Pakistan and China say developing the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar, in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, will promote trade throughout Central Asia. But Baluch nationalists see an effort to drown out their calls for independence.
Amir Ahmed Suleman Daud is one of the most influential Baluch tribal leaders, whose ancestors once ruled the vast Baluch territories. He calls the Chinese project a new effort by Pakistan’s dominant ethnic group, the Punjabis, to dominate his homeland.
"When China is interfering the way it is, we [don't have] any choice but to defend our land," Daud says. "China has come over there on [the Punjabis'] or the [Pakistani] Army’s invitation. We have not invited them."
Many Baluch nationalists accuse the Punjabis – a term they often use as a synonym for the Pakistani government -- of treating Balochistan as a colony and stealing its energy and mineral wealth. Balochistan for years has been torn by violence as armed separatist groups periodically attack Pakistani military outposts and sabotage gas and oil pipelines.
Even moderate Baluch leaders see a danger in China’s plans to now invest millions of dollars into developing Gwadar, a little-used port near the Iranian border, as a regional trade center and possible naval facility.
Hasil Bizenjo, the vice president of the moderate Baluch National Party, supports Chinese investment in the port because it could help create local jobs. But he worries the boom could attract more migrants from other parts of Pakistan at a time when the Baluchis fear becoming outnumbered at home.
"Our demand has been that anybody working here should not have the right to vote for 30 years," Bizenjo says. "Our demands have been considered in the past. I think this reservation is not limited to the nationalist factions alone. It is shared by the entire population of Balochistan. I think the government of Pakistan will have to address this reservation ultimately."
Currently, Baluchis make up some 5 million of the province’s total estimated population of 9 million -- a fraction of Pakistan's overall population of nearly 190 million.
The insecurity in Balochistan raises the question of whether both Islamabad's and China’s ultimate motivations for seeking the port are commercial or strategic.
Beijing says it wants to use Gwadar as the hub of an energy corridor to its western province of Xinjiang. But at the same time, Beijing has secured a string of port facilities in the Indian Ocean that increasingly allow it to project its own naval power westward.
'String Of Pearls'
Andrew Small, an expert on China and Pakistan at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, D.C., sees a strategic interest. "The security situation in the country as a whole, not just in Balochistan itself, means that [the energy corridor] is looking much trickier than it was when the project was first conceived, which puts some people on the Chinese side back on looking at the port primarily for its use as a potential naval facility," he says.
Small says China’s close military ties with Pakistan mean Beijing could expect to use Gwadar as a "semipermanent facility" for fueling and provisioning naval ships -- much as China does elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, notably in Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka.
The residential area of Gwadar port in the Arabian Sea
China’s chain of naval facilities in the Indian Ocean is often dubbed its "string of pearls," and its projection of sea power secures its sea links to the Persian Gulf, the source of 60 percent of China’s crude-oil imports.
Any naval facility at Gwadar would allow Chinese sea power to extend west almost to the Persian Gulf itself at a time when tensions between Western powers and Iran -- a major oil supplier to China -- are at a peak. It also would complete an encirclement of Pakistan’s archrival, India.
Both explain why Washington and New Delhi have a high interest in watching whether Gwadar evolves into an actual Chinese naval base.
Many analysts believe Gwadar will stop short of that. "It is very important to note that for now, despite Pakistan's request that it do so, China has said it does not want to establish a naval base and has refused to do so," says Shahshank Joshi of the Royal United Services Institute in London. "So right now we are talking about a civilian Chinese company and not one that is just a front for the PLA," China's People's Liberation Army.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony expressed concern earlier this month over Pakistan’s decision to transfer management of the deepwater port to China. But Joshi says the protest was largely pro forma.
Washington has said nothing publicly about the deal.
Then-Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (left) salutes as China's Minister for Communication Li Shenglin (right) looks on during the inauguration of the Gwadar port on March 20, 2007.
Meanwhile, Islamabad insists the deal is only commercial in nature.
"I think we should only look at this venture as an economic and commercial venture," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokesman Moazam Ahmed Khan told reporters in Istanbul last week. He added that the plan is "solely focused on improving development of the area, helping Chinese goods reach other markets, getting China the shortest route for its energy supplies."
Small says China’s commercial plan is to bring oil from tankers docking at Gwadar by truck across Balochistan to connect with the Karakorum highway that connects northern Pakistan to southern Xinjiang.
However, no such roads from Gwadar exist today. The port is linked by road only to Karachi -- a coastal route that avoids the restive interior of Balochistan and does not meet Beijing’s desire for a shortcut to Xinjiang.