The Pakistani Defence Minister Ahmed Mukhtar has affirmed that Pakistan is appreciative of China’s willingness to operate Gwadar port, and is also keen to see that ‘a naval base is constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan.’ Predictably, the remarks attracted international attention. They reinforced existing views among foreign commentators, who believe that China has intentions to build a series of naval bases in the Indian Ocean, which have been referred to as the “string of pearls”. Nonetheless, it should be equally emphasised that any analysis of Gwadar should be seen as a microcosm of China’s wider relations and interests with Pakistan and the region, which often tend to be understated.
In response to Minister Mukhtar’s comments, China was quick to issue a statement denying that it has any interest in setting up a naval base at Gwadar. ‘China and Pakistan are friendly neighbours engaged in extensive co-operation across the board. As for the co-operation project you mentioned, I have not heard about it,’ said a senior Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson. Regardless of China’s denial, controversy associated with Gwadar and China’s naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean, is likely to be sustained for many years to come.
The story of Gwadar is an interesting one and, much like the other Chinese-funded and -built ports in Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka, has attracted a lot of commentary about its intended function. While it is indeed possible that, in the longer term, China may have ambitions to use the port as a base for its warships to operate in the western Indian Ocean, this scenario has yet to materialise, and quite possibly may not eventuate at all.
Outside the potential for naval use, Pakistan’s rationale to use Gwadar as a hub and link to the wider region appears to have been the key determinant that led to its construction, as once stated by Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz:
‘This can also be a potential energy port for the region. We are also looking at Gwadar as a major refining point, as it is located near the largest hydrocarbon reserves of the world. The Gwadar port will be linked to Central Asian republics, besides the Coastal Highway, the Indus Highway and the Karachi Coastal Highway. A railway link with the entire country is also being considered.’
Indeed, China’s interest in Gwadar is a confluence of strategic and economic considerations. This is demonstrated by China’s and Pakistan’s interests in linking the port to China’s south-western border. Strategically, Gwadar which is approximately 2,500 kilometres from China’s south-western border, offers China direct access to the Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
Similarly, by using Pakistan as a corridor to the Indian Ocean, China has the opportunity to stimulate trade and development in one of its largely underdeveloped border regions. To link Gwadar to China, both countries have committed to building road and rail projects, such as the widening and upgrade of the Karakoram Highway, to facilitate enhanced connectivity and trade.
China may not immediately benefit from the Gwadar facility, due to either Pakistan’s political instability or the costs related to the project itself. Its involvement is perhaps more indicative of its intention to strengthening its long-term interests in Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan is an important strategic ally in facilitating China’s interests throughout the Muslim world, and an equally important partner in its perennial fight against Uighur secessionists, who have the potential to destabilise China’s interests throughout the region.
Such variables would indicate that, if Pakistan is keen for China to set up a naval base at Gwadar, China may hold a different view on the matter, even if it finds the proposal attractive. Setting up a naval base in Gwadar is likely to further polarise China’s relations with the US and India, a situation that China is unlikely to want in the near term.
In addition, while many observers point to the security of sea lanes being a point of serious concern for China, it is equally possible that China, for the time being, is content for the US, India and the West to underwrite the hugely expensive exercises of maintaining large naval forces in the Indian Ocean to ensure the security of sea lanes.
As long as it is not detrimental to China’s interests, maintaining the status quo at this stage is likely to save Beijing from committing its resources, which are being used more shrewdly elsewhere to strengthen its growing soft-power influence in the region.
FDI Senior Analyst