Gwadar, November 10:

There is an air of El Dorado about Gwadar, a fishing village on the Persian Sea with dreams of becoming a glittering metropolis. Advertising billboards along the rubbish-strewn streets feature digitised images of skyscra-pers and tourist-clogged beaches. Offices with names like Gold Mine Investments and New World City have sprung up overnight. Property prices have risen up to 30-fold, turning poor fishermen into small-time tycoons with four-wheel drives and second wives.

Dealers such as Kamran Ali, 25, have flooded in from the big cities. “In five years’ time this will be like Dubai, or parts of Europe,” he said. Or, possibly, Beijing.

Gwadar’s ambitious plans hinge on a giant deepwater port whose money, bricks and mortar come from China. Last year 400 Chinese labourers worked 24-hour shifts to complete the project, intended to serve Afghanistan and Central As-ia. Through cheap loans and generous grants the Chinese government covered 80 per cent of the $250 million cost. Now a dredger is out in the bay carving a deep channel that will accommodate cargo ships, oil tankers and, if necessary, warships.

A high-stakes geopolitical game is sweeping Asia. Triggered by a roaring economy, propelled by swelling confidence and funded by cheque book diplomacy, Beijing is projecting its new might across the continent and setting off alarm bells from Washington to Tokyo. “There is a cauldron of anxiety about China,” the US deputy secretary of state, Robert Zoellick, said.

In May China inked a $600 million deal with the Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov. In Pakistan an old friendship is being rekindled. China helped to build Pakistan’s weapons plants and, according to western intelligence, had a hand in its nuclear bomb. The two countries’ friendship is “higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the ocean”.

This year the two countries signed 22 trade pacts, including the joint production of a jet fighter, and the sale of four Chinese navy frigates to Pakistan. But in Gwadar, China insists, its interest is purely commercial.

The port has a great commercial attraction. It lies 2,000-km from Xinjiang, a landlocked western province and latecomer to China’s economic boom. From next year Beijing hopes for a fresh flow of traffic across the Himalayas and down to the Persian Sea. But Gwadar also has an immense strategic lure. It lies close to the Straits of Hormuz, the gateway to the Gulf through which 40 per cent of the world’s oil passes.