In A Remote Seaside Town, China Envisions A New 'Silk Road' : Parallels China is investing billions to develop the Pakistani port of Gwadar and a transportation network that runs all the way to western China. It's part of the larger effort to revive the famed Silk Road.

In A Remote Seaside Town, China Envisions A New 'Silk Road'

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep with the story of China's spreading influence. To follow the story, it helps to have a map of China in your head. You know, its coastline and its seaports face eastward toward the Pacific.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

China would like to have a seaport facing the other direction toward the Persian Gulf, and now China is getting one.

INSKEEP: If you head southwest out of China, you reach Pakistan, which is upgrading a port for China on the Arabian Sea. NPR's Philip Reeves traveled to that port.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: We're bouncing along in a propeller plane. Nineteen-thousand feet below us, in a steamy blue haze, lies the Arabian Sea.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen (unintelligible) we'll be landing in Gwadar International Airport.

REEVES: Our destination used to be an obscure fishing village. It's a place called Gwadar. Western journalists are rarely allowed to visit Gwadar. It took NPR months to get permission. Our plane lands, and we bump along the runway towards Gwadar's tiny, tumbled down airport.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bye, have a nice day.

REEVES: Thank you.

A reception committee is waiting for us in the form of the police. Gwadar's in Pakistan's poorest province, Balochistan, where separatists are waging a low-level guerilla war. The police tell us we're forbidden from going anywhere without a police escort. We've no option but to get inside their pickup truck and set off, along with several other trucks carrying black-clad commandos from the anti-terrorism squad.

You're not going to get a full picture of a place when you're driving along in an armed police escort, but I'm looking out the window and I can see lots of low, flat-roofed concrete buildings. There's a lot of sand, and there's a lot of dust.

Gwadar's a peninsula with a big, rocky outcrop at the end, shaped like a hammerhead that juts into the sea. This acts as a breakwater for Gwadar's deep water port. Not far across the water is one of the world's most important sea lanes, the Strait of Hormuz. Huge amounts of oil and container traffic from the Gulf sails past here. A lot goes to China, taking weeks to get there. So here's the plan. It's far quicker to move stuff over land through Gwadar, up the length of Pakistan to western China. A corridor across Pakistan also gives China a far more direct route to international markets.

MUAZAFFAR KHOKAR: We really foresee that this area will be developed within the next two or three years as a potential hub for Chinese cargo moving through to Persian Gulf and Arabian Gulf area, to India, to South Africa, Europe.

REEVES: Muazaffar Khokar is an executive from a shipping and cargo handling company. Gwadar's position on the map gives it great strategic importance, he says.

KHOKAR: This is a very huge maritime area. It is the key warm water area. This place is really a gold mind.

REEVES: China seems to agree. It's pledged to invest $46 billion to help Pakistan develop the corridor. There are plans for power plants, pipelines, road and rail links and a big international airport in Gwadar. A Chinese company has taken over operations at Gwadar's port. In the city's harbor, fishermen in brilliantly decorated wooden boats sail in and unload their catch. A man drags a big swordfish across the quay to the market, where it's chopped up. Most of Gwadar's people still survive by fishing. Most are very poor. There's an acute shortage of fresh water here. For many hours every day, there's no electricity. We've come to see what Gwadar might look like if Pakistan's dreams come true and it becomes a major maritime hub.

Here, at the Gwadar Development Authority, there's a big map showing the city of the future. There are beachside luxury hotels, a revolving restaurant, a marina and block after block of new homes. One-hundred-thousand people live in Gwadar right now. The map envisages a population 17 times that number. At present, Gwadar only has one luxury hotel. Today, it has a handful of guests. The Wi-Fi is down because insurgents have sabotaged the network. Hussain Wadheela, from the Balochistan National Party, has come to the hotel restaurant to meet NPR. Like almost everyone in Gwadar, ethnically he's Baloch.

HUSSAIN WADHEELA: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: Wadheela explains that after decades of poverty and neglect, Baloch people don't trust Pakistan's government. He says they fear being marginalized by Pakistan's other ethnic groups if Gwadar starts booming and people flood in. But Pakistan's blighted by conflict and corruption.

WADHEELA: (Speaking Urdu).

REEVES: And Wadheela thinks it's be a very, very long time before all the grand plans for Gwadar become reality, if at all. Certainly, Gwadar's port has made a slow start under Chinese management.

DOSTAIN KHAN JAMALDINI: This is a 12-months, 365-days, 24-hour open port.

REEVES: Are you doing a lot of business at the moment?

JAMALDINI: Not at all. Not - we are doing very less business because of the lack of infrastructure.

REEVES: Dostain Khan Jamaldini is chairman of the Gwadar Port Authority. He says the port's only handling a couple of ships a month right now, but that'll change. There's a reason, he says, he's made 15 trips to China in the last two years.

JAMALDINI: These visits are not just, you know, sightseeing. So these visits are serious engagements. We sit together. We discuss. We brainstorm. This China-Pakistan economic corridor, it is just not a slogan or a piece of paper.

REEVES: So you believe this is going to happen? You believe...

JAMALDINI: Yeah, definitely the level of engagement that I see, it gives me surety, surety that this is going to happen.

REEVES: You're certain?

JAMALDINI: Yes.

REEVES: Jamaldini does have one, big caveat. He says ultimately, for that corridor to succeed, there'll need to be peace next door in Afghanistan.

JAMALDINI: Whatever is cooking inside Afghanistan, the first spillover comes to Pakistan. All will depend on the peace in Afghanistan.

REEVES: But the Afghan conflict is getting worst. Peace in this region seems a long way off. That doesn't dampen the optimism of some. The first people to spot a place on the rise are Pakistan's property investors. Gwadar has caught the eye of Niaz Akhter, a retired army captain.

NIAZ AKHTER: I believe the interest of China in Gwadar is tremendous.

REEVES: Akhter's flown in to hunt for bargains. He's only been in town a couple of days, but he says he's already reaping rewards.

AKHTER: Yes, yes, yes. I've made few deals and I've earned tremendous profits. It's very lucrative.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Gwadar.

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