The much debated economic-cum-energy corridor between Gwadar and Kashgar is claimed to be the economic backbone of both Pakistan and China.
The Gawadar port was constructed by the Chinese on the shores of Arabian Sea. This warm water sea once provided the reason to sack the government of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in seventies when he offered the Russians access to the waters.
Gawadar port has a strategic importance in oil business being the deep port where heavy and huge oil tankers can dock. It is a gateway to China, Central Asia, Middle East, Africa and Europe. In addition it is located near the Strait of Hormuz, itself a gateway through which a third of the world’s oil is traded. Its location at the junction of the world’s three most important strategic and economic regions Middle East, South Asia and Central Asian Republics makes it potentially viable to generate billions in annual transit trade. Recently Gulf States have made huge petro and other economic deals with China.
Gwadar is strategically very important to China for both commercial and defense purposes. The port will provide China access to the Indian Ocean with the aim of widening its geopolitical influence and military presence in the region.
Currently China transports oil from Gulf States via sea routes to its eastern ports that takes the tankers at least one month while the US navy exerts great control over the sea routes and could interrupt Chinese oil and gas flow any time. Therefore China wants to secure energy supplies that can be shipped over land in much less time than the current sea routes.
The construction of approximately 2000km Kashgar-Gwadar economic corridor is expected to cost around $18 billion which will be completed within five years. Under the corridor project, China is expected to build a railway line, a petroleum pipeline and optic fiber link in addition to the widening of exiting Karakorum highway across the mighty Karakorum by crisscrossing narrow and lush green valleys, dry and snow-caped mountains.
The economic corridor will not only enhance trade between Pakistan and China but will extend to the Gulf States, Central Asia and Africa. China is also interested to extend the Iran-Pakistan pipeline to its western territory.
If we analyze these projects one by one we can easily understand that the widening of KKH is meant to facilitate other mega projects for transportation of heavy equipment and material. The pipeline will pump oil and gas to the western territories of China and thirdly the rail line is meant to transport Chinese goods to the global markets through the shortest possible route from the western China and transport back food and minerals from Africa. The distance from western ports of China to Kashgar is almost 5400km while the distance from Gwadar to Kashgar is 2000km.
China is planning to develop Kashgar, into a regional logistics center. The planned fiscal incentives include tax exemptions, subsidized electricity and transport, low-interest loans and other facilities to make it an industrial zone. Unfortunately, The Government of Pakistan has not taken any such step in Gilgit-Baltistan, the other side of the border. Kashgar like opportunities can be created for the residents of Gilgit Baltistan. The Government of Mian Nawaz Sharif needs to outline policies on same patterns like creating opportunities for small businesses, manufacturing enterprises and other food and fruit processing industries, freight terminals and industrial parks along the railway track, interest free loans for youth to start business in food and agriculture, mining and other sectors in addition to the utilization of transit fee for the development and welfare of the local population.
The main source of income of people in GB is agriculture and the main portion of land will be utilized for these three mega projects therefore Gilgit Baltistan should benefit from such mega projects rather than just becoming a conduit to other’s cargo. Just naming a 2,000km stretch of rail, pipeline or road an ‘economic corridor’ does not make it one. China should be requested to invest in electricity generation in different rural areas and create other employment opportunities for local residents. A tax free trade between China and GB will enhance the good relationships on both sides of the borders. China should provide opportunities of investment for the people of GB in the Xinjiang province. Issuance of Pakistani Visa for Chinese at Sost can develop the dying tourism industry in GB. China can give relaxations in the travel restrictions for other foreigners who want to travel to Gilgit Baltistan via Kashgar.
Blowing out oil and gas pipelines in Balochistan is the result of ignoring the locals and making their land just a conduit for pumping oil and gas. If Balochis were given their due rights in the beginning we could never face such troubles today.
We should learn lessons from our past mistakes and move things in right direction to avoid such terrible incidents in the region. It is the responsibility of our local leaders and politicians to put forward the rightful demands and necessary plans otherwise residents of GB may end up collecting garbage and cleaning oil spills along the corridor. In addition, if due share was not given to the local people then the international actors will take advantages of the sufferings of the people and use them to accomplish their missions leading to a battlefield rather than an economical corridor.
The recent influx of terrorist groups into Gilgit Baltistan and the killings of foreigners at Nanga Parbat have raised eye brows locally and nationally. On the other side of the border the Uyghur separatist group is another source of trouble along the corridor in addition to international players who do not like such a deal between Pakistan and China. These terrorist elements should be dealt with iron hands for any sustainable joint venture.
The people of GB have high hopes and expectations that these projects will change the lives of the local communities in the years to come as the KKH did in the past years.
The writer is an Engineer having experience and expertise in the energy sector.