GWADAR -- Many questions are being asked about the intentions of the Chinese military at the port of Gwadar, where a number of suspect buildings are being constructed under a guise of secrecy.
Gwadar, on the southwestern coast of Balochistan, is expected to be a major part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), opening Pakistan to potentially lucrative trade and development projects.
The port has opened up trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan, paving the way for increased commerce between the two neighbouring countries and improved livelihoods of workers on both sides of the border.
But the BRI, particularly the Gwadar project, is not without controversy.
Pakistan could face long-term economic damage with little return from the Chinese project, a top US diplomat warned last year, and Pakistani economists and environmentalists have voiced concerns about the serious damage from the Chinese investments.
The Chinese regime could be using the development of the port as a cover to establish a naval base in Pakistan, observers say.
Commercial port or military base?
Pakistan first asked China to build a military base in Gwadar in 2011.
"We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar," Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan's defence minister from 2008-2011, told the Financial Times.
Yousuf Raza Gilani, Pakistani prime minister at the time, made the request during a visit to China in May 2011, he said.
"The naval base is something we hope will allow Chinese vessels to regularly visit in [the] future and also use the place for repair and maintenance of their fleet in the [Indian Ocean region]," a senior Pakistani official familiar with the discussions said.
But the move looked antagonistic to other countries in the region, and not much more was reported about it until two years ago.
"China needs to set up another base in Gwadar for its warships because Gwadar is now a civilian port," Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming told the South China Morning Post in January 2018.
"Merchant ships need a bigger port with a lot of space for warehouses and containers, but warships need a full range of maintenance and logistical support services," he said.
Another source close to the Chinese People's Liberation Army confirmed that the Chinese navy is planning to set up a base near Gwadar similar to the one already operational in Djibouti, the newspaper reported.
Beijing wants better access to the Indian Ocean, Zhou said.
"The Chinese naval flotilla patrolling in the Gulf of Aden and other warships escorting Chinese oil tankers in the Indian Ocean need a naval base for maintenance as well as logistical supplies because they can't buy much of what they need in Pakistan," he said.
Chinese officials, however, have remained tight-lipped about the prospects.
Pakistani officials continue to promote the port as an integral part of co-operation with China, without mentioning the port's potential military function.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Asim Saleem Bajwa, a leader in Pakistani-Chinese economic co-operation, July 4 reiterated his government's commitment "to launching and completing all projects in Gwadar".
Sharing photos of the under-construction Gwadar International Airport in a tweet, he said the $230 million (Rs. 38.5 billion) project "will be a harbinger of development of Gwadar City/Gwadar Port".
'Unusually high security'
Although Chinese plans to build a naval base at Gwadar have not been officially confirmed, recent satellite images appear to show that several new complexes have been built in the last few years -- one of which has "unusually high security", Forbes reported June 2.
The report identified the compound as being used by the China Communications Construction Co., a majority state-owned company that is heavily involved in many Chinese civil engineering projects.
The level of security is "extensive" and includes "anti-vehicle berms, security fences and a high wall", defence analyst H. I. Sutton wrote in Forbes. "Sentry posts and elevated guard towers cover the perimeter between the fence and the inner wall," suggesting the presence of "armed guards with rifles".
There are two smaller sites built last year with rows of blue-roofed buildings, which some observers say could be be barracks for a Chinese Marine Corps garrison.
"Whether the Chinese naval base materialises remains to be seen," Sutton wrote. "But these new sites, including the heavily defended compound, may indicate that the next phase of port construction is imminent. And if the Chinese Navy does begin using the port, it will strengthen their capabilities in the Indian Ocean."
Anti-China sentiment rising
Beijing has reason to be concerned about security in the region as dissatisfaction over the Gwadar port project grows and as anti-Chinese sentiment is rising among local residents.
The unchecked growth of Chinese influence in Balochistan -- with Chinese companies exploiting local resources without care or concern about the impact on locals -- is driving serious unrest in the province, local lawmakers and observers say.
"Without our consent, the growing Chinese investment on our soil is undermining the Baloch interest," said Malak Abdul Wali, central vice president of the Balochistan National Party (BNP).
The Baloch people fear that China's large-scale presence at Gwadar will increase the number of military personnel in the region and add to existing tensions, said Kabir Muhammad Shahi, a senator representing Balochistan affiliated with the National Party.
"Those militants opposing Chinese influence in Balochistan believe that the Pakistani establishment does not care about the political, social, cultural and national grievances of the Baloch nation," he said.
"The Chinese investment and money in Balochistan cannot guarantee the political stability and development of the province," said Abdul Ali, a senior leader of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam in the province. "The federal government should consider the concerns of the local population regarding Chinese investment in Balochistan."
Chinese presence stirring up militancy
Militants have used such concerns to justify terrorist acts.
Security forces on June 29 thwarted an attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange that was linked to Chinese influence.
In an email to AFP, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility and said the assault was not only targeting "Pakistan's economy" but was "an attack on Chinese economic interests in response to China's exploitative plans in Balochistan".
The BLA has targeted infrastructure projects and Chinese workers in Pakistan multiple times in recent years, including an attack on Beijing's consulate in Karachi that took four lives in November 2018.
In May 2019, the BLA raided a luxury hotel in Gwadar.
Last July, the US State Department designated the BLA a global terrorist group, in a decision welcomed by the Pakistani government.