In a decision raising fresh concern about China’s ambitions in South Asia and the Indian Ocean, Pakistan has agreed to hand over to Chinese control a deep-water port, strategically located near the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
The Pakistani cabinet decision to transfer management of Gwadar to a Chinese government-owned company closes a circle for Beijing, which put up most of the funding a decade ago to build the facility in the first place.
During the construction phase, China periodically dismissed reports that the port would be used for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) activity, fears that appeared unfounded when upon the port’s completion in 2007, Pakistan signed an agreement with Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) International to run it for 40 years.
But Islamabad has complained about slow progress in expanding the operations and, six years later, has turned once again to its “all-weather friend,” China.
For China, whose Chinese Overseas Port Holdings will now run the port, Gwadar offers a host of advantages.
Currently most of China’s oil imports from the Gulf travel the long sea route through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. Gwadar, located just 250 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, could be the key to a new route for oil and other commodities, via pipeline, road and rail links through Pakistan, into western China. (Those same routes could benefit the land-locked republics of Central Asia, too.)
Gwadar also offers berthing and resupply facilities for Chinese ships, both commercial vessels and, possibly in the future, PLAN warships.
The move has stoked fears in India that China is pursuing a so-called “encirclement” policy, in collaboration with New Delhi’s historical arch-rival, Pakistan.
India’s Daily News and Analysis newspaper said in an editorial Monday that “few in India believe China” when it comes to its assurances about its Gwadar presence.
“India too depends ships and open shipping lanes for meeting most of its energy requirements; any threat to this shipping lane is a threat to India,” it said.
“The very fact that Chinese naval ships might soon dock at Gwadar, from where they are hours away from disrupting shipping lanes to India, is a policy-maker’s strategic nightmare. The fear that the presence of Chinese ships might make Islamabad more adventurous is also a concern.”
According to India-based regional security analyst Bahukutumbi Raman, the Pakistan Navy was unenthusiastic about the Singaporean operation and created difficulties for PSA International over the transfer of land at the port needed for infrastructure facilities and warehouses.
“In the eyes of the Pakistan Navy, the Chinese taking over the responsibility for the operation of the port will have two advantages,” Raman wrote in a paper for the South Asia Analysis Group think tank.
“Firstly, the Chinese, with their reputation for the timely construction of projects, will be able to get the languishing operations revived quickly. Secondly, it could prove to be the first step towards China agreeing to a Pakistani request for upgrading the port into a naval base, available for joint use by the Pakistani and Chinese navies.”
‘String of pearls’
Chinese state media disputed that the Gwadar agreement poses a threat to any country.
“Not surprisingly, China’s intentions in taking over Gwadar Port have been interpreted through a military perspective,” the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times said in a commentary Friday.
“Chinese operational control of Gwadar has seemingly set off alarm bells in India as it feels it is being encircled by China. The Chinese presence in Gwadar has also been seen as a threat to the U.S. fleet in the Middle East.
“In fact, China is not so powerful, nor is India so weak, so as to make it possible that the transfer of a mere civil project can ‘encircle’ India,” the commentary said, adding that observers tend to interpret China’s every move abroad as having a military purpose.
Still, the same Global Times, in a May 2011 editorial referring to Gwadar, said China will at some point need to establish overseas military bases.
Military cooperation between China and other powers “will not only make our world safer, but can also protect trade routes from pirates and terrorists,” it said.
“[I]f China is going to play an important role in the Asia-Pacific region and on the international stage, as urged by the international community, it eventually will need to establish overseas military bases in cooperation with other countries.”
A 2004 internal report for the Pentagon by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton coined the term “string of pearls” to describe what it said was a Chinese strategy to set up bases along key sea lanes from the Middle East to southern China, including Gwadar and locations in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the Washington Times reported the following year.
Testifying on Capitol Hill in 2009, American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin said the goal of the strategy “is to facilitate China’s constant maritime presence in Asia and link it to a growing network of regional states that benefit from China’s economic and military support.”
One challenge the Chinese will face in Gwadar is facility security. The port is located in Balochistan province, where rebels with longstanding grievances against Islamabad oppose what they see as an attempt by the central government to steal their natural resources.
One of several armed extremist groups in the province killed three Chinese engineers working on the port project in 2004.