Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
In Pakistan’s Gwadar port, Chinese whispers grow
First, China helped develop Pakistan’s Gwadar port from scratch on the Baluchistan coast to take the pressure off the country’s main port of Karachi, a few hundred miles to the east. Now Pakistan’s defence minister has said that it would like its long-time ally to build a naval base at Gwadar, which sits on the doorstep of Gulf shipping lanes, less than 200 kms from the mouth of the Straits of Hormuz.
China, which provided more than 80 percent of the port’s $248 million development cost, has moved quickly to distance itself from Pakistani Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar’s remarks about a naval base in Gwadar. The foreign ministry said China was not aware of any such proposal.
While China has stood by Pakistan in its hour of embarrassment following the discovery of Osama bin Laden living in relative comfort in a garrison town, it might be squirming a bit at its ally’s rather aggressive portrayal of their ties. The last thing it needs is to trigger off another round of alarm bells in the region about its big power objectives in the Indian Ocean, especially when it is not ready yet.
As Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times this week (behind a paywall) the Chinese may be wincing at the appearance of the story about building a military base on the Pakistani coast in the Western press “because it will heighten the perception that China is overplaying its hand in the Pacific; an idea that has helped America to strengthen its military alliances across the region.”
The spectre of Chinese ships including perhaps the aircraft carrier that is under development and submarines operating from Gwadar is sure to feed insecurities in the region, drive countries to ramp up military spending and deepen alliances.
India, already worried about an increasingly assertive China, will be sufficently alarmed to pour more funds into its navy besides deepen ties with the United States and of late Japan to balance its interests in the region. Already the Indian Defence Minister A. K. Antony has expressed concern about the growing defence ties between China and Pakistan.
So if China wanted to bide its time and build its capabilities as Deng Xiaoping told policymakers, the unveiling of its long-term ambitions in the Indian Ocean by Pakistani officials doesn’t sound like the best way of going about it.
It’s not that Beijing does not have strategic objectives as it tightens its embrace of Pakistan, especially when the neighbour is struggling with multiple crises of a deadly Islamist militancy, economic meltdown and international pressure to clean up parts of the security establishment tied to militant networks.
Gwadar port was, from the beginning, conceived to have a military role, as the intelligence site NightWatch points out. Forty years ago, it was a fishing village with a small port in a sheltered, deep water natural harbour with two bays. During the 1971 war with India, the Pakistani navy moved its ships from Karachi to Gwadar to avoid destruction by the Indian navy. With the vulnerability of Karachi exposed during the war, successive Pakistani governments worked to build Gwadar, tucked further away from the reach of Indian navy, as an alternative. ”Since 1993 Pakistani governments have worked to develop Gwadar as a planned, modern, deep water port and city, as well as a “sensitive defense zone”, NightWatch said.
It said that reports that Chinese were building a base for its navy were a mischaracterisation. What is more likely is that Pakistan is building or will build a naval base at the port, probably with Chinese assistance, and it will host the Chinese navy as well. ”Chinese naval ships will call at Gwadar when the base is complete, as they do at Karachi. However, the base will be a Pakistan Navy base,” NightWatch said.
Some of the more nationalist elements in China are more open about their country’s long-term ambitions. An opinion piece in The Global Times newspaper, which is known to take aggressive postures, said Western countries and India were again playing up the “China threat theory” following the report about a naval base at Gwadar port which Beijing had denied. China at this point had internal issues to tackle rather than focus on the military alone, Huanqiu Shibao wrote. Over the longer term however, if China were to play a bigger role in Asia Pacific and indeed on the international stage, as many countries have repeatedly urged it to, Beijing would have to have overseas military bases. Just as China is expanding economic and cultural ties with the rest of the world, it will also be building military relations with countries. A greater Chinese security role will help protect trade routes from pirates and terrorists, the author argued.
“Thus, if the world really wants China to take more responsibilities in Asia-Pacific region and around the world, it should allow China to participate in international military co-operations and understand the need of China to set up overseas military bases.”