Port In A Storm

Quite what is going on with Gwadar, the Pakistani blue-water port and natural-gas terminal that China may or may not have been asked to run and develop as a naval base during Pakistan prime minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani’s recent visit to Beijing?

This Bystander noted last year that China is already developing a deep-water port and naval base at Gwadar, which is on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran, along with other strategic transport and energy links in Pakistan, which, to Beijing’s eyes, looks a lot like a corridor from the high plateau of China’s western reaches to the shores of the Arabian Sea and thus shipping routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

First, the Financial Times reported that Gilani had asked the Chinese to take over running the port (which at least everyone agrees the Chinese helped build and are now helping expand) when the Singapore Port Authority’s management contract expires (though that is not until at least 2027). He was also reported to have asked Beijing to build a naval base. Then, Pakistan’s Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar said China had agreed to take over running of the port. Now, the foreign ministry says the issue, as it understands, wasn’t touched upon during Gilani’s visit.

The foreign ministry’s understanding of China’s international affairs often does not run as broadly as is customary with other nation’s foreign ministries, especially in military and security matters. It could well be the case that there were conversations that it knew nothing about. It could also be the case that the ministry has no particular interest in China being seen to be nestling even closer to Pakistan and so complicate further its relations with the U.S. and India at a sensitive time. Confirmation of what would be China’s first overseas naval base wouldn’t do anything to reassure those in Washington, Delhi and Southeast Asia’s capitals who are nervous enough of Beijing’s growing abilities to project regional power. Hence foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu playing a straight bat of carefully worded plausible deniability.

To answer our own question, the expansion of the port’s deep-water facilities and development of a base for the Pakistan navy are to all intents and purposes the same project, which China is already working on and helping to pay for. Expanding the naval base to accommodate the PLA-Navy, which needs a base to support its anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and generally to secure sea lanes from the Middle East used by oil tankers and Chinese-flagged merchant shipping, isn’t much of a stretch. There wouldn’t really be anything much to ask.

Footnote: There is stiff local opposition in Balochistan to the Pakistan government’s plans for Gwadar. Last week, construction work on a new international airport there had to be stopped because of what was described as a worsening security situation. A senior official from the Civil Aviation Authority told the defense committee of Pakistan’s Senate that “the law and order situation as well as continuous resistance by locals in the acquisition of land has halted work at the [airport]”. The airport is now unlikely to be completed by the end of this year as planned. As a historical aside, Gwadar was an Omani enclave that Pakistan bought in 1958. Some residents still harbor feelings of being “colonized” by Karachi. Might as well have two foreign navies there as one.

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