The four-times-a-week propeller plane from Karachi whips up a cloud of dust as it lands on an arid airstrip. Passengers cross the tarmac in the scorching sun and enter an arrivals terminal not much larger than a tractor-trailer. Outside, soldiers carrying AK-47s are waiting. This is Gwadar, a remote scratch of land on Pakistan’s southwest coast. Its port is the last stop on a planned $62 billion corridor connecting China’s landlocked westernmost province to the Arabian Sea, the crown jewel of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, designed to build infrastructure and influence around the world.
Plans originally called for a seaport, roads, railways, pipelines, dozens of factories and the largest airport in Pakistan. But, almost seven years after the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor was established, there’s little evidence of that vision being realized. The site of the new airport, which was supposed to have been completed with Chinese funding more than three years ago, is a fenced-off area of scrub and dun-colored sand. Specks of mica in the dirt are the only things that glitter. The factories have yet to materialize on a stretch of beach along the bay south of the airport. And traffic at Gwadar’s tiny, three-berth port is sparse. A Pakistan Navy frigate is the only ship docked there during a recent visit, and there’s no sign of the sole scheduled weekly cargo run from Karachi.