Enemy in courtyard: Gwadar port and its strategic importance

Gwadar, which used to host the American P-3C Orion maritime reconnaissance aircraft during the Cold War days for keeping a watch over the Russian naval movements in the Indian Ocean, will now formally host the Chinese.

Situated 200 kms away from Karachi, the Gwadar base offers tremendous strategic advantages to the country which has a naval presence on the port. The Chinese had eyed the Gwadar after the American Navy withdrew its presence from the naval base and finally managed to acquire the port on the excuse of developing a commercial port infrastructure.

The Cold War dynamics seems to have entirely changed and the Chinese will be in face to face with the Indian maritime assets, over which the Pakistani strategic community is exulting openly. They now see the Chinese presence as a guarantor to their security. It may not be long before we see the actual deployments of Chinese maritime surveillance aircrafts at the Gwadar port in the name of conducting anti-piracy operations and safeguarding Chinese maritime assets.

Maritime strategy

Considering the long term maritime strategy of the Chinese, since they move step by step without revealing their real intentions, the concern in Indian strategic circle was obvious. The Indian defence minister A K Antony also could not publicly help hide his concerns.  It was only a matter of time before the Chinese naval ships will start doing goodwill visits to the Gwadar naval base and finally deploying them on long term basis. Thus the Gwadar port, which is based on the mouth of the Arabian Sea will, allow the Chinese Navy in direct faceoff with the Indian Navy.

The Gwadar port built by the China Overseas Port Holdings limited at a cost of US$ 250 million was finally handed over to them on 18th Feb, 2013 after asking the Singaporean company to leave, which was originally given the 15 year lease to manage the port.

But in a very pre orchestrated move the Singapore firm had to leave after five years of operation as they did not find it commercially viable as  the Pakistani government refused to hand over a piece of land because of  objections from the Pakistani Navy. Now that the Chinese have taken possession of the port let us see if the Pakistani Navy can withdraw their objections for the Chinese.

The agreement was inked by the Chairman of the  Gwadar Port Authority Syed Pervez Abbas, Major General Asghar Nawaz of the army-run National Logistics Cell, AKD Security chairman Aqeel Karim Dhedi, Leo Fong of China Overseas Port Holdings and Port of Singapore Authority representative Faisal Javed.

On this occasion, the President Asif Ali Zardari, commented that the development of a trade corridor linking Xinjiang to the Middle East through Gwadar port will enhance trade between the two countries and in the region. Explaining on behalf of the Chinese, Zardari also said that Gwadar has strategic importance for China as around 60 per cent of its crude oil comes from Gulf countries that are close to Gwadar. Pakistan has described it as the second most important investment by China in the country after the Karakoram Highway.

Undoubtedly, the Pakistanis are encouraging the Chinese to develop the Xinjiang- Gwadar road and rail corridor for the transport of oil and gas to the Chinese mainland via their territory, which would have spillover economic and strategic benefits for them.

This would be the most expensive and difficult infrastructure job ever undertaken on earth by a country which is bent upon leveraging its all weather relationship with Pakistan. In the process the Chinese are deliberately ignoring Indian concerns as the corridor would be passing the most treacherous mountainous route via the Gilgit and Baltistan areas which fall under Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

India’s concerns

Considering Pakistani and the Chinese assertions that the areas are disputed the Chinese should not undertake any infrastructure development work of long term strategic significance. But the economically and militarily powerful China has the guts to simply ignore Indian concerns. India cannot do anything beyond protestations.

The Chinese State media quoting an Islamabad based think tank said that China’s presence in the Gwadar port at the mouth of the Arabian Sea will deter India from carrying out any action planned against Pakistan. The Global Times quoting the Pakistani think tank said “New Delhi is cooperating with US in Asia-Pacific and in India Ocean to contain the expanding power of China. The plans for the development of new sea ports in the Strait of Malacca are aimed to dominate the sea routes of the region. Presence of Indian and US military will create maritime barriers to China in times of conflict,”

The Global Times explained why India was worried, “First, Gwadar Port nullifies the India-US strategy of encircling China. Second, India is afraid that China may expand its influence in the Indian Ocean which may result in harming Indian interests. And third, India feels that the port would enable Pakistan to take control of more of the world energy circulation and interdiction of Indian tankers”

The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei reacted to Indian concerns, “the transfer of the managing rights is a business project that falls under trade and economic cooperation conducted between China and Pakistan. Boosting China-Pakistan cooperation is not only in the interests of both countries, but also conducive to maintaining regional stability and development.”

But Indian strategic observers are not taking the Chinese assertions at its face value.  India has been watching the Chinese grand design to mark its presence all around Indian coast. Called the ‘String of Pearls’ strategy by western strategic observers, the Chinese have set their footprints on the Sri Lankan port Hambantota, the Sittwe port at Myanmar, the Chittagong port in Bangladesh and also making serious efforts to acquire an island from Maldives in the name of tourism development.

The Chinese have expanded their influence all around Indian coast in the name of promoting economic cooperation and help the region develop through infrastructure development projects.

The Chinese claim to promote economic activities in the region has been substantiated by the Iranian decision to set up a US$ 4 billion refinery in Gwadar. This decision was announced during the visit of President Asif Ali Zardari to Tehran in the last week of February. If this project takes shape, the Pakistani and Chinese strategy will prove to be a great success, as the Chinese will be able to import all of the refined petroleum products through the under execution Gwadar-Xinjiang rail and road corridor.

This refinery will have a capacity of refining 400,000 barrels of oil daily. Thus Gwadar will further deepen the Iranian-Pakistani and the Chinese strategic economic partnership.  

Through the Gwadar port and the Gwadar-Xinjiang rail and road corridor, China will be able to directly land at Indian Ocean via its own land route. This will prove to be of great strategic significance for China similar to the Karakoram Highway which has facilitated China to strengthen its hold over Tibet and deepen strategic pressure on India.

The Gwadar port will permit China to establish control over the oceanic spaces near to India and thus challenge India in its courtyard. The Gwadar port will facilitate China to give a solid base to its Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD) strategy in the Indian Ocean which is on the pattern of the South China Sea.

Gwadar will thus prove to be the lynchpin of China’s Indian Ocean maritime strategy.