Tag Archives: Gwadar

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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A Pipeline Called Pakistan

To Beijing, Pakistan looks a lot like a corridor from the high plateau of China’s western reaches to the blue water ports of the Arabian Sea and thus access to shipping routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. The distance is relatively short, less than 1,500 kilometers as the crow flies, but at the northern end the terrain is difficult, the weather harsh, borders unsettled and security uncertain. Road and rail links are patchy, particularly north of Pakistan’s capital Islamabad. Nor is there yet a motorway connecting the capital to the southern port city of Karachi, let alone to Gwadar on the Gulf of Oman close to the border with Iran and where China is developing a deep-water port and naval base. That is why additional Chinese investment in Pakistan’s N-35 highway, the Karakoram Highway, may prove to be the most significant of the deals announced during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to the country.

The highway (left) links Hasan Abdal, on the Peshwar-Rawlpindi motorway in the northern Punjab some 40 kilometers west of Islamabad, to Kashgar in Xinjiang via the Khunjerab Pass. Started in 1959 and not completed until 1986, the road snakes for 1,300 kilometers (two-thirds of it in Pakistan) over some of the highest paved road in the world. It makes for a stunningly beautiful trip across the Karakoram mountains along one of the branches of the Old Silk Road, but it is less splendid as a commercial artery. It is mainly two lanes and impassable for parts of the year because of either winter snows or summer monsoon; the border crossing is closed for a third of the year.

The two countries agreed in 2006 to to triple its width and upgrade it so it can take heavy trucks in all weathers. The long-term plans call for the Karakoram Highway to be linked to Gwadar by rail; Chinese investment is funding a rail connection from the port to Rawalpindi. Separately, a feasibility study is underway for the rail link to go all the way through to Kashgar, following the Karakoram Highway from Havelian, a town on the N-35 at the northern edge of Pakistan’s existing rail network. At Kashgar, it would connect to the Chinese rail network at its most westerly point.

There are also plans to run a parallel oil pipeline from Gwadar into Xinjiang. Before then trucks carrying natural gas bound for western China may be rumbling up the roads of the Indus valley, the first part of their journey being on the $200 million coastal highway between Gwadar and Karachi that Beijing is paying to build. Gwadar will also be a terminal for the proposed natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, intended originally to give Central Asian states access to European markets without going through Russia, but now seemingly another of the web of links connecting Central Asia’s natural resources with western China.

There are geo-political reasons beyond the purely commercial for Beijing’s relationship with Islamabad, reflected in the other deals struck during Wen’s visit and in the delicate dance China is engaged in with India. It also gives Pakistan an alternative to its uneasy relationship with the U.S. and thus Beijing another front to its own complicated relationship with Washington. But if Pakistan is to be an energy pipeline for China, it also underlines Beijing’s obsession about separatistism in its western reaches.

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