Gawadar: Economic Hopes & Security Challenges

Mohammad Suleman Khan – May 22, 2019

Gawadar means ‘door of wind’ in Balochi[1]. It is a coastal city on the Arabian Sea in the southwest of Balochistan. Its deep sea port is often called the ‘Jewel of the CPEC Crown’. Karachi – Pakistan’s economic hub – lies 600 kilometers to the east of Gawadar, connected through the Mekran coastal highway[2]. Gawadar is one of the three districts of the Mekran division, the other two being Kech (Turbat) and Panjgur[3]. The coastal city and its neighboring regions of Turbat and Panjgur have been the ground zero of an insurgency in the southwest by Baloch militant groups that demand grater rights from the federal government. Turbat has seen most insurgent violence followed by Panjgur. Similarly, Gawadar is also facing attacks from Baloch insurgents, with latest attack in May 2019 on Pearl Continental hotel Gawadar.

Districts of Balochistan   Credit:

Gawadar: the Economic Powerhouse

Pakistan hopes the Gawadar port would boost its economy in the coming years. China is investing over $60bn to develop the port and build a huge network of highways across Pakistan under its Belt and Road vision[4]. The port has the capacity and natural depth to harbor large ships which means big businesses and more economic opportunities and growth for Pakistan.[5] The port is also projected to help develop the desperately backward Balochistan province where Gawadar is located. The port seeks to provide facilities for all kinds of ships and all sizes of cargo category handling and improve trade[6].

Comparison of Depth

National Ports Depth (m) International Ports Depth (m)
Karachi Port 9-10 Singapore 20-21
Port Qasim 11-12 Hong Kong 9-10
Gawadar Port 17-18 UAE 15-16
  • More depth means heavy ships can be docked
  • Heavy ships means more goods
  • Less time – less money – economical

Many in Pakistan have propounded Gawadar as the future counterpart of Hong Kong and Dubai which contribute huge chunks to the GDPs of their respective countries[7]. The expansion and the improvement of the port will give Pakistan leverage on maritime trade routes and connectivity with South Asia, Central Asia, Africa, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East.[8]

The port is expected to handle an estimated 400 million tons of cargo annually by 2030.[9] China’s investment in Pakistan under CPEC stood at $ 62bn in 2017. In 2000, Pakistan’s annual maritime trade was 42 million tons which rose to 78 million tons by 2015. According to the ‘China Overseas Ports Holding Company’, the Gawadar Port’s operator, some 20 companies in different businesses have already joined the Gwadar free trade zone with direct investment of over $460 million.[10] Gawadar will be able to produce businesses worth $ 40bn in next decade.[11]

The port’s development has enhanced the real estate value of Gawadar. Many housing schemes have already sprung up in the port city. The Gawadar Development Authority (GDA) estimates that economic activities and opportunities would drive an estimated 1.7 million people to shift to Gwadar within the next thirty years.[12]

cpec corridor

A Critical Maritime Route

Gawadar to Kashghar is the most economical and fastest route for China, which can greatly cut its costs of import and export. If China wants to import energy via the Indian Ocean and South China Sea then the distance is over 12,000 kilometers, but from Gawadar to China it is merely around 2,000 kilometers.[13] China imports 80% of its oil from Malaca Strait and South China Sea, which keeps its imports at risk from regional and international players, for which CPEC route is most favored and best alternative.[14] If Malacca Strait or South China Sea is blocked by regional or International players then Gawadar will be a viable and reliable option for China for its imports.  The port city would also serve China’s economic expansion into the Middle East and Africa.[15]

Army Takes Charge of Security

The development of Gawadar Port has increased the security presence in the insurgency-hit Balochistan. Since the CPEC originates in Balochistan and stretches throughout the country, security of the port and the trade routes is critical as Chinese nationals are already on the radar of Baloch insurgent groups. This backdrop led Pakistan to raise a special army division in 2016 to protect the CPEC. Comprising 9,000 army soldiers and 6,000 paramilitary men, the division was put under the command of a major general. This special force would be further developed and its strength increased to 32,000 personnel.[16]  Likewise, Pakistan Navy’s special task force called TF-88 is charged with maritime security of the Gawadar Port. The task force is armed with surveillance drones fast attack boats, and latest weapons.[17]


The initial cost of this special security was estimated at 23 billion rupees.[18] Different units will serve under this force in different areas. For example, in Balochistan, the Frontier Corps will serve as the main tier, supported by army, police and Levies; in Sindh, the Rangers will be the main tier force, supported by army and police; in Punjab, police will serve as main tier with support from army; in KP, army will serve as main tier with the support from police; and in Gilgit-Baltistan, too, army will serve as the main tier and will be supported by local law enforcers. [19]

There were speculations in early 2018 that China was planning to build a naval base at Gawadar on the model of its base in Djibouti in the horn of Africa.[20] The speculation was triggered by a report in the ‘South China Morning Post’ in which a Chinese military analyst Zhou Chenming stated that the base near the Gwadar would be used to dock and maintain naval vessels as well as provide other logistical support services”[21]. However, both Pakistan and China have denied such reports.[22]

Baloch Insurgency and the CPEC

China started the construction of the Gawadar Port in 2002, and by 2004 over 500 Chinese nationals had landed in the port city. The Chinese presence came as an additional upset for the Baloch nationalist groups that had already locked horns with the federal government over a number of issues including provincial autonomy and increased control over the province’s mineral wealth. The Baloch feared the development of the port would inevitably lead to huge influx of outsiders to the port city, turning the natives into a minority in their own land. On 3 May 2004, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) gunned down three Chinese engineers working at a construction site in Gawadar. A few weeks later, it attacked the port with rockets[23].

