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Building of Gwadar airport – An added attempt to convert Pakistan’s strategic assets into economic opportunities

Published on 28th Mar, Edition 13, 2016

 

Pakistan’s port city of Gwadar having special significance, with reference to its geography and potential for development of trade links with Central Asian Republics (CARs), Persian Gulf, East Africa, United Arab Emirates and North Western India and by virtue of its important location and development projects is poised to turn into cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Colombo and Dubai. This seaport project has entered the second phase of development as the economic planners and decision-makers in Islamabad have been looking for different models, popular among these models have been those of Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, for the development of future port city of Gwadar in Balochistan.

Like Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, the major contributor in Gwadar development China planning to start construction of an international airport in Gwadar this year. Chinese authorities have already asked Islamabad to provide land for building a modern international airport in Gwadar. Balochistan government will provide the land according to their requirements. The airport will be Pakistan’s biggest airport and it will take two-and-half years to complete. The airport will be built on more than 4,000 acres of land.

Under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China is also building a road network to link the export processing zone to the airport and the seaport. Last year, China converted the $230 million loan for the construction of the Gwadar airport into grant. Following this conversion, Pakistani authorities stopped the bidding process for the new international airport, because only the Chinese companies will be awarded construction of the airport and Beijing will select the company on its own terms and conditions.

China is poised to convert its strategic assets in Pakistan into economic opportunities. China has made investments in a range of infrastructure projects in Pakistan particularly its profile in southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan and the Northern Areas has been rising for the past many years. Geographically, Northern Areas of Pakistan border the Wakhan corridor of Afghanistan to the northwest, the Xinjiang territory of China to the northeast, the Indian-controlled state of Jammu & Kashmir to the southeast, the region of Azad Kashmir to the southeast and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan to the west. Pakistan’s northern areas, now called Gilgit-Baltistan, are of key importance for China’s plan to set up a transportation and trade corridor by establishing new road and rail links. Beijing would have distinct advantages for its improved transportation and access to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Opening of Air cargo route

Located at the crown of the Arabian Sea, Gwadar port in Balochistan will open up an energy corridor from Central Asia and the Gulf across Pakistan to western China. No doubt, a huge investment in infrastructure sector promises a brilliant economic future for the development of the province and it will bring about a revolution in its communication sector. The project would initiate a mega development process with huge investments, which could make the province a new economic frontier of the country.

Gwadar port is essential part of CPEC, which involves construction of highways, railways and energy pipelines connecting western China with Pakistan and the Persian Gulf.

The construction of an international airport will also open the air cargo route linking Gwadar with border town Kashgar in northwest Xinjiang province. The air cargo route is expected to enhance commercial and trade relations between the two countries. Located near the borders of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and India, Kashgar is likely to become an important open air logistics base in China. The cargo shipped between the two countries has so far mostly traveled by truck. The closest border crossing is, however, closed from the end of December to May each year due to the severe climate and geographical factors.

In December 2010, Pakistan and China launched the first air cargo service linking Islamabad with Kashgar. Rayyan Air, a charter airline of Pakistan operated the first international cargo flight from Islamabad to Kashgar. The development of road and rail links and the airways between Balochistan and Xinjiang, will give distinction to Gwadar port of becoming the gateway port for western China.

China has already declared Kashgar, an important transit point on the ancient Silk Route and a gateway between China and Pakistan, as Special Economic Zone (SEZ). The proposed Kashgar SEZ would develop Xinjiang into a major trading hub and more energy and economic integration with South and Central Asia. The SEZs in Gwadar and Kashgar and the air, rail and road connectivity between the two proposed SEZs would have great economic, political and strategic implications for the whole region.

The air cargo service from Gwadar will make products of the two countries not only available easily whole year in the markets of both sides but also in the Middle Eastern countries and Central Asian states.

Development of Western China

Some analysts believe that China’s economic cooperation with Pakistan is mainly aimed at developing its western region through development of Gilgit-Baltistan where China maintains a large economic presence and plans building a rail link to reach the Arabian Sea.

The launching of a Gwadar-Kashgar air cargo service could be the part of economic policy framework of the Chinese government that envisages priority to the development of the western regions including Xinjiang with substantial investment.

Gwadar Port will play a key role in the proposed energy and trade corridor to China. Gwadar has all the natural advantages that can play a major role in serving as a corridor for energy, cargo and services between Central Asia, the Gulf and other surrounding regions.

If Pakistan is to really serve as trade and energy corridor between the Gulf and China and the Gwadar Port is to become a major outlet for trade between the China, Central Asia and the Gulf region, Islamabad must pay attention to the improvement of communication network and security situation in Balochistan.

The future scenario necessitates the establishment of a well-coordinated, metalled and development-oriented road-network spreading across the province and interlinking the major commercial centers in Balochistan. There is also an urgent need for establishing roads and warehousing facilities at Taftan, Chaman and Torkham borders in order to make full use of Gwadar port.

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