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Tuesday, November 09, 2021

China ‘belting’ Pakistan on the road to debt trap

Gwadar Port in Pakistan occupied Balochistan

The political debacle of the ambitious Gwadar International Port built by the Chinese is yet to be fully operational in Pakistan. It was found that the challenge was unbearable and that the threat perception has increased in the Balochistan province.

The security threat posed by Baloch separatists and armed nationalists demanding the independence of Balochistan has caused a ripple of fear for the future of the Gwadar Port and its connectivity with Central Asia.

Recently, “all-weather friends” China and Pakistan signed a precursor deal to develop the Karachi coastline at the cost of $3.5 billion -- what is being called another debt trap. China’s shift from Gwadar to Karachi has prompted Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan to dub the “jackpot” project “a revolution” in his Tweet to develop Karachi’s coast.

China puts strategy over investment and ignores profits. The Chinese Communist Party’s leadership has shifted from high-risk lending to hedging its bets. China’s President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project seems to have hit a speed bump after reaching Gwadar. In fact, BRI is losing steam. Malaysia has cancelled projects worth $11.58bn. Similarly, Kazakhstan shook their head to say no to a $1.5bn investment, followed by Bolivia, which has turned down projects worth $1bn.

Some countries admit that they have fallen into a debt trap and the mega infrastructure is being colonized, like the $306.7m Hambantota International Port in Sri Lanka built by China in November 2010.

In 2016, a 70% stake of the port was leased to China Merchants Port Holdings Company Limited (CM Port) for 99 years for $1.12bn. The lease has recently been questioned by Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who now wants the port back.

Nearly 35% of the projects are struggling with corruption and protests, while several other countries are contemplating quitting BRI debt trap projects. Many countries where China has offered ambitious BRI proposals could not contemplate where and when they were going to fall into a debt trap. Pakistan is one of them. They know where the trap is. The Sunni Muslim majority nation knows they are falling into China’s debt trap. Despite the debt trap, a strong pro-Chinese lobby promotes Chinese megaprojects, while the politicians have to swallow the Chinese red pills.

The $62bn Gwadar project envisages linking with the persecuted Uyghur Muslims in East Turkistan (now Xinjiang Province) of China, and is being built through disputed territory in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and Balochistan. Balochistan was once an independent country, before Pakistan’s independence in 1947 and its forcible occupation in March 1948.

Recently, China is extremely concerned about the safety and security of its personnel engaged in construction in China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) projects, including the Karakoram Highway linking with Gwadar.

Gwadar has been leased to China for 43 years and the prospect of the Chinese navy converting the port as a strategic base will invite greater security issues, as China has a grand plan to expand its maritime presence in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman --  a major global oil trade route.

The United States and its allies in the Gulf reckon China’s hegemony in the Gulf will be a security concern. America thinks the presence of the Chinese navy will provide military backup to Iran’s naval patrol in the Persian Gulf, from yet another Chinese-built Chabahar port in Iran, not far from Gwadar.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 9 November 2021

Saleem Samad, is an independent journalist, media rights defender, and recipient of the Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at <>; Twitter @saleemsamad

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