Gwadar/QUETTA - Pakistan handed hundreds of acres of land over to China Wednesday for development of a special economic zone in the port of Gwadar, part of a $46 billion project giving Beijing greater access to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

The provincial government in Balochistan, country’s poorest, handed over about 2,300 acres swathe of tax-exempt land that Beijing will develop under a 43-year lease.

The rest of the land will be handed over under the agreement with the public China Overseas Port Holding Company “soon”, senior Pakistani government officials told AFP.

The development is part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, an ambitious $46 billion investment plan linking western China to the Arabian Sea, part of Beijing’s ambition to expand its trade and transport footprint across Central and South Asia while countering US and Indian influence.

Experts say access to the port of Gwadar will cut thousands of kilometres off the distance which oil and gas imports from Africa and the Middle East have to travel to reach China.

Federal Minister for Planning Ahsan Iqbal and Minister for Shipping Kamran Michael attended the handover ceremony Wednesday with Chinese development commission vice chairman Wang Xiaotao.

As part of the wider plans, an international airport will also be built with a Chinese grant at Gwadar, with construction due to begin in January.

“China has asked us to provide land for building an export processing zone and a modern international airport in Gwadar,” Balochistan Chief Minister Abdul Malik Baloch told AFP.

The airport which will take 30 months to complete will be Pakistan’s biggest airport. According to Balochistan chief minister’s spokesman Jan Muhammad Buledi, the airport will be built on more than 4,000 acres.

China is also building a road network to link the zone to the airport and a seaport, and the provincial government will provide the land according to their requirements, he said.

As part of the wider plans, work on the Gwadar International Airport would start in the next couple of months.

Gwadar port, located 540 kilometres southwest of Karachi, was built in 2007 with technical help from Beijing as well as Chinese financial assistance of some $248 million.

It gives China “new access” to the Arabian Sea, Pakistani analyst Hasan Askari told AFP, adding that it shows to the rest of the world that “China is willing to help friends and spread its influence through positive economic and trade activities”.

India has previously expressed concerns about the scheme.

However, Mohan Guruswamy, head of the New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Alternatives, defended the project Wednesday. “This is an economic project and India has no concern over Chinese cooperation,” he told AFP.

“Concerns arise if there are defence-related matters,” he said.

Acquiring the land from private owners to build the economic zone took several years and cost the Balochistan government around $62 million, officials have said.

Pakistan is also raising a special security force of between 10,000 and 25,000 men to protect the port.

Desperately poor Balochistan has been roiled since 2004 by a separatist insurgency aimed at seeking greater control over the province’s rich oil, gas and mineral resources.

Some Baloch nationalists have accused the Chinese of conspiring with the Pakistani elite to plunder the province’s resources while doing little to share profits and create jobs for local people.

Speaking at the handing over of land ceremony in Gwadar, Ahsan Iqbal said China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be a fate changer for billions of people in the region through regional integration and connectivity.

The minister said the Gwadar Port was being developed under vision of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to develop it as a leading smart port city of the region.

He said handing over of first 600 acres of land for Gwadar free zone is a major milestone towards implementation of CPEC.

Vice Chairman, National Development and Reforms Commission (NDRC) Mr Wang Xiaotao, China also attended the ceremony.

Speaking at the signing ceremony of taking over of land Gwadar port free zone and framework agreement on strategic cooperation between COPHC and Lin Yi Trade City Holdings Limited, Ahsan Iqbal stated, “Gwadar is heart of CPEC but today with the handing over of Gwadar port cree zone, this heart starts beating.”

Ahsan said CPEC is not just about infrastructure projects rather it is a framework for holistic development and has equal emphasis on social sectors for well being of the people not only in Gwadar but across the country particularly in under-developed areas of Balochistan.

Ashan said opening of new school, vocational institute and scholarships for students of Gwadar are steps in this direction.He said that free trade zones will bring investment and create enormous employment opportunities in the port city.

Smart port city will be center of trade and commerce providing connectivity to the Central Asia and the whole region, he added.

The minister said transformational impact from Gwadar to Zhob and Gwadar to Khuzdar, (Khuzdar to Rattodero) part of western route is transforming lives in the under-developed areas with creation of employment opportunities and improving quality of life.

Ahsan said Pakistan is emerging as a favourite destination of investment due to improving security and governance situation in the country and economic reforms implemented by the government in last two and half years.

CPEC is multi-sectoral project that includes energy, infrastructure, port, social, and industry projects, Ahsan said.

He said Gwadar will be connected to Khunjrab through multiple routes as port will serve different markets and destinations.

He said that all routes of CPEC are being constructed but the western route will be the first to be operational. He added the work on missing Gwadar-Quetta link of western route would be completed by December 2016.

Located at the crossroads of West, Central and South Asia, the Middle East and China, Pakistan can become an energy and trade corridor that connects the fast-emerging economics in the region, the minister stated. This will be achieved through CPEC by building transnational roads, railways, and oil and gas pipelines that crisscross Pakistan’s industrial heartland and egress from ports like Karachi and Gwadar, he said.