Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, flanked by Army Chief Raheel Sharif and Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri, declared Gwadar open for trade at a ceremony on Sunday. Much of the work in developing Gwadar has been carried out and funded by the Chinese and they have significant strategic interests in ensuring the port’s success. Gwadar gives China access to Iran and its energy resources and allows it to compete with India for access to Central Asia. Chinese involvement has also helped avoid the corruption in handing out contracts that destroyed the Musharraf regime’s attempts to develop the port. But even with all these factors working in favour of Gwadar being a lasting success, there are concerns. Security problems are going to be an issue for any country that might want to use the port for trade. Separatist groups have specifically targeted foreign investments in Balochistan and have even killed Chinese engineers in the past. Militant groups have become more active in the province, as the shrine attack over the weekend showed. Fear of militant attacks had been an issue for both the Iranian and Tapi pipelines and the Gwadar Port may face the same challenge.
It may have taken great effort on the part of the government to ensure that the first Chinese cargo ships leave the Gwadar Port, but the impact of these ships leaving on the entire country is not so clear. The promise of inclusive development and the provision of security to the people of the country cannot be delayed forever. There is certainly more that the federal government needs to do to convince smaller provinces that the CPEC will bring them and the entire country the promised benefits. In his speech at the inauguration ceremony, Nawaz Sharif specifically called out those who are enemies of the CPEC as enemies of Pakistan. India has every reason to want Gwadar, and all the other projects associated with the CPEC, to fail. The port, now that it is close to being fully functional, will be of great importance to Pakistan not just because of increased trade but also strategically. It will link us to the Middle East and Central Asia and be a part of the route through which two-thirds of the world’s oil passes and make us the hub of trade between China and the Central Asian Republics. Previously India could block the Straits of Malacca, forcing China to keep India on its side so that it never exercised that option. The port at Gwadar takes away that bargaining chip from India. Gwadar would give China access to the Straits of Hormuz – one of the main oil shipping routes – and reduce its costs of trade. India believes China is using Gwadar as part of its ‘String of Pearls’ – Chinese-funded ports that surround India. This was the main reason India reached an agreement with Iran to develop the port at Chabahar and froze Pakistan out. Gwadar has the potential to be revolutionary for Pakistan but we will have to avoid the problems that have plagued it in the past, starting with corruption and ending with plans to sabotage it – both from home and abroad.