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Pakistan takes desperate measures to revive Belt and Road's port

Struggling Gwadar effectively chosen as regional subcapital and tourist destination

Gwadar Port, the centerpiece of the Pakistan component of the Belt and Road Initiative, suffers from infrastructure gaps. (Source photos by AP)

ISLAMABAD -- Pakistan's federal and regional governments are taking a series of actions, including giving the status of regional subcapital and promoting tourism, to revive the struggling town of Gwadar, whose port -- built and operated by the Chinese -- hardly receives ship calls.

Experts believe these actions will not work unless infrastructure gaps are addressed in Gwadar, which is the center stage of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the $50 billion Pakistan component of the Belt and Road Initiative.

In the first days of April, a news item was published in several Pakistani newspapers quoting a Chinese media outlet, Gwadar Pro, as saying that Gwadar had been given the status of capital of South Balochistan. This proved to be incorrect -- there is no South Balochistan.

However, officials of the Balochistan government, who requested anonymity, confirmed to Nikkei Asia that the regional government is in the process of making Gwadar a subcapital of Balochistan that will house several high-ranking government officials in a provincial camp office.

"If senior government officers set up offices in Gwadar [as a subcapital], then it will resolve a lot of problems," Aslam Bhootani, the National Assembly member representing Gwadar, told Nikkei. He added that Gwadar is the future of Balochistan, and declaring it a subcapital would help develop the region.

Analysts do not agree with the government's move to revive Gwadar Port by making administrative tweaks.

Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, said that trying to bring more prominence and attractiveness to Gwadar through sudden administrative changes is bound to fail unless Gwadar is able to become a truly developed and functional port. "Progress on the ground is what will bring acclaim to Gwadar, and government can't engineer progress through public relations campaigns," he told Nikkei.

"This is a desperate move by the Pakistani government to create buy-in for the Gwadar Port," said Malik Siraj Akbar, a South Asia analyst based in Washington. He told Nikkei that the government is taking these cosmetic measures to create media hype and divert attention from the grievances of the local people in Gwadar.

Lately, the government has also started to promote Gwadar as a tourist destination. The most high-profile visitor to Gwadar last week was U.S. Charge d'Affaires Angela Aggeler, who was the first U.S. diplomat to visit Gwadar in the last 15 years. Last week the chief minister of the Balochistan government, Jam Kamal Khan, inaugurated the Coastal Tourism App for District Gwadar.

In the recent past, government has sponsored trips of celebrities and sportsmen to attract tourism to Gwadar. The government has also promoted a newly built cricket stadium in Gwadar as one of the most beautiful cricket stadiums in the world.

Kugelman thinks the visit of the U.S. top diplomat was an attempt by Pakistan to drum up international support for Gwadar. Pakistan is keen to telegraph its willingness to take on investors that go beyond Beijing and wants Gwadar to be on the world's radar. "The problem for Islamabad is that Washington doesn't perceive the investment climate in Pakistan to be nearly as attractive as it is elsewhere, especially in the growing economies of Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific," he analyzed.

Akbar was more critical of the approach used by the government. "You can't run a port by merely organizing cricket matches and concerts or via Twitter campaigns," Akbar said, adding that the government needs a more serious approach toward Gwadar and must prove that Gwadar has the infrastructure needed to operate as a modern port city.

The government's attempts to promote Gwadar have further highlighted the infrastructure gaps in the port town.

Nasir Rahim Sohrabi, a prominent social activist, tweeted on Sunday that the main market of Gwadar had been without electricity for 11 days, which exposes the infrastructure gaps in the so-called Singapore of the future.

Bhootani agrees that Gwadar is developing very slowly and said it will take some time before this project can kick off.

"Gwadar Port was established 15 years ago, but so far it has failed to deliver," he said. When there will be no electricity and proper road connectivity for heavy traffic, then Gwadar can't kick off as a viable commercial project, he added.


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