Pakistani naval personnel stand guard near a ship carrying containers at the Gwadar port, some 700kms west of Karachi. Photo: AFP/Aamir Qureshi

PESHAWAR – Amid growing security concerns in Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan, authorities plan to fence off the entire 24-square-kilometer area surrounding the Gwadar seaport to secure what they call the “crown jewel” of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). 

Information gathered from different sources revealed that the Pakistan army, in collaboration with the Makran Administration, Gwadar Development Authority, Gwadar Port Authority and the Balochistan government, would carry out the project under the Gwadar Smart Port City Master Plan. 

Work on erecting barbed-wire fencing around Gwadar’s sensitive parts, which is planned to be complete in phases, has already started. Authorities plan to have 15,000 acres of land secured with iron barriers in the first phase of the project.

To monitor the inflow and outflow of traffic, three entry and exit points will control passage to and from the gated city. 

Government sources revealed that the “Gwadar safe city” would be equipped with more than 500 high-definition surveillance cameras to keep a close watch on “suspicious activities” or unauthorized or forceful intrusions into the city.

Some lawmakers believe that China could introduce a “permit system” to monitor or regulate entry and exit from the walled city for security purposes. Media reports suggest authorities could enforce a curfew within the fenced areas whenever the security situation demands, slapping restrictions on the movement of the Baloch population living in the surroundings of Gwadar port. 

Analysts claim Beijing has grown apprehensive about the rising number of attacks on Chinese installations in Balochistan as Pakistan’s army failed to serve as a bulwark against the outsized shadow of Baloch resistance forces.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks at the inauguration of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor port in Gwadar, Pakistan, on November 13, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Caren Firouz

They say Beijing proposed boxing in strategic sites of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to protect their investments. The step, they believe, would further alienate the Baloch population and the narrative of the anti-China forces would strengthen. 

The activities of Baloch separatists against the Pakistan army and Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects in the province has seen a phenomenal surge during 2020.

Attacks on Chinese interests in the volatile Balochistan province intensified with several Baloch separatist groups showing a greater unity by entering into a ‘trans-province’ alliance with like-minded armed groups in Sindh.

Following the forming of the alliance – three Baloch militant groups under the Baloch Raaji Ajoi Sangar (BRAS), or the Baloch People’s Liberation Coalition – they officially announced stepped up attacks on the army and Chinese nationals.

The Baloch Republican Army (BRA), Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and Baloch Liberation Army then regrouped and joined forces to carry out coordinated operations against the Chinese and Pakistani authorities.

A high-placed source who was not authorized to speak to the media told Asia Times that fencing in Gwadar was the beginning of a fortification process that will cover the entire CPEC installations, particularly in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. 

“China suffered a great deal of loss at the hands of Baloch separatist groups in both these provinces after the splinter resistance groups amalgamated into a single coordinating body to synchronize their operations against their common enemy,” he said.

“The Chinese stakes in Balochistan and Sindh are high. The Gwadar seaport in Balochistan, which Pakistan leased out to China’s Overseas Port Holding Company for 40 years, is strategically important for Beijing for its energy needs and maritime influence in the Indian Ocean.

“For China, Gwadar could become a tactical port that could serve as Beijing’s overseas naval base much sooner than expected,” he added.

This file photo from May 23, 2018, shows a Chinese-backed power plant under construction in Islamkot in the desert in the Tharparkar district of Pakistan’s southern Sindh province. Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

He revealed that Gwadar would reduce Beijing’s dependence on the cost-intensive and time-consuming South China Sea routes for its energy needs. 

As far as China’s involvement in Sindh province is concerned, Chinese companies there are building four coal-based power projects, two each in the Port Qasim and Thar areas. China is also interested in developing the Sindh coastal areas, spreading over 350 kilometers in the southeastern part of the country between the Indus border and the Hub River. 

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government recently facilitated Chinese investment in the Sind islands and promulgated a presidential ordinance in early September to establish a “Pakistan Islands Development Authority.”

The Sindh government and the resistance forces including the Sindudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a separatist group operating in southeastern Sindh province, are putting up strong resistance to Chinese investments in the Sindh islands.

Baloch does not see eye to eye with the authorities on dividing the Gwadar area by fortifying the parts of Gwadar city where Beijing-funded projects are located. Public officeholders and the Baloch intelligentsia label these developments as a violation of human rights and call the “federalization of Balochistan province” a violation of the country’s constitution. 

The fencing plan has also triggered resentment among the Baloch population, who thought the authorities would go beyond their constitutional limits if they went ahead with the fortification plan. Baloch lawmakers, who swung into action to condemn the fencing plan, are contemplating a move in parliament against the government’s designs. 

Addressing a press conference last week, a member of the National Assembly from Gwadar-Lasbela, Mohammad Aslam Bhootani, expressed resentment over the decision and said that fencing Gwadar in the name of security will create doubts in the minds of the local population. 

Pakistani security officials inspect weapons after they were handed over by Baloch militants when they surrendered in Quetta on April 21, 2017. Photo: AFP/Banaras Khan

“Gwadar should have been a hub of business and trade, but unfortunately, the government is making it a security zone, which will discourage investment in the area,” he told Asia Times.

Mir Kabir Mohammad Shahi, a lawmaker and National Party senator, said that fencing off Gwadar city under the safe city project would divide the coastal area into two parts.

“Those who regularly visit the city will be given a card, without which no one could enter the city,” he claimed.

Former Senate Chairman and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Senator Mian Raza Rabbani said in a statement: “The decision of the federal government to fence the port city amounts to divide it into two parts. In an era when the Berlin Wall fell, the city is being divided under the garb of security concerns. It has raised serious concerns amongst people of the area.”

Balochistan Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan Alyani, however, spurned the opposition’s concerns over the fencing plan last week, saying opposition parties had given it a political twist to exploit the situation. He claimed that only a mountainous area at the back of the port city was being fenced as part of Gwadar’s safekeeping enclosure to make it a smart city.