Pakistan continues to consider China as an “all-weather friend”, ready to stand by it in the hours of crisis. In keeping with this perception and in the context of the widespread humiliation and embarrassment suffered by Pakistan’s political establishment and defence set-up following the elimination of the terror kingpin, Osama bin Laden, from his hideout in the cantonment town of Abbotabad, China expressed its solidarity with Pakistan. Not surprisingly then Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani made a four day official visit to Beijing in the second half of May this year. As political commentators put it, this visit was perhaps meant to show the world, especially the US that Pakistan was willing to make a steady shift from the US strategic orbit to China.
The fall-out of Gilani’s visit to China was far from salutatory. In a way, it proved controversial and embarrassing for Pakistan. China was quick to contradict the statement of Pakistan’s Defence Minister Ahmad Mukhtar—reported widely in the Pakistani media—that a proposal to involve China in the operation of the strategically located Gwadar port in Balochistan province was discussed during Gilani’s Beijing visit. Mukhtar also overstepped his brief with the statement that China could help Pakistan in building a naval base in Gwadar. Reacting to this observation, the pro-Beijing English language daily Global Times said, “Beijing recently denied a rumour that Pakistan government invited it to build a naval base at the port of Gwadar. But this does not stop some of the western countries and India, China’s regional competitors playing with the so-called China threat theory”.
Mukhtar’s statement that China was to assist in building a naval base has attracted widespread international attention with strategic analysts perceiving the latest move a part of China’s so called “string of pearls” policy. China, which already has a strong presence in Myanamar and Sri Lanka, both in India’s neighbourhood, could have strengthened its maritime presence in the Arabian Sea and posed a threat to India in the long run by building a naval base in Gwadar. But then at this moment, China seems to be far from keen to rub India on the wrong side. But this is perhaps only one of the reasons for Chinese reluctance to join hands with Pakistan to build a naval base at Gwadar.
However, Pakistan on its part has been keen on tapping the potentials of Gwadar, located 180 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz to strengthen its link up with China, by a plan to put in place a pipeline to carry crude oil sourced from West Asia to Xinjiang region. Such an oil transportation strategy would help reduce freight costs and also insulate Chinese oil imports from interdiction by sea pirates and hostile forces in the event of a conflict. Of course, for long, it has been the quest of Chinese strategic planners to support infrastructure development in a friendly Pakistan that would provide China a ready access to the Arabian sea and beyond. Clearly and apparently, Gwadar has been considered the signature project for expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean region.
There is no denying the fact that Gwadar, located about 460-kms west of the thriving metropolis of Karachi, is a warm water deep sea port, could have easily provided a spring board for China to expand its influence over the Arabian sea and Indian ocean stretch. Of course, China has already made it clear that Gwadar’s strategic value is no less than that of the Karkoram highway. In fact, former Indian Naval Chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta had expressed his concern over a naval base in Gwadar posing a threat to India particularly in the context of Indian energy security.
Nevertheless, China, which has contributed more than 80 per cent of the developmental cost of Gwadar port estimated at US $248-million, probably has no intention in offending the US whose forces are already active, not only in Pakistan but also in neighbouring Afghanistan. On a more practical plane, China is not willing to risk its resources and manpower for developing Gwadar on account of its location in Balochistan where the forces of secession are strong and gaining ground. The fiercely independent Baloch tribals are dead set against Chinese “investment and involvement” in Balochistan at the behest of the “Punjabi dominated Government in Islamabad”. The Balochis have already expressed their strong resentment over the move to bring in Chinese investment to develop copper and gold mines.
China has every reason to fear Gwadar falling prey to militant attacks much the same way Mehran naval air base near Karachi was held hostage by Taliban extremists. In fact, the ongoing Balochi separatist movement highlighted by a no holds barred attacks on vital industrial installations including gas pipelines was the primary reason behind the development of Gwadar port into an economically viable entity.
As it is, several Chinese technicians have died in attacks mounted by radical Baloch separatists around Gwadar. Perhaps this explains in part why China pulled out of a project for a refinery at Gwadar. China would certainly not like to get bogged down in a savage insurgency such as that which have hamstrung US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. China is far from ready for a premature geo-strategic confrontation and the prospect of becoming a target of the rebellious local population.
Finally, Gwadar port has, till now proved to be an economically unviable entity. The only way to boost the prospects of Gwadar is to divert the cargo from Karachi. And the Beijing government is not foolish enough to commit resources to a failed project. No wonder China dropped Gwadar like a hot potato.
Radhakrishna Rao is a freelancer specializing in defence and aerospace issues
(The views expressed in the article are that of the author and do not represent the views of the editorial committee or the centre for land warfare studies).