GWADAR: A heavy police presence, guarded convoys, new checkpoints and troop reinforcements have turned parts of the southern port city of Gwadar into a fortress, as Pakistan’s powerful military seeks to protect billions of dollars of Chinese investment.
Securing the planned $46 billion economic corridor of roads, railways and pipelines from northwest China to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast is a huge challenge in a country where militants and separatist gunmen are a constant menace.
The armed forces and interior ministry have sent hundreds of extra soldiers and police to Gwadar, the southern hub of the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and more are on their way.
“Soon we’ll start hiring 700-800 police to be part of a separate security unit dedicated to Chinese security, and at a later stage a new security division would be formed,” Jafer Khan, regional police officer in Gwadar told Reuters.
A senior security official in the town of around 100,000 people said a further 400-500 soldiers had been recruited as a temporary measure to protect Chinese nationals.
On a recent visit, an SUV carrying Chinese visitors was escorted by two police cars and an army vehicle, while police blocked traffic at every crossroad along the route. It was not clear who the passengers were.
Keeping foreign workers and executives safe in Gwadar, which has expanded significantly over the last 15 years largely thanks to Chinese investment, is relatively straightforward.
The same cannot be said of the corridor as a whole.
Its western branch passes north through Balochistan province, where ethnic Baloch separatist rebels are opposed to the CPEC project and chafing under a military crackdown.
It skirts the tribal belt along the Afghan-Pakistan border where militant groups including the Pakistan Taliban and al Qaeda have long been based, and takes in Peshawar, scene of some of the worst insurgent atrocities of recent years.
Crackdowen and anger
The main responsibility for securing the corridor, vital to Pakistan’s long-term prosperity, lies with a new army division established in the last few months and numbering an estimated 13,000 troops.
Pakistan’s Planning Ministry does not yet have specific estimates on how many jobs the CPEC will create in Pakistan, although officials believe the project could generate hundreds of billions of dollars for the economy over the long term.
Some of the police, army and paramilitary reinforcements deployed in the last year have been stop-gap measures while the new Special Security Division builds to full strength.
Enhanced security goes beyond Gwadar and across Balochistan, an arid, sparsely populated province bordering Iran and Afghanistan which sits on substantial deposits of untapped natural gas.
“We have tightened our security in those areas where the corridor is supposed to pass. We cannot allow Pakistan’s economic backbone to be held hostage,” Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti, the provincial home minister, told Reuters.
The tough approach means anger is growing among separatist rebels and the broader Baloch community, a potential problem for the military as it pursues a two-pronged approach: amnesty for rebels willing to disarm and hunting down those who are not.
“We consider the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as … an occupation of Baloch territory,” said rebel spokesperson Miran Baloch, a member of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), adding its fighters would attack anyone working on the project.
“Thousands of Baloch families have been forced to flee the area where the CPEC route is planned. (The) Baloch (people) will not tolerate such projects on their land.”