In the museum at Goa, there is a statue of the ruler of Mekran in Balochistan built by the Portuguese. The 15th century warrior is Mir Hammal Kalmati of the Hoath tribe, who resisted the Portuguese attacks on Gwadar. To this day, more than 25 million Baloch all over Balochistan's divided territory in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, and the diaspora salute Hammal Kalmati's valour. Not many know the Portuguese arrived in the region soon after the departure of China's Ming Dynasty, and their most famous maritime explorer and castrated Admiral Zheng He, who commandeered his 63 ships and over 28,000 men to Hormuz. "His giant 'treasure ships', packed with the finest goods and most sophisticated weaponry of the time, went to 37 countries over 28 years, exacting tribute for the Dragon Throne and extending China's influence across much of the globe," according to the BBC. After nearly six centuries, China has set its eyes to returning to the region as part of its "string of pearls" of naval bases in the Indian Ocean.
As Beijing plans return to the warm waters of the Arabian Sea for energy security and naval domination, it has reportedly committed $45.6 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The People's Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, who have a common rival in India, plan to link Gwadar and Kashgar by road and rail. The 1500-mile Gwadar-Khunjerab highway is likely to cost $12 billion while the rail link will cost $3 billion. Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharif, during his last visit to China, described Pakistan-China relations as "higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the deepest sea in the world, and sweeter than honey."
Reuters reported that Sharif signed more than 20 agreements during his trip to China in November, including $622 million for projects related to Gwadar port. The port could be used by the Chinese Navy - potentially upsetting rival India. While US president Barack Obama was visiting India in January, Pakistan Army chief general Raheel Sharif was holding talks with Chinese generals in China. As Pakistan's civil and military leaders are cozying up with China offering them the port of Gwadar, the Baloch who actually own the port are raising their voices of dissent. "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," former senator Sanaullah Baloch, wrote in The Express Tribune. He said the previous Pakistan People's Party (PPP) regime transferred control of the Gwadar port to the China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) without Baloch consent. "Not a single detail of the contract was released to the media, neither was it published on the Gwadar port authority's website," the senator said, adding, "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, that is, the FC (Frontier Corps) and the Coast Guards, has massive presence, causing immense unrest."
Baloch have not limited their opposition to China to news articles alone in the past nor to a Twitter campaign planned April 9 and 10 with the hashtag #ChinaHandsOffBalochistan as China's president Xi Jinping prepares to visit Pakistan. In anticipation of the Chinese president's visit, on March 23 which was being observed as Pakistan Day, the United Baloch Army (UBA) in a message to Beijing to stay away from Balochistan blew up five oil tankers that were transporting oil to the Chinese-run Saindak gold-cum-project in Chagai. The shadowy UBA that conducted the daredevil attack is reportedly headed by Nawab Mehran Marri, who became the chief of the Marri tribe after his father and icon of the Baloch freedom movement Nawab Khair Bakhsh Marri passed away in June last year. "The Chinese and Pakistanis are partners in the crimes against the Baloch nation. And, the Gwadar port project is not a commercial project aimed at bringing prosperity in the region, and especially for the Baloch people - absolutely not. It is a naval base created for the Chinese to have listening post in the region," Mehran Marri told the ANI. Almost a decade back, Nayan Chanda, editor of Yale Global Online Magazine at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation, made a similar observation in an article in the New York Times, "Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Chinese Navy, much strengthened by recent purchases of ships and technology, arrives in Gwadar. Pakistani officials boast that Gwadar's Chinese connection will help to frustrate India's domination of regional waterways. A Chinese maritime presence in the area would enable the mainland to monitor naval patrols by the United States and protect Chinese sea lines of communication. China Economic Net, an online news outlet sponsored by China's leading business paper, calls Gwadar 'China's biggest harvest.'"
