Located at the western end of Pakistan’s coast, Gwadar is expected to be a major port in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This will allow Chinese goods to shortcut through Pakistan, instead of sailing all the way around South Asia. China was first reported to be planning a naval base there in January 2018. While the plan has never been confirmed officially, it would be a natural path.
The high-security compound has been identified as being used by the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC Ltd). This is a majority state-owned company that is heavily involved in many Chinese civil engineering projects. While some degree of security is normal in the region, the level of security seen here is extensive.
China has good reason to focus on security. The region, near the border with Iran and Afghanistan, is facing a long-standing insurgency. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) seeks an independent state for the Baloch people. They carried out an attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi on November 23 2018, and on a hotel in Gwadar on May 11 2019. The latter attack targeted the Zaver Pearl-Continental 5-star Hotel, which is another centerpiece of Chinese investment in the town.
The high security compound is not alone. There are also two smaller sites built in the last year with rows of blue-roofed buildings. It has been suggested that these might be barracks for a Chinese Marine Corps garrison. China was reported to be deploying marines there back in March 2017. But the sites lack the level of security that would be expected. Whatever their exact purpose, their location and timing suggests that they are connected to the port expansion. The sites can be seen in these tweets by Twitter user @Civil_Int:
2. Designed on a seashore, hydrology dictates the need for an elevated road axis so water will be drained via culverts to sea level. Road vertical profile generates high embankment fills and on the northern section, a combined cross-section of fill and berms cut. #CIVINT pic.twitter.com/oom7EzILpa
— CIVINT (@Civil_Int) June 1, 2020
Until now the commercial port at Gwadar appears to have been under-used. But Gwadar’s luck as a port is already changing, and not because of the Chinese base. A deal was recently made to allow Afghanistan-bound trade to use the port. The first large merchant ship, the MV Manet, landed 17,600 tons of wheat there last week. But the economic benefit of the Chinese port and potential naval base could be much larger.