Thursday, February 21, 2013

What Does the Chinese Take Over of Gwadar Imply?

Radhakrishna Rao 
(Research Fellow, VIF)

In a development that did not cause any surprise, Pakistan ha handed over the administrative control of the Gwadar Sea Port on Makrana coast in Balochistan province to China Overseas Ports Holding Company, a move that would provide China the much needed access to the warm waters of the Arabian sea, close to the strategically located Strait of Hormuz which happens to be a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil. Considered Pakistan’s biggest infrastructure project, Gwadar port has failed to script a business success story on account of the volatile security situation in the socially turbulent Balochistan where secessionist tendencies and sectarian violence are on the ascendance. Commentators point out that it is the poor security scenario of Balochistan that has prevented China from committing on further investment for the development of the port and off- shore infrastructure. In addition, the reluctance of Pakistani navy to transfer 584 acres under its possession to Gwadar port has proved a stumbling block in the way of expanding the port project. When Port of Singapore Authority(PSA) had won the contract for operating Gwadar port for 40 years in 2007, the widely held perception was that former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf awarded the contract to the Singapore entity to keep US in good humour.

By all means, for China, Gwadar provides an ideal springboard to further its interests in the Arabian Sea. Situated about 470-kilometres to the west of Karachi at the mouth of the Arabian Sea, Gwadar can be a key asset for China to advance its geostrategic interest in one of most vital sea-lanes of the world. There are meanwhile plans to boost the business prospects of Gwadar port through the creation of new rail and road links .

Indeed, for China, the control of Gwadar port would mean a shot in the arm for its long cherished plan to strengthen its dominance over the Indian ocean region. China’s new naval strategy of “far sea defence’ is aimed at giving Biejing the ability to project its power in the oceanic waters in which both US and India have stakes .But then as a section of defence analysts point out, given the geographical advantages that India enjoys in the Indian ocean, China will have difficult times upstaging India in the Indian ocean region. But China continues to stress the point that take over of Gwadar port was “conducive” to maintain regional stability and would enhance bilateral cooperation. ”The transfer of the managing rights is a business project that falls under trade and economic cooperation conducted between China and Pakistan,” said a spokesman of Chinese Foreign Ministry. But then Pakistani offer to develop a trade corridor linking Muslim dominated Chinese province of Xinjiang to the Middle East through Gwadar port presumably meant to enhance trade between China Pakistan could provide China tremendous strategic edge to nullify US interests in this part of the world.

On the seamier side, the plan to link Gwadar with Kashgar could be a potentially troublesome exercise for China. For Kashgar situated in Xinjiang, one of the sparsely populated regions of China, happens to be the hotbed of separatist jihadi activities under the banner of Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement. Indeed, there have been media reports to suggest that Islamic separatists from this Chinese province had received training from one of the Islamic hard-line groups active in Pakistan. There is no denying the fact that Muslim dominated Xinjiang is China’s achilles heel against the backdrop that it is a breeding ground for the separatist jihadi forces.

To add to the discomfiture of China, the fierily independent Balochs, who are spearheading a violent separatist movement to free the province from the control of Islamabad, have vowed to defeat attempts at bringing in Chinese personnel under the ruse of speeding up the development of this largest and resources rich part of Pakistan. In particular, Baloch separatists have not taken kindly to the move of Islamabad to involve Chinese experts in the mining projects of the province. Biejing started its involvement with the Gwadar sea port about a decade ago with an investment of around US$250-million in the project. In 2004, three Chinese engineers helping to build Gwadar port were killed in a car bombing incident. The same year, two Chinese engineers working on a hydroelectric dam project in South Waziristan were kidnapped and one of them was found dead.

The Gwadar port, when fully operational, will help Pakistan do away with its near total dependence on Karachi ,which on account of its proximity to India could be a sitting duck to the strike force of the Indian navy in the event of a war. Indeed, during 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, Indian navy had inflicting massive damage on the Karachi port. Pakistan’s trade is 95% through the sea, most of which is facilitated through the Karachi port. Even today Pakistan is dependent on Karachi port for as much as 68% of its exports and imports are concerned.