Like Nawab Marri, most Baloch say Gwadar port is a matter of live and death for Balochistan's existence as "the land of the Baloch". They fear just like Sindh lost Karachi to Urdu-speaking mohajirs after the 1947 Partition holocaust, if China in collusion with the dominant Punjabis and mohajirs gains a foothold in Gwadar port, Baloch would become a minority in Balochistan overnight. Even pro-Islamabad Balochistan chief minister Abdul Malik Baloch, who was once in the freedom camp but is now allied with Premier Sharif, privately says steps are needed to protect Balochistan from the expected ethnic flooding through constitutional means. However, the Baloch resistance organisations believe that the Pakistan Constitution is treated like toilet paper by the omnipotent army and an armed insurrection to defend Baloch coasts and resources is needed.
In addition to the UBA, the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF), Baloch Liberation Army, Baloch Republican Army and Lashkar-i-Balochistan have time and again warned China and other powers not to enter Balochistan by making deals with Islamabad over Baloch heads. Jointly called "the sarmachars", or those who are willing to sacrifice everything for the Baloch homeland, almost all of these resistance organisations have attacked the Chinese interests in Pakistan starting from 2004 when the BLF of Dr Allah Nazar Baloch gunned down three Chinese engineers working in Gwadar.
"So far as CPEC is concerned, the Baloch are resolved to sabotage China's work and have succeeded in their efforts to some extent," says Kachkol Ali, a former fisheries minister and opposition leader in Balochistan provincial assembly. A popular politician from Mekran, Ali now lives in exile in Oslo, Norway - his young son Nabeel Ahmad, 21, is among 18,000 Baloch victims of enforced disappearances. Ali believes a maritime great game is being played out in Gwadar. "The Baloch are doing what they can, according to their resistance capacity. But actually there arebig powers involved with Gwadar particularly India, Dubai, Singapore, Iran and the USA."
Sino-Pakistan experts acknowledge the situation in Balochistan, which has been in the throes of a bloody insurgency for more than a decade, is precarious. Dr Ejaz Hussain an independent China expert, Ms Zhang Yuan, PhD candidate at Peking University and Dr Ghulam Ali, a post-doctoral Fellow at Peking University, in an article on Friday in The Daily Times wrote, "Undeniably, the construction of the CPEC also faces some challenges, which should be addressed wisely especially on the Pakistani side." The three experts say, "The CPEC is indeed a comprehensive concept that encompasses economic and strategic integration between the two countries in the long run".
In addition to India, Pakistani security analysts and diplomats have privately also accused the Gulf powers including the United Arab Emirates and the Sultanate of Oman of opposing the development of Gwadar port. In fact, Gwadar was part of Oman for two centuries until the military regime of Pakistan general Ayub Khan bought it back from Oman in 1958.
India, however, will matter more than any other nation as it is central to the US policy of Asia pivot, aimed at countering China in the Indian Ocean. Robert D Kaplan in an article in the influential The Atlantic, wrote, "Indeed, as the (Pakistan) government builds roads and military bases, Baloch and minority Hindus are being forcibly displaced. Both groups are thought to harbour sympathy for India, and they do: in Baloch and Hindu eyes, India acts as a counterweight to an oppressive Pakistani state."
To crush Baloch opposition to Gwadar, the Pakistan military has been waging what is called a silent dirty war there. In recent years, Balochistan replaced Argentina and Chile of the 1970s as the world capital of enforced disappearances. Pakistan's Army soldiers, paramilitary Frontier Corps, Military Intelligence and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) have been accused by human rights organisations of pursuing a kill-and-dump policy in Balochistan in violation of the Rome Statute and Geneva Conventions.
The moot question is do the Baloch possess the ability to successfully counter the Chinese designs? Middle class politicians like Kachkol Ali respond in the affirmative. "In the short run, clash of personalities and petty interests have bedeviled many movements around the world and the Baloch liberation movement is no exception," Ali said. "But in the long run these trivial issues will be ironed out. It is a long journey. Israel got its liberty after a struggle of thousand years. Baloch can do the same if we remain resolute."