CEREMONY and fanfare marked the departure on Sunday of the first vessels from Gwadar port carrying cargoes that originated in China and Pakistan.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif assured the nation that “CPEC is for everybody”, trying to remove misgivings in the smaller provinces about the utility of the project.
A short ceremony was held at the port, including speeches, one duet sung by a Pakistani and a Chinese singer and videos produced by the Inter Services Public Relations. After unveiling a plaque, the prime minister and Gen Raheel Sharif stood for a photo op in front of one of the vessels loaded with containers.
Lyrical tributes paid to the corridor project and Pakistan-China friendship sometimes went over the top, sounding part Homer and part Kipling.
Sharif says ‘CPEC is for everybody’; Chinese envoy terms the event significant for Sino-Pakistan ties
In one video, for example, the corridor project was described by the narrator as “giving Pakistan a position no less than that of a jewel in the crown”. It was an awkward choice of words given the colonial past it evokes.
The ceremony was attended, among others, by Gen Rashad Mehmood, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee; retired Lt Gen Nasser Khan Janjua, Adviser to the Prime Minister on National Security; Lt Gen Aamir Riaz, Commander Southern Command; Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Raheela Hameed Khan Durrani, the Speaker of Balochistan Assembly.
The prime minister described the arrival of the convoy as the “break of a new dawn” and “a watershed event”, emphasising that the vision of a shared prosperity that underlies the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is badly needed in a world torn by conflict.
He also praised the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) for completing the road network in the face of a harsh terrain and trying weather conditions.
The ISPR videos played during the event described CPEC as the fruit of “Gen Raheel Sharif’s vision”, whereas the prime minister described it as a vision common to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s worldview and the government’s own Vision 2025, “which aims to make Pakistan a hub” of regional connectivity.
He said the federal government had spent Rs49 billion on laying the road network in Balochistan, a part of CPEC.
A day earlier the director general of the FWO told Dawn that Rs35bn had been spent over the past two years on these projects. It is not clear yet where the discrepancy comes from.
The remarks by the Chinese ambassador were more matter of fact. He described the day simply as “of significance to China-Pakistan relations”.
“This is the first time that a trade convoy successfully passed through the western part of Pakistan from the north to the south,” he said. “The event proves that the port “has restored its designed handling capacity.
“This is also the first time that China and Pakistan have co-organised a trade convoy through Pakistan to Gwadar port,” the ambassador said.
EMPTY CONTAINERS: Several containers that were brought to Gwadar were empty, according to people privy to the arrangements. Pakistan’s persistent trade deficit means that containers regularly accumulate within the country and often have to be shipped out empty.
Three parties came in for special mention during the ceremony. The President of the Gilgit Baltistan Chamber of Commerce, Qurban Ali, was one. He played a role in facilitating the Chinese trucks after their entry into Pakistan, as well as making arrangements to send enough cargoes from Pakistan to China so that sufficient containers would be available in China for the return journey.
The role included helping in clearing of the consignment and transfer of the contents of some of them into Pakistani trucks.
Special permission was obtained from the ministry of communications to allow about 25 Chinese trucks to make the full journey to Gwadar, he said. He put the total number of trucks that entered Pakistan from China at 125.
“We are sitting at the entry point of CPEC,” Qurban Ali told Dawn. “This project could change our destiny.”
He pointed out that a growth in ties was inevitable, although keeping the road open for commercial traffic throughout the year presented some challenges.
An air link between Skardu and Kashgar is also under consideration, as well as between Gilgit and Urumchi, he claimed.
China is also considering building an airport at Tushturghun, the next major stop on the Karakorum highway after it enters China.
Other operators who were awarded for their contribution included Agility, a logistics provider, and the Capital Group of Companies, which helped arrange the empty containers for outward shipment, as well as one of the two vessels berthed at Gwadar port for the exercise.
Sino Trans, a state-owned Chinese logistics provider, arranged for the Chinese shipment. The company’s senior executive was given a chance to speak at the ceremony.
He praised the efforts of the army in arranging the convoy and said it would spur the corridor projects further. “CPEC is a great systematic project,” he observed. “We are still on a journey to discover the internal and external challenges we are facing through this pilot convoy. There is still a lot of work to do, especially in certain regions where people still have apprehensions about the change that CPEC is going to bring for them.”
It took a strong push from the FWO to bring all these parties together and make this convoy possible. Having done so, they have demonstrated the operational viability of the routes and the port.
But the question remains whether the routes and the port used in this exercise will become commercially viable soon enough so that similar traffic can be generated in the absence of a coordinated push, when market forces alone will decide which port to use for outbound cargoes. This question will remain long after today’s vessels have departed.
Saleem Shahid adds: Addressing the gathering, Balochistan Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Khan Zehri said the Gwadar port had become the nerve-centre of the China-Pak Economic Corridor projects being executed in Pakistan.
Mr Zehri said the Army had played an important role in making Gwadar port functional and in execution of projects pertaining to CPEC.
He said that CPEC would not only connect Kashgar to Gwadar but it would also going to become a “game changer” for the entire region.
He said that work on construction of a free trade zone in Gwadar was near completion. “We already have issued SROs for customs and duty exemption in the free trade zone,” he said.
The chief minister said the Balochistan government was enjoying the support of the federal government and China in execution of development projects.
Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2016