ISLAMABAD -- Recent reports by leading international think-tanks that warn of China's potential military use of Pakistan's Gwadar port have rekindled a debate about the intentions of the Chinese military to expand its maritime presence in the region.
Gwadar, a coastal town in Balochistan province, is expected to be a major part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), opening Pakistan to trade and development projects.
But many Pakistanis consider the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Pakistani component of the BRI, harmful to their country and beneficial to China.
Reports from the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Ankara Centre for Crisis and Policy Studies (ACCPS) suggest that China will use the Gwadar port to project military power in the Indian Ocean region.
"The prospects for China projecting military power over the Indian Ocean from Pakistan's western coast are growing," the USIP said in a March report.
"Pakistan is one of 13 countries named in the Pentagon's most recent report on China's military power as a potential location for additional Chinese military facilities and logistical units to be positioned in support of naval, air, ground, cyber and space power projection," the report said.
"What may appear as limited, contingency access closely overseen by the host nation can quickly evolve into basing," it added.
Laying the groundwork for China's military
Gwadar's deep sea port is useful to China for several reasons, according to the USIP.
Its pier can accommodate even the biggest People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels, and there is an adjacent laydown area where military equipment can be assembled and materials and supplies pre-positioned, it said.
"As the Pakistan Navy inducts new submarines in addition to surface and coastal combat craft from China, its facilities, parts and technicians could potentially be tasked to support portions of the PLA Navy fleet," the report added.
"Gwadar's new airport and runway to be completed in 2023 will also be accommodative of China's strategic airlift fleet," it said.
The report noted "the conspicuous absence of commercial activity at Gwadar -- which has raised the suspicions of expert observers".
This makes it easier for "a naval footprint to increase" without attracting attention, it said, adding that "open-source satellite imagery analysis has detected Chinese complexes in Gwadar with unusually high security".
The ACCPS report from March 2022 also suggested that "China's major motivation for wanting to build a port in Gwadar is not commercial". Rather, it is deemed necessary for "China's internal and foreign security policy".
The port is about 3,000km from the Xinjiang region of China and about another 3,500km to China's eastern coast. It is also adjacent to the Indian Ocean, the Strait of Hormuz and the Arab Gulf.
"Gwadar will be in the forefront of the military outposts that China plans to build," according to the ACCPS report.
"Gwadar might be a viable replenishment and transfer destination for PLA equipment and people if the relevant infrastructure improvements are completed," it added.
"It also plays an important role in providing military security for China's commercial interests," the report said.
Growing security concerns
The exponential growth of Chinese influence in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan -- with Chinese companies exploiting local resources without care or concern for the impact on locals -- has led to serious unrest in the province.
In another study in January, the ACCPS noted the security concerns posed by Chinese construction in Gwadar.
"In particular, the presence of various ethnic-separatist and radical religious terrorist organisations in the region between Gwadar and China significantly threatens foreign investors, investments and infrastructure projects," it said.
"There have been protests in the region at various times. The most important criticism of the people is that they cannot directly benefit from the investments made and the employment created."
In December, Pakistani authorities, at the behest of Beijing according to locals, cracked down hard on a protest movement in Gwadar.
The protesters were seeking an end to illegal deep-sea fishing by local and Chinese trawlers and the harassment of locals at security checkpoints leading to Gwadar port.
Instead of providing teachers and schools for Gwadar residents, CPEC has led to military checkpoints and military personnel who guard Chinese nationals and their interests, Maulana Hidayatur Rehman, the movement's leader, told a Lahore seminar in 2022.
Anger over growing Chinese influence in Balochistan has spurred Baloch and Sindhi militant organisations to ally with each other to target Chinese interests in the country.
Violence against Chinese interests
In the latest flare up of violence, four policemen were killed Tuesday (April 11) in a gun battle with militants in Balochistan province, hours after four people died in a bomb blast in Quetta, the region's capital.
Militants identified by police as being from the Tehreek-e-Pakistan Taliban (TTP) opened fire on a pre-dawn patrol in Kuchlak, AFP reported.
On Monday, two policemen and two civilians were killed by a motorcycle bomb in a busy Quetta market.
That attack was claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), which has been responsible for a number of attacks in the province, including against Chinese interests.
In September, a gunman killed a man and wounded two others of Chinese origin in an attack in Karachi, according to police.
In April 2022, the BLA claimed responsibility for killing four people, including three Chinese teachers, in a suicide attack inside a state-run university in Karachi.