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More work needed: Hong Kong status for Gwadar

Updated August 25, 2013

THE prime minister’s remarks about a Hong Kong-like status for Gwadar seem to have been uttered in haste. The two are poles apart in terms of historical experience and present status. Hong Kong had been a colonial possession for more than a century and a half. It was returned to the Chinese administration in 1997 with certain reservations, the most important pertaining to the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. The latter means, among other things, that Hong Kong has its own currency — HK dollar — instead of China’s yuan. Gwadar is altogether a different story. It was purchased by Pakistan from Oman in 1958 by a civilian government — a reminder that a civilian government added new territories to Pakistan instead of losing any — and has since then been part of mainstream Pakistan. It never enjoyed a special status; Pakistan’s sovereignty was never in dispute; and it has had the rupee as its currency all along. Disturbing this status quo without a well-thought-out scheme and ignoring its political implications will create problems for Pakistan and offend Baloch sensitivities.

Gwadar is in a mess. Large parts of Balochistan are insurgency-infested, and the transfer of the harbour’s management from a Singaporean to a Chinese entity hasn’t served to make Gwadar a going concern. The port does need a turnaround, but coming up with schemes and ‘visions’ without doing proper homework merely betrays a proclivity for hare-brained schemes. The big question is: in what way will Gwadar’s Hong Kong status help Pakistan? Supposing that the new scheme is worked out and foreign investors come in a big way, where will the manpower come from? Given the prevailing mood in Balochistan, will there be a Baloch workforce? If not, will not the induction of non-Baloch threaten the province’s demographic character and lead to more tensions? Beijing will maintain Hong Kong’s current status for another 32 years. The very thought of entertaining a similar ‘one country, two systems’ idea for Gwadar is impractical.

The ideal course would have been to seek a Baloch consensus on Gwadar’s status, with the initiative coming from the newly elected provincial government and assembly. We do not doubt Nawaz Sharif’s sincerity to the Gwadar cause, but it should be accompanied by an equal commitment to tackling the insecurity in and isolation of Balochistan. We say study the issue seriously, see why Hong Kong has remained an economic powerhouse even after its return to China, and how Gwadar can be salvaged in Pakistani conditions.