KARACHI -- The possibility of Chinese investment in the development of two islands near Karachi is fuelling unease over Beijing's growing influence in Pakistan.
The federal government on September 2 issued the Pakistan Islands Development Authority ordinance, which is aimed at developing barren islands in the country's territorial waters into cities. These islands include Bundal and Dingi, also known as Bhandar and Buddo, near Karachi.
The ordinance put the two islands under federal control, a move denounced by locals and the provincial government.
On October 15, hundreds of fishermen, civil society groups and leaders of political parties held a boat rally in Karachi that travelled from Ibrahim Haidri to the islands to demonstrate against the development and Chinese influence in the project.
Following the protest, Sindh Governor Imran Ismail on the same day said that the two islands would become attractive tourist sites, a move that would be part of the plan.
Beijing has shown a keen interest in developing the islands, he said.
"We are estimating $50 billion [Rs. 8.1 trillion] [investment] on the project," said Ismail, who represents the federal government on the issue, adding the project would provide an estimated 150,000 jobs for workers ranging from engineers to construction workers to carpenters.
Exploiting local resources
However, the islands are home to thousands of hectares of mangrove forests, said Muhammad Ali Shah, who organised the boat rally and leads the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), a fishermen's rights body.
"These forests are nurseries for fish and shrimps, while these creeks from Karachi to Thatta are fishing grounds," Shah said.
The development of the islands and the construction of any city would harm the environment, he said. At the same time, the livelihoods of 800,000 fishing industry workers would come to an end, leaving them facing extreme poverty.
Political and social activists fear that the sudden way in which the federal government -- which is often seen under the thumb of Beijing -- took control of the two islands near Karachi shows that the Chinese regime has its eye on investing in the islands.
"We will not allow you to sell our lands to the China Communist Party," Zafar Sahito, vice president of the Jeay Sindh Thinkers Forum, a Sindhi rights group, said in a tweet on October 13.
A significant portion of Chinese investment in Pakistan has focused on the country's seas.
The federal government recently informed the Ministry of Maritime Affairs of a new agreement with a Chinese company for deep-sea mining, the Daily Kawish reported on October 13.
In Balochistan, a deepwater port development -- a Chinese flagship project in Gwadar -- is driving serious unrest in the province because Beijing has been exploiting local resources without care or concern for the impact on locals, lawmakers and observers say.
Many questions are also 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.
Last month, PFF and other fishermen's rights bodies in Sindh and Balochistan organised protests against the arrival of Chinese deep-sea trawlers, saying they are threatening their livelihoods and destroying the local marine ecosystem.
Chinese fishing boats are known to intrude on international waters and use controversial methods that harm the environment and deprive locals of their livelihoods.
Concerns over China's growing influence
The Chinese regime over the past few years has inked deals with Pakistan for several multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects, raising concerns over Chinese influence in the country.
In the Saindak area of Chaghi District in Balochistan, Chinese companies have extracted copper and gold deposits without any local, national or international supervision.
Contrary to national and international law, Chinese companies did not invest in education, health or infrastructure in Chaghi District, local residents and political leaders have said.
Projects linked to the Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Sindh Province have drawn protests from residents in the Thar Desert region after studies showed that coal-mining projects under the programme will be a major air pollutant in South Asia and will expose the local population to serious health risks.
Meanwhile, anger over growing Chinese influence in Balochistan has spurred Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations to ally with each other, fuelling concern that the combined group will step up violent activities in the region.
The Baloch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS) and the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army are now working together "in light of the current scenario in the region as both [Baloch and Sindhis] have severe reservations over growing Chinese influence", BRAS said in a statement in July.