On a larger canvas, the Chinese toehold on the vital Arabian sea coast of Pakistan could be a serious threat to the US Fifth Fleet in the Middle East. Obviously, the Chinese presence in Gwadar would embolden Beijing to mount an interception threat to the strategic oil trade to the Far East and Europe as Gwadar is very close to Hormuz Strait. As it is, the proposal for a pipeline from Gwadar to transport oil and gas to China, could help China avoid Malacca and Singapore Straits which can be closed during wartime or are vulnerable to piracy. In the ultimate analysis, Gwadar could be a trump card in China’s long term energy security plan. This pipeline could perhaps provide synergy to the proposed Iran-Pakistan pipeline.Currently,60% of China’s oil imports transit through the Strait of Hormuz, located just 180 nautical miles from Gwadar port.

However, from India’s perspective, the port could be used by the Chinese navy to jostle for geo-strategic power in the region. Indeed, Indian defence Minister during Feb.6 media interaction at the Aero India- 2013 show at Bangalore had stated that China’s role in operating Gwadar port was a matter of concern. Reacting to Antony’s concern, a spokesman of Pakistan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry had stated in Islamabad that “We think that this is not something that any other country have any reason to be concerned about.” Stretching this argument a bit further, Fazul-ul-Rehman, a former director of the China Studies Centre at the Institute of Strategic Studies at Islamabad, dismisses the possibility of China going to war in the Indian Ocean region and calls Indian concern a propaganda. According to Rehman, China is now more cautious about big investment projects in Pakistan due to security concerns what with Taliban activities, sectarian violence and separatist movement blighting turbulent Balochistan. As a result, Rehman says, there is a long way to go on China-Pakistan economic cooperation and emphasizes that Gwadar will be a long term project with Beijing looking for future alternatives to shipping routes for its oil and gas imports. However, western defence experts point out that Gwadar could serve China as a strategic listening pot to monitor maritime and naval activities in the region. On another front, the naval strike force of China’s People’s Liberation Army(PLA) could use Gwadar to deploy its ships and submarines to ensure the safety and security of China’s vital energy supplies.

It is widely perceived that Gwadar take over along with the Chinese built port at Hambantota in Sri Lanka and new terminals at Chittagong and Sonadiya in Bangladesh followed by China’s recent forays into Maldives completes the final links in the Chinese “string of pearls” strategy to safeguard its sea-lanes for energy imports and dominate the Indian ocean region. As things stand now, Gwadar would be the most westerly in a string of Chinese funded ports encircling its big regional rival India. The US$450-million deep sea port at Hambantota, close to the vital east-west route, used by around 300 ships a day, built with Chinese loans and construction expertise would provide China a platform for furthering its commercial and military interests in the vital Indian Ocean region. Although China has no equity stake in Hambantota, they have taken up to 85% slice of Colombo International Terminal Ltd, which is building a new container port adjacent to the existing Colombo harbour. According to Dean Cheng,a Research Fellow at the Asian Studies Centre for the Washington based think tank Heritage Foundation, China is actively pursuing the strategy of cultivating India’s neighbours as friendly states, both to protect its economic and security interests and counteract Indian influence. Not surprisingly, the concern in India continues to mount over China giving a practical shape to the ancient Chinese philosophy of “String of Pearls.” For the Chinese move to encircle is getting unfolded in a dramatic fashion with China forging extensive maritime links with countries in Asia and Africa.

Significantly, the widely debated “String of Pearls” theory which was originally conceived by a team of experts at the US based consultancy Booz Allen essentially underpins Chinese strategy of involvement with countries along its Sea Line of Communication(SLOC) extending from South China Sea to the Indian Ocean. A section of strategic analysts hold the view that “String of Pearls” provides China a robust platform to leverage its diplomatic and commercial ties to further its energy security and strategic interests on a long term basis.

What strategy India would adopt to counteract the aggressive Chinese move to encircle India through the “String of Pearls” approach, there is no clue as yet. But then the Indian defence strategists should not waste time to finger out the dimensions of the threat posed by Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy and formulate an appropriate Indian response to defeat the Chinese moves to dominate the Indian ocean region.

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