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

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496