Pakistan has sought to fortify its southern port city of Gwadar with a heavy police presence, guarded convoys, new checkpoints, and troop reinforcements.
The increased efforts have been made in order to protect the $46 billion in Chinese investment into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an economic network of roads, railways, and pipelines from northwest China to Pakistan’s Arabian Sea. The project poses a challenge in a country where Islamist militants and separatist gunmen are a constant threat.
The government and the military have sent hundreds of reinforcements and police to Gwadar. "Soon we'll start hiring 700 to 800 police to be part of a separate security unit dedicated to Chinese security, and at a later stage a new security division will be formed," said Jafer Khan, a regional police officer in Gwadar.
A senior security official in the town of around 100,000 said a further 400 to 500 soldiers were recruited as a temporary measure to protect Chinese nationals. Keeping foreign workers and executives safe in Gwadar, which has expanded significantly over the past 15 years largely thanks to Chinese investment, is relatively straightforward. The same, however, cannot be said of the corridor as a whole.
Its western branch passes north through Balochistan Province, where ethnic Baluch separatist rebels opposed to the CPEC project. It skims the tribal belt along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, where Islamist militant groups including the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda have long been based, and goes through Peshawar, the scene of some of recent years’ worst insurgent attacks.
A new division of the army of an estimated 13,000 troops has been appointed specifically to secure the corridor, which will be vital to the country’s long-term prosperity. Officials say the project could generate hundreds of billions of dollars for the economy in the long term, although Pakistan’s Planning Ministry does not yet have any specific estimates of how many jobs CPEC will create.
Some of the police, army and paramilitary reinforcements deployed in the last year have been stop-gap measures while the new Special Security Division builds to full strength.
The beefed-up security goes beyond Gwadar and across Balochistan, a sparsely populated province bordering Iran and Afghanistan that sits on substantial untapped natural gas deposits.
"We have tightened our security in those areas through which the corridor is supposed. We cannot allow Pakistan’s economic backbone to be held hostage," said Sarfraz Ahmed Bugti, the provincial home minister.
Increased security, however, has fomented growing anger among separatist rebels and the broader Baluch community, which could pose a problem for the military as it both pursues amnesty for rebels willing to disarm and hunts down those who are not.
"We consider the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as ... an occupation of Baluch territory," said rebel spokesman Miran Baluch, a member of the Baluchistan Liberation Front (BLF), adding its fighters would attack anyone working on the project. "Thousands of Baluch families have been forced to flee the area where the CPEC route is planned. (The) Baluch (people) will not tolerate such projects on their land."
The ongoing insurgency in the province has stalled development for decades. Last month, five soldiers were killed by a remote-controlled bomb some 50 kilometers east of Quetta. Also in January, two coastguards died in a bomb blast in Gwadar district, although the parties responsible for the attacks remain unknown.
Army Chief General Raheel Sharif, who launched a prolonged assault on Islamist militants after Taliban gunmen massacred 134 pupils at a school in Peshawar in late 2014, says he hopes a sharp fall in violence nationwide will also benefit CPEC. In 2015, attacks by militant, insurgent, and sectarian groups were down 48 percent over the previous year, with 625 incidents nationwide, according to the independent think tank the Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
"Once people find they have a stake in this progress, the need for checkposts and barricades will disappear," General Sharif said this month in Quetta, as he and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif officially launched a new highway linking the city with Gwadar.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said progress on the corridor was "generally speaking, quite smooth." "The Pakistani government has done a great deal to protect the security of Chinese organizations and citizens. China is deeply thankful for this," he said.
With reporting by Syed Raza Hassan for Reuters