A vision of the future

China's multimillion-dollar port scheme in Baluchistan gives it a foothold in the Middle East that i

It is easy to miss the significance of the new port at Gwadar, which had its ceremonial opening in March. Five years ago this was just a fishing village on the Arabian Sea, a remote place on the edge of the desert and mountains of the Baluchistan region that spans Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Camels and horse-drawn carts clogged the streets. Tribesmen wearing Baluch turbans and carrying AK-47s stood on the waterfront like epitaphs for the Great Game.

But five years is a long time in the politics of Asia, and the former outpost has changed almost beyond recognition. Today it lies, controversially, at the centre of General Pervez Musharraf's vision of the future for Pakistan. Built with Chinese money (how much is debatable, though it would be a safe bet to say at least $250m-plus in loans for the first phase), the multi billion-dollar scheme will inevitably aggravate the tense rivalry between nuclear-armed superpowers in this most volatile region of the world - if it has not already done so.

Musharraf flew in to Gwadar for the grand opening of the port on 20 March. "This is a major event in history," the khaki-clad president told a delegation from Beijing in a toast to the "all-weather" friendship between Pakistan and China. "The same Chinese friends will build a naval base here for us, and an energy hub for the Gulf and central Asian states," he added. China has also invested $200m in building a coastal highway that will connect the new port to Karachi.

In fact, the political weather looks choppy in Gwadar, just 250 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 per cent of world oil supplies flow. Several other countries in the region are not thrilled at the prospect of China gaining a foothold in the Middle East. They suspect Beijing will not only use the port to protect its oil supplies, but also want to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean by spying on US military manoeuvres and threatening its enemies' trade routes.

As such, the new Chinese plans have rung alarm bells in India and Iran. The government in Delhi feels China is encroaching from three sides - Myanmar, Tibet and Pakistan. It is therefore helping the ayatollahs in Tehran to construct a port at Chabahar in Iranian Baluchistan, just over the border from Gwadar, in an effort to compete for the energy trade out of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Here, Iran may have the upper hand, building on better relations with central Asian states such as Afghanistan, under President Hamid Karzai, who remains cool towards Pakistan because of that neighbour's support for the Taliban.

But the fiercest opponents to the Gwadar scheme are the local Baluchis. The billions of dollars going into the project have served only to fuel bitter discontent or, at any rate, a suspicion that the benefits of the project will bypass them on the way to state coffers in Islamabad. Baluchis hate their government, which they refer to as "Pakistan", as if it were a foreign country.

Neither history nor geography has done them any favours. Life is harsh in the arid plains and bare mountains, with very little water, sparse vegetation and extremes of temperature. When the Baluchi tribesmen have not been fighting each other, or the heat or the land, they have fought Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Persians, Hindus and the British. Gwadar even belonged to Oman for 200 years. It was given to the Sultan of Oman by the Khan of Kalat in the 18th century and was sold back to Pakistan for about £3m only in 1958. Yet the Baluchis have never been fully conquered or subdued - not by the armies of Genghis Khan, nor by Lord Curzon, nor Musharraf.

The latest insurgency began in 2003 and targets Baluchistan's natural resources almost daily. Last year, according to official figures, there were 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity cables and 19 explosions on railway tracks. Militants also killed three Chinese engineers working at Gwadar in a repeat of an attack that claimed the lives of three Beijing contractors in 2004.

Eight out of ten families in Baluchistan lack safe drinking water; nine out of ten have no gas. This last statistic makes the Baluchi insurgents especially angry, given that their region produces most of Pakistan's gas - about a billion cubic feet per day, or roughly 45 per cent of total production - from the country's main gas field at Sui.

"Hub!" hissed Senator Sana Ullah Baloch of the National Party. "The world totally ignores Baluchistan. We need electricity, water, hospitals, roads and schools. We deserve no less because we have the resources, the strategic areas and the sea. We are Pakistan. Musharraf wouldn't last a day without us."

The Baluchi uprising undoubtedly poses a threat to Gwa dar's future as a major international port and Musharraf acknowledged as much in his speech at the opening ceremony. The insurgents should "surrender their weapons and stop creating hurdles in the progress of Baluchistan", he warned, or they would be "wiped out".

Musharraf's spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan, has accused Pakistan's neighbours of abetting the Baluchi militants. Two years ago, he claimed that India's external foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, was "involved in terrorist activities in Baluchistan", just as Delhi has been protesting for decades about Pakistani-backed infiltration into Indian-run Kashmir. Several times the two nuclear-armed nations have gone to the brink of war, most recently in 2002. That occasion coincided with the go-ahead for a new port on the Arabian Sea. Soon afterwards the Pakistani police claimed to have arrested an Indian agent in Karachi for providing "strategic and sensitive information to India's spy agency, including maps of the Gwadar port".

I spoke to Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, about the future of Baluchistan. Kasuri is an immense, gar rulous man, and an expert on the region's politics. He told me that a Gwadar-style project had been the brainchild of the Soviet Union, which sought a port in hot waters. To meet that target, it invaded Afghanistan, though it was later forced to withdraw. China, as an emerging superpower, faces the same problem. It doesn't have a port that can be used all year round. Shanghai is approximately 3,000 miles away from the west of China. Gwadar is less than 2,000 miles from China and, with its warm waters, the port can stay open the whole year.

I asked Kasuri if Pakistan's neighbours were right to question Chinese motives in building a port that could be used to keep an eye on Indian missile tests or US naval patrols out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, but he dismissed talk of a hidden agenda. "As foreign minister, I'm supposed to know many things, but I'd be very surprised if there was nothing I didn't know," he said. "What I can tell you is that we now have a modern energy port where, five or six years ago, there was only sand and dust, and it will bring great benefits to Baluchistan, so I think the president's policy is bang right."

The Americans, on the other hand, are wary of a growing Chinese presence in the Gulf, so close to their own operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the moment, however, the White House seems to regard Gwadar not as a direct threat to US interests, but as an opportunity to restrict Iran. Others believe the project is a doomed venture on account of its proximity to the lawless tribal areas of northern Pakistan, where al-Qaeda is once again on the rise. Al-Qaeda's leaders have never forgiven Pakistan for co-operating in the "war on terror" after years of bankrolling the Taliban. In a nightmare scenario, the port at Gwadar would become an irresistible target, an unmissable opportunity for supporters of Osama bin Laden to wreak revenge. Sometimes it can be hard to forecast the weather in Baluchistan.

Hugh Barnes is a central Asia specialist. He is working on a translation of Hamid Ismailov's novel "Comrade Islam"

Pakistan by numbers

4 military dictators, including Pervez Musharraf, have ruled the country for 31 of its 60 years

3rd biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel and Egypt

64 years national average life expectancy

50% adult literacy rate

12m number of Pakistanis who have access to the internet

7th highest incidence of TB in the world