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Gwadar and ‘the great game’

By Taj M. Khattak

It is perhaps a less known fact that when President Richard Nixon visited Pakistan in 1973, Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto sought US help to construct a new port at Gwadar, and reportedly offered the US Navy use of the facility. The US, of course, was not interested as mere 70 kilometres to the west lay Chahbahar, a naval base, a full-fledged cantonment for a division’s strength force and a 12,000 feet long runway operating fighter bombers, long-range reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling tankers – with the Shah of Iran playing the US policeman overlooking the Indian Ocean south up to eight degree latitude. China later signed on the project four months after the US attacked Afghanistan.

Four decades later, the handing over of this strategically located port to China by another Pakistan Peoples Party-led government is, therefore, an important development as it may have placed Gwadar on the matrix of intense geo-strategic competition. The port has the potential to act as a catalyst for such projects as the trans-shipment of bulk cargo, oil storage, refinery, petrochemicals, export processing and industrial zones, export of minerals and ship repair industry. When fully functional, it has the potential to benefit many neighbouring and landlocked counties in the region in one way or the other.

India was quick to react, calling it a matter of concern for reasons not too difficult to understand as the China-Pakistan naval synergy in Gwadar, while improving their own energy security situation, can also pose problems for India’s sea lines of communications. This can turn into a nightmare if the US thins out its presence in Bahrain due to its economy or reduced dependence on Gulf oil if there is greater credibility in reports about its self-sufficiency in this century.

While Gwadar gives access to China into the Indian Ocean, Chahbahar – