Protesters Call for Chinese Nationals to Leave China's Gwadar Port

Gwadar Port, the ocean terminus of the planned $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the largest national BRI program (file image)

Published Dec 26, 2022 10:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

Protests on the expansion of the Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, a key asset for China’s BRI( Belt and Road Initiative) in Asia, continue to escalate, potentially jeopardizing economic ties between China and Pakistan. Last week, the events took a new twist after a protest leader warned Chinese nationals to leave Gwadar by the end of the week.

The protests led by Maulana Hidayat ur Rehman, affiliated with the Gwadar Rights Movement, have been going on for about two months. The protests mainly involve blocking Gwadar’s port entrance and the Gwadar East Bay Expressway, a key artery connecting the port with Pakistan’s main highway network.

Some of the grievances that protesters want addressed include reduction of security checkpoints in Gwadar and end to deep-sea trawling, which locals argue is depleting their catches. The protesters also want the government to ease curbs on informal border trading with Iran. While these demands are not directly linked to Chinese projects in Gwadar, experts argue that many locals believe the developments are part of the problem.

Last year, Rehman led similar protests for over 32 days. He called the action off after the government promised to address the demands he raised, which the protesters now say they were never resolved.

Although radical, Rehman’s decision to issue a warning to Chinese nationals is seen as a move to coerce government into a negotiation. There are approximately 500 Chinese citizens residing in the Gwadar Port compound.

Since 2021, Chinese nationals have been the target of terror attacks in Pakistan. This includes a bomb attack in July 2021, which killed at least nine Chinese workers in a bus heading to the Dasu hydropower project site.

These threats have prompted Beijing to press Islamabad to guarantee security for its nationals. When Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif visited Beijing last month, security of the Chinese in Pakistan was among the items on the agenda.

With protesters demanding urgent government attention, it may well be that the security of the Chinese is being used as leverage for negotiations. Rehman has also vowed to stop all Chinese projects in Gwadar and prevent movement of high-profile dignitaries in the port town.

Pakistan enjoys a special economic relationship with China, and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is regarded as a crown jewel of the BRI. It will offer China the shortest access to the markets of Central Asia, Africa, Middle East and Europe through the deep-sea port of Gwadar.

CPEC is slated to cost over $50 billion, including the development of highways, railways and special economic zones. Gwadar Port is the linchpin of the initiative.

Although CPEC was launched back in 2015, local resistance has significantly affected its pace. The project further slowed during the administration of the previous Prime Minister Imran Khan due to friction between his government and China, but the new administration appears keen to revive CPEC.