Baloch insurgents  Photo credit Al-Jazeera

Some Baloch insurgent groups such as BLA view China as partnering with Pakistan’s federal government to exploit their natural resources. Pakistan had also contracted out to China the extraction of gold and copper from the Saindak gold mines in Balochistan in 1990s – long before the CPEC was conceived. [24]

Besides, the Baloch militant groups also accuse China of helping Pakistan militarily to suppress Baloch insurgency. In an interview, BLA ringleader Aslam Baloch claimed elements of Chinese military were present in Balochistan. He blamed China for alleged plunder of Baloch resources under the guise of mega projects.[25] Baloch was killed in a bombing in Kandahar, Afghanistan in Dec 2018. Pakistan accuses its neighboring India of giving money, training, and sanctuary to Baloch militants in Afghanistan. Likewise, Pakistan has also expressed concerns about some insurgent elements allegedly operating from the Iranian soil.

Following are some of the Baloch insurgent groups operating in Gawadar region:

  • Majeed Brigade of the Balochistan Liberation Army.[26]
  • Baloch Liberation Front is acive in Awaran, Panjgur, Washuk, Turbat and Gwadar in southern Balochistan.[27]
  • Lashkar-e-Balochistan (LB).[28]
  • Baloch Republican Army (BRA).[29]
  • Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).[30]

These groups have often targeted Chinese nationals in Pakistan.[31] In July 2007, a bus full of Chinese engineers was bombed in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.[32] In November 2018, three BLA terrorists attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi, killing three policemen and two Pakistani civilians. None of 21 Chinese officials inside the consulate was harmed.[33] In May 2019, BLA stormed a luxurious hotel, Pearl Continental, in Gawadar which is frequented by Chinese nationals and other foreign investors. No Chinese citizen was hurt in the attack[34].

Troubling Neighbors?

Parts of CPEC project in Balochistan have faced considerable security challenges. Most of the problems are homegrown with alleged encouragement and support from outside like Afghanistan, Iran, and India. The BLA has been targeting Chinese citizens in Balochistan for years.[35]

Pakistan claims the Indian presence in Afghanistan and Iran is fueling the insurgency in its disturbed Balochistan region. The suspicion got stronger after Pakistani security agencies nabbed an Indian intelligence operative, Kalbushan Jhadav, from Balochistan in Mar 2016. Jhadav reportedly worked undercover for India’s premier intelligence agency RAW, and extended support to the insurgency and other terrorist activities in Pakistan.[36]


Some insurgent groups like BLA and BRA reportedly operate from the Iranian side of the border where they take shelter after carrying out attacks in Balochistan. Pakistan believes Tehran is aware of the whereabouts of these militants groups on its soil. [37] In April 2019, the BLA killed 14 security personnel after offloading them from passenger buses in Ormara, near Gawadar.[38] These BLA terrorists reportedly fled back to Iran following the attack.[39] Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, has categorically said that Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies have been involved in fueling unrest in Pakistan.[40]

Addressing the Problem

Many mainstream Baloch politicians have urged for a peaceful resolution of the insurgency problem in Balochistan. The province’s former chief minister, Abdul Malik Baloch, had proposed that the civilian and military authorities must get together to address the grievances of the disgruntled Baloch people. Malik is often credited for making genuine attempts to reach out to the indignant Baloch elements in order to figure out a solution to the security crisis in Balochistan. He had urged the federal government to rehabilitate the Baloch tribes uprooted by military operations in the province, and resolve the problem of Baloch missing persons.[41] 

Pakistan has high economic hopes attached to the China-funded CPEC. The project has frequently been branded as “game-changer” not only for Pakistan but the entire region. It has been instrumental in deepening Pakistan’s ties with China. However, with an active anti-CPEC insurgency going on in Balochistan, it would be challenging for Pakistan as well as China to reap the full potential of the mega project. There have been worries that Pakistan’s certain neighbors are exploiting the homegrown Baloch insurgency to sabotage the joint Pak-China mega development projects. Islamabad must, therefore, take the problem of insurgency seriously before it becomes its Achilles ‘heel.

The Baloch insurgency is underpinned by decades-old political grievances and exploitation. The government must give political solution a preference in Balochistan, by reaching out to Baloch leaders and initiating a genuine process to address their grievances. The province makes up 44% of the country and offers the biggest reserves of natural resources. It deserves more than what it gets politically and economically. A stable Balochistan integrated to national mainstream may help Pakistan fully realize its expectations attached to the CPEC.











































[41] Book Dr. Naimatullah Gichki “Baloch in search of Identity” page 241-251, 2015