The port of Karachi is one of the largest ports in the Subcontinent and South Asia.
Walking along its 11-km-long entrance channel, one loses count of the cargo ships, lined up one after another, slowly approaching for berthing and the unloading of their various cargos.
The incoming ships are carrying all sorts of things: industrial machinery from China, auto parts, home appliances, consumer electronics via the Port of Jebel Ali in the UAE, and hydrocarbons from the Gulf—sometimes even coal in the bad old days before the Pakistan International Bulk Terminal (PIBT) was launched.
The bustling port is obviously overburdened. It was never designed to serve over 1,600 oceangoing ships.
Overland freight transportation is limited in Pakistan due to assorted geographic and geopolitical obstacles.
So it is inevitable that maritime routes have become the country’s main links with global trade.
Pakistan is a central player in the global supply chain of the textile industry.
It exports over USD17 billion worth of textiles, knit clothing, and cotton, meeting as much as 20% of global demand.
The nation is also a manufacturer of medical supplies, chemicals, and minerals, among much else. Despite its large production capacity, Pakistan cannot really rely on overland transportation.
The Karakoram Highway which links Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to China notwithstanding, Pakistani transit roads are not suitable for cargo transportation, given natural obstacles such as the Himalayas to the east and the Hindu Kush mountain range to the west.
The only remaining hope is maritime transportation through Pakistan’s 1050-km-long coastline toward the south.
Sometimes known as the Makran coast, Pakistan’s southern coastline along the Arabian Sea houses all major ports that handle the import and export activities.
Karachi port is undoubtedly the most strategic one, not least because it is linked to the country’s most important railroad. The Main Line 1 (ML1), or the Karachi-Peshawar Line, is the lifeline of Pakistan’s economy.
It snakes through the country’s treacherous terrain for over 1,600 km toward Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar.
As such, it is no wonder that the Karachi Port is the go-to port for economic and industrial purposes.
The massive deep-sea port is state-owned and managed by the Karachi Port Trust (KPT).
It has been in use since the 1700s and was heavily industrialized in the second half of the 20th century. Now it accounts for over 60% of all shipping to and from Pakistan.
Karachi Port has expanded in a seemingly endless mass of wharves, docks, and heavy duty cranes, stretching for 32 kilometers. The port handles upwards of a million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) and 65 million tons of bulk cargo.
As the default choice for almost all cargo ships, the port is severely overloaded.
In an attempt to resolve this issue, newer ports across the Makran coastline are expected to take up the slack.
Gwadar Port in Balochistan Province is located some 600km to the west of Karachi, near the Iranian border. It is operated by the China Overseas Port Holding Company, within the framework of Islamabad’s growing cooperation with Beijing.
In plain words, Gwadar Port was built with Chinese cash.
Unsurprisingly, the port plays a central role in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the Belt and Road Initiative, and the Maritime Silk Road.
CPEC was launched in 2013 to create a corridor between China and Pakistan by linking the Gwadar Port to Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang Province in the northwest of the country.
Although the port’s operations began in 2016, it became fully operational in 2021.
Gwadar Port handles around 11 million tons of bulk cargo as of 2022 (17% of what Karachi Port handles), although the figure is expected to grow to 400 million tons by 2045.
The main problem ahead of the port’s full integration into the Pakistani transportation system is its lack of access to the railway network. It is hoped that the Gwadar port will truly take off with the proposed Gwadar-Karachi railway—another billion dollar transportation megaproject that relies on Chinese financiers.
Although Gwadar has huge potential and is the nation’s best bet to overcome the bottlenecks in maritime transportation, it will not become a viable alternative to Karachi’s port in this decade.
China’s investment, meanwhile, will be critical to the expansion of the port and its connection to the railway system.
It is not clear yet whether post-Covid China will resume injecting cash into the CPEC.