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Belt and Road

Pakistan politicians fear losing strategic islands to China

Local parties claim federal land snatch to feed Belt and Road ambitions

Prime Minister Imran Khan's government is being criticized by opposition parties for taking direct control of two islands that could be of strategic value to China in the Arabian Sea.    © Nikkei montage/Source photo by Reuters

QUETTA, Pakistan -- Pakistan's federal government has triggered a political uproar after taking direct control of two islands previously under the regional government of Sindh province.

President Arif Alvi signed the Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) ordinance last month to facilitate reclamation and urban planning on Bundal and Bhuddo islands, which are located south of Karachi. Both islands are some eight kilometers across, and the largest along Sindh's coast.

Government officials say PIDA has been created to develop the islands as commercial zones. Imran Ismail, Sindh's governor, has claimed that Bundal on its own can take on Dubai and attract investment of $50 billion -- equal to the amount already tagged for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component in President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The ordinance gained public attention in early October after drawing political flak in Sindh and Balochistan provinces.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of Sindh's ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, called the ordinance an illegal annexation. Alluding to India scrapping the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir last year, he tweeted: "I ask how is this act any different to Modi's actions in occupied Kashmir? The move will be opposed in National, Provincial Assembly & the Senate."

There was a stronger reaction from Sindhi ethnic nationalist politicians who oppose PIDA because they believe the islands could be handed to China as another CPEC component.

"We will not allow you to sell our lands to China Communist Party," tweeted Zafar Sahito, vice president of the Jeay Sindh Thinkers Forum, which advocates Sindh independence.

There is limited tolerance in Islamabad for such views. In May, the government banned Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz-Arisar -- a party with a similar ideology to the Jeay Sindh Thinkers Forum. It was widely assumed that the party's hostility to CPEC was one of the reasons for the ban.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), the largest union of fishermen in Pakistan, has launched the Save Sea Islands Movement, and is organizing a flotilla off Bundal on Oct. 15 to protest the ordinance. PFF also protested the arrival of Chinese deep-sea fishing vessels last month, and claims that 800,000 fishing jobs could be in jeopardy if the federal government persists with its island development plans.

Senator Kabir Muhammad Shahi, a vocal member of the opposition National Party based in the southern province of Balochistan, said the federal government is trespassing on local political turf in Sindh and Balochistan. The National Party "will start demonstrations all over the country against this ordinance," he told Nikkei Asia.

The ordinance is helpful to Beijing's expanding economic ambitions in Pakistan. Last month, it nominated Nong Rong as its ambassador to Islamabad. Unusually, he is a political appointee well versed in commerce and trade, and analysts believe this portends increased commercial and BRI activities.

Mohan Malik, a visiting fellow at Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies in Washington, said the sudden way in which the two islands near Karachi have been placed under federal control shows that something is afoot. He told Nikkei that the ordinance's stated goals of developing the islands for trade, investment and international tourism "seem to have been taken straight out of Beijing's BRI playbook."

Growing strategic presence -- sailors aboard a Chinese naval vessel salute during the closing ceremony of AMAN-17, the Pakistan navy’s multinational exercise in the northern part of the Arabian Sea in early 2017.   © Reuters

Malik, who is also a professor of strategic studies at the National Defense College, UAE, said that if speculation about the eventual handover of the islands to Beijing proves correct, it would increase regional concerns about China's growing strategic presence at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz and in the Arabian Sea.

Senator Muhammad Shahi believes the ordinance is part of a bigger scheme to bring the coasts of Sindh and Balochistan under federal control. "Gwadar port and other key components of CPEC are in the coastal belt, and by putting them under federal control, provincial governments will be completely thrown out of CPEC," he told Nikkei Asia.

Some experts meanwhile contend that the islands are not in fact viable for development. Jahangir Durrani, a senior nature conservationist, told local media that disappearing mangroves and growing pollution have caused severe environmental damage that limits development potential.

Malik is also dubious about development possibilities given the deceleration of other CPEC infrastructure projects in Sindh and Balochistan. Plans for the islands, he said, "sound too ambitious at a time of pandemic-induced economic slowdown and resource-crunches."

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