2016, Pakistan Navy constituted Task Force 88 dedicated exclusively to the defence and protection of Gwadar. Pakistan Navy also operationalized PNS Siddiq in Turbat in 2017 as its second major naval air station in order to provide long range maritime patrol cover to the Makran coast. Most recently, former Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Zafar Mehmood Abbasi inaugurated Marines Training Center (MTC) at Gwadar. In future, a permanent Naval Dockyard at Gwadar might also be established as the port expands. Development of maritime security infrastructure along Makran coast reflects increasing efforts to establish sea control from eastern and west coasts, both in times of peace and war.

Another maritime area that remains largely ignored in context of CPEC and Gwadar is that of coastal communities. Majority of the communities along Pakistan’s coasts are impoverished. Even though 100 Km of Gwadar has been declared as a Special Economic Zone under CPEC, the local communities have yet to see any substantial benefit from the project. Fishing is the main source of living for these coastal communities. Yet the complications in Deep Sea Fishing Policy and provincial fishing and licensing policies prompt frequent protests from fishermen in Gwadar, Pasni, and elsewhere. Recent protests of fishermen across the country against intrusion of Chinese fishing trawlers again reflected that the grievances of coastal communities are not being addressed.The most recent protest of fishermen was held in Gwadar against delay in construction of Jetty in eastern bay of Gwadar despite promises from relevant authorities.

Socioeconomic impoverishment of coastal communities can create a fault line for extremism in this relatively peaceful part of the country. If left unaddressed, the coastal communities might consider CPEC as a bone of contention rather than an opportunity for common development.Sustainable coastal development and management strategies need to be adopted by the government along with development of CPEC in order to impart benefits to the coastal communities.

Conclusively if any good is to be achieved through CPEC and Gwadar Port as an opportunity for development, we need to view the landmark project from a maritime perspective. The foremost objective should be to develop and strengthen coastal infrastructure, that includes coastal communities, maritime security, and port infrastructure. Once established, the coastal infrastructure will help to achieve the goals and reap dividends of CPEC unhindered.

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Muneeb Salman

Muneeb Salman is Research Associate at Maritime Study Forum.