China and Japan are sparring over five tiny islands, the Diaoyu Islands — three rocks covering a mere seven square kilometres in the East China Sea. To the rest of the world, the dispute over the tiny, remote islands seems just that — tiny and remote. However, for economic giants like China and Japan, these minute islands are sacred and they consider them part of their respective national identities. Just like these islands in the East China Sea are hallowed territory for Japan and China, the Baloch coast and the strategically located Gwadar Port are also deeply tied to Baloch history and identity. The Baloch national and emotional attachment to Gwadar dates back to the eighth century, when Hammal Jeayand, the hero of the armed resistance against the Portuguese occupation of Gwadar, fought a heroic war against the usurpers. His legendary poetry is an integral part of Baloch literature.
Insensitive to Baloch feelings, Pakistan’s political and military elite has committed blunders and treated Balochistan as just an administrative part of the country rather than a culturally sensitive and nationally conscious political entity. The previous PPP regime, without taking the consent of the Baloch people and without any transparent process, transferred control of the Gwadar Port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC). The most bizarre thing during the process was that the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) transferred an already invalid contract to the COPHC. Contradictory to the stay order issued by the Supreme Court, barring the PSA from transferring immovable property of the Gwadar Port Authority to another party, Islamabad hastily handed over Gwadar to China in February 2013.
Moreover, along with violation of national laws, the International Monetary Fund’s Revised Code of Good Practices on Fiscal Transparency was also disregarded by giving away a strategic jewel to the Chinese without due process. Not a single detail of the contract was released to the media, neither was it published on the Gwadar Port Authority’s website.
A senior official of the Balochistan government has said that despite repeated requests, the federal government has refused to share details of the contract concerning the lease period, use of the port, management mechanism, cost and revenue sharing and the most important aspect, the security arrangements. There is grave concern that a large-scale Chinese presence will further militarise the Balochistan coast and the Makran region, where a non-Baloch security apparatus, i.e., the FC and the Coast Guards, has massive presence, causing immense unrest. The politically oppressed Baloch fear that China’s presence in Gwadar will subsequently increase tensions and the Baloch will ultimately suffer as a result.
Pakistan’s major political parties do not seem to be concerned about the humanitarian crisis in Balochistan. Instead of following a proper conflict resolution process, offering constitutional guarantees, addressing human rights violations and healing Baloch wounds that Nawaz Sharif promised while in opposition, the government is now following a business approach towards the province. Balochistan is being presented to the outside world to gain economic advantages.
There are apprehensions among the Baloch that during Nawaz Sharif’s recent visit to China, the government may have offered the copper-gold deposit at Reko Diq, as well as Gwadar, to the Chinese, in exchange for investment in the power sector and other assorted projects, which benefit people outside Balochistan. The PML-N government at the centre and in Balochistan must realise that if its deals with the outside world without all stakeholders on board, it will ignite an already volatile situation.
If the tiny Diaoyu Islands are a matter of pride and principle for China and Japan, Gwadar is also a matter of life and death for the Baloch. Any unilateral decision by Islamabad concerning the fate of Gwadar will be opposed by the Baloch at all levels.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 9th, 2013.