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In A Remote Seaside Town, China Envisions A Major Trade Route

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Boat building on the beach at Gwadar, watched over by anti-terrorism commandos. Separatists carry out periodic attacks in Balochistan, the province in southwestern Pakistan.

History has not been kind to the people who scratch out a living in Gwadar, on the arid coastline of the Arabian Sea.

They have received a few exotic visitors over the years, including Alexander the Great's army and marauding Portuguese explorers. For a couple of centuries, their land belonged to sultans in Oman, just across the ocean.

But the world has mostly passed Gwadar by, preferring gentler and more prosperous pastures to the dust, sand and jagged mountains of what is now southwestern Pakistan.

Now, however, a foreign visitor has arrived who is not only promising to stay, but also to help transform this ramshackle place into the gateway of a major new trade route that some hope — despite daunting odds — may stabilize a turbulent region.

The Chinese have moved in on Gwadar, viewing it as a valuable part of their strategy of creating a modern variant of the ancient Silk Road, a network of paths linking China to the world's markets and energy reserves.

Western journalists are rarely allowed to go to Gwadar. Months after applying for permission, NPR was finally given clearance by the Pakistan's government to pay a three-day visit.

There are only a handful of flights each week, all operated by the state-run airline, PIA. We flew in on an ATR-42 propeller plane from the city of Karachi, on a humid and hazy morning.

The current airport is a worn-out building, not much larger than a modest house, although on the day of our arrival, because of the lack of air conditioning, it bore a closer resemblance to a rather grubby sauna.

Awaiting us was a senior police officer, and a group of commandos from the anti-terrorism force, equipped with Kalashnikovs, sneakers, black T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "No Fear," and even blacker sunglasses.

Gwadar is in Pakistan's poorest province, Balochistan, where separatist insurgents are waging a guerrilla war against the government. The conflict is low-level but has produced numerous atrocities on both sides.

The police were courteous but firm: they were under orders not to allow us to go anywhere in Gwadar without them; this was not negotiable.

Gwadar is one of the more weirdly shaped pieces of real estate on the planet. It is on a narrow peninsula which has at its end - at right angles - a long, low mountain that erupts suddenly out of a flat landscape, and is shaped like a hammerhead. This acts as a breakwater for Gwadar's deep sea port.

The port's potential as a major maritime hub derives from its location: Gwadar is at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Not far away is the Strait of Hormuz, the bottle-neck through which passes large amounts of the world's oil.

Much of that oil sails to China, and takes weeks to get there. An overland route via Pakistan would — in theory at least — be cheaper, quicker, and offers China the advantage of bypassing rivals and fractious neighbors in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.

Earlier this year, China's President Xi Jinping announced plans to provide $46 billion in investment and loans to help Pakistan develop a "an economic corridor" running the length of its territory, through the Himalayas, to western China.

Plans have been drawn up for pipelines, power plants, road and rail links and other infrastructure. Pakistan's civilian and military leadership is highly enthusiastic. Officials say there will be a security force, at least 10,000 strong, to protect the corridor from insurgents and bandits.

Driving through Gwadar, amid a convoy of commandos, you see little evidence that these ambitious plans have so far delivered any significant economic dividends.

There are a lot of low-lying scruffy concrete homes, surrounded by scrub and sand, and, on either side, long beaches leading to a waveless milky-blue ocean, punctuated by scores of brightly decorated wooden fishing boats.

The place has spent most of history as an obscure coastal village. Fishing and boat building are still the main source of income for most. Yet city planners are now daring to dream of a glorious future.

A giant map hangs from a wall in the offices of the Gwadar Development Authority, depicting the Gwadar of 2050. Areas are set aside for luxury beachside hotels, a big revolving restaurant, a marina, and a sweeping suburbs.

At present, about 100,000 people live in Gwadar; officials say their master plan represents a cyber-connected Smart City of 1.7 million.

That utopia seems a long way off. China has, however, underlined its commitment to the corridor by taking out a 40-year lease on the port of Gwadar, through a state-run company.

The Chinese have also agreed to build and pay for an international airport that's slated to be the biggest — in acreage — in Pakistan.

So far, Gwadar port has made a slow start under its Chinese tenants. The landlord, Pakistan's government-run Gwadar Port Authority, says only a couple cargo ships come in a month, carrying wheat and fertilizer.

The authority's chairman, Dostain Khan Jamaldini, blames the poor infrastructure, and insists the corridor is going ahead, and will eventually become a major route to China and Central Asia. Why else, he asks, would he have made 15 visits to China in the last two years?

"These visits are not just sight-seeing, " he says, "These visits are serious engagements. We sit together, we discuss, we brainstorm. This China-Pakistan economic corridor, it's not just a slogan or a piece of paper."

Jamaldini does have one big caveat. Ultimately, for the corridor to succeed, there will need to be peace in neighboring Afghanistan.

"Whatever is cooking inside Afghanistan, the first spill-over comes to Pakistan," he says, "All will depend on peace in Afghanistan."

There are other obstacles. Pakistan is blighted by corruption and bad governance. Most of the population of Gwadar are ethnic Baloch, who have lived with decades of poverty, dismal education and general government neglect. Local residents suspect they will gain little from the corridor.

"There is a lack of trust. There is gulf between the government and people," says Hussain Wadheela, of the Balochistan National Party

Wadheela says people fear that they'll be marginalized by Pakistan's other ethnic groups if Gwadar starts booming and people flood in.

So far there is no flood, but there is a trickle.

Niaz Akhter is a property investor, who has flown in to hunt for bargains. He seems in buoyant mood.

Although Akhter only arrived two days ago, his trip appears to be going remarkably well, delivering two deals so far that he says have earned him "tremendous profits."

"If you compare the prices of other places like Singapore and Bombay, I think it is very lucrative right now," says Akhter as he takes tea in the Pearl Continental, Gwadar's only luxury hotel.

His cheery attitude contrasts sharply with the scene in the hotel itself. Fewer than 20 of its 114 rooms are occupied. The reception lobby is elegant and sparklingly clean, but swelteringly hot because the management has turned off the air conditioning to cut costs.

The challenges facing Gwadar, and the architects of the new Silk Road across Pakistan, are symbolized by one other small but compelling detail: the hotel's wi-fi is down; Baloch insurgents have sabotaged the network.

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