China getting operational control of Pakistan’s highly strategic Gwadar port is indeed a serious matter for India which warrants a full-fledged meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to thrash out an appropriate Indian response. But the question is: has China bitten more than it can chew? Is China playing with fire?
Let this question wait for a while. Let us first talk about the implications of the Chinese take-over of the Gwadar port operations from Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) which had been managing the operations for the last five years and was supposed to continue to do so for 45 years more.
The implications are not just regional, but global. The affected countries, apart from India (and naturally China and Pakistan), are Iran, the United Arab Emirates and the United States.
India is the immediate and most affected party as the Sino-Pak move would give an unprecedented strategic depth to Pakistan which this country has always desired but never got – developing a port far away from the Indian military reach to give Pakistani forces valuable additional response time in case of a military conflict.
Disturbingly, Chinese control of Gwadar provides China a key listening post to observe the Indian naval activities around the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Adan.
The Gwadar port, if fully operationalised, will wean Pakistan away from near-total dependence on Karachi, which is much closer to India and hence within the Indian military’s strike range.
The Indian Navy had performed a stellar role during the 1971 India-Pakistan War and strait-jacketed Karachi. Pakistan’s trade is 95% through the
sea, most of which was facilitated through the Karachi port alone. Even today Pakistan is dependent on Karachi port for as much as 68% as far as its exports and imports are concerned. But this will change significantly once the Pakistanis have a fall back option in an alternate port like Gwadar, a warm water port in the Arabian Sea far away from the Indian mainland. Gwadar is 400 kms away from India which will inevitably give Pakistanis crucial time for military response in case of a military conflict with India.
For Iran, the development would be a severe setback as it would be a rival to two of its main ports – Chabahar and Bandar Abbas. Gwadar would pose a serious challenge to Iran’s near-monopoly to serve as an important link for landlocked Central Asian states to world markets.
Though Ali Akbar Walaiti, top foreign policy aide of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and also a former foreign minister, went on record as saying in Quetta last week that his country is not trying to sabotage the Gwadar port development and maintained that Tehran supported Pakistan’s decisions, his averments should be taken with a pinch of salt.
For the United Arab Emirates too Gwadar becoming operational will be bad news. This is one bit of strategic input which Pakistan has either ignored or undermined in its haste to get the Chinese on board in controlling day-to-day operations of the Gwadar port. The UAE, considered friendly to Pakistan, considers Pakistan a rival when it comes to the Gwadar port.
The UAE has traditionally looked at the Gwadar project, since its infancy almost a decade ago, as a project which will inevitably undermine UAE’s commercial interests by taking trans-shipment business away from the port of Dubai. Incidentally, UAE is also one of the financiers of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA).
According to WikiLeaks, former chief of Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), while briefing Pakistani parliamentarians, claimed that India and the UAE were funding and arming the Baloch. Informatively, the infamous Shamsi Air Base in Balochistan, from where the US has been operating drones, was built by UAE Sheikhs and handed over to the US.
The Chinese presence in Gwadar would be a serious threat to the US Fifth Fleet in the Middle East. Besides, the development is a red rag to America’s strategic and energy security interests as the Chinese presence in Gwadar would enable Beijing to pose an interception threat to the strategic oil trade to the Far East and Europe as Gwadar is very close to the Hormuz Strait, the international water body from which 13 million barrels of oil is transported every day.
Besides, the Chinese presence in Gwadar will make the US vulnerable militarily as it will serve as a listening post for the Americans. A Chinese-controlled Gwadar port will enable the Chinese to intercept military communications from the US military bases on the Arabian Peninsula.
In the event of a military conflict, Gwadar can serve as an effective alternate route for the Chinese trade in the Indian Ocean and to West Asia if Malacca Strait is blocked by the US. Ensconced in Gwadar, China can monitor the sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf as about 60% of Chinese energy requirements come from the Persian Gulf and transit along this sea-lane.
Strategic Leverage for China
For China, Gwadar port will be a long-term strategic dream comes true, only if the unfolding events were to play to the Chinese script which is obviously not in the Beijing’s hands. It will give China a land-based oil supply port that is not controlled by superior US naval power.
The biggest strategic leverage that operational control over Gwadar port affords to China is that it gives China a land-based oil supply port that is not controlled by the superior US naval power. Besides, it would become a vital cog in the planned Pakistan-China energy corridor as it would bring back to life China’s old idea, abandoned in 2009 because of volatile security situation in Balochistan, of constructing an oil refinery in Gwadar with a total capacity of close to 20 million tonnes per year.
China plans to link the proposed Gwadar refinery to Kashghar in western China by pipeline which help it avoid the Strait of Malacca and the dangerous maritime routes through the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Yellow Sea.
China's eastern seaboard ports are 3,500 kilometres away from Kashgar. In comparison, the distance from Kashgar to Gwadar is only 1,500 kilometres. Thus Gwadar would give western China the much-needed access to the sea. This would mean that through the trump card called Gwadar, China would be able to have crude oil imports from Iran, the Gulf and Africa transported overland to north-west China.
An additional bonus for China would be that Gwadar will also enable maneuvering capability in the Indian Ocean and a naval presence in the Indian Ocean sea lanes though China is not an Indian Ocean power.
Dangers Ahead for China
China would be making a large number of enemies, overt and covert, through their Gwadar act. These actors will inevitably be thirsting for the Chinese blood through state or non-state means.
Ironically, Gwadar’s proximity and planned linkage to Kashgar is a potential high-risk gamble for China. Kashgar is situated in Xinjiang, China’s biggest but most sparsely populated administrative region. The Muslim-dominated Xinjiang is China’s Achilles’ heel, given the fact that it is already a breeding ground for jihadist forces.
By taking over the operational control of Gwadar port, China may have actually disturbed a beehive. Not unlike the American adventurist foreign policies all over the globe in the past decades, China may have taken the first step towards importing other nation’s domestic problems.
The fiercely separatist Balochs, who already see the Chinese as a thorn in their flesh ever since Beijing started its involvement with the Gwadar project about a decade ago, may now come out openly against the Chinese. This could mean a self goal for the Chinese. They have taken over a larger responsibility in Gwadar port with the hope of connecting it to Kashgar (Xinjiang) to reap economic dividends. But they may actually end up in making their soft underbelly called Xinjiang more vulnerable to the jihadist threat.
The Chinese take-over of Pakistan’s Gwadar port may well be a strategic game changer; but only time will tell for whom the bell tolls.
For the time being, be prepared for a spurt in violence in Balochistan, the fires of which would initially be singing Pakistan but then China won’t be far beyond.
The writer is a journalist-author and a strategic affairs analyst who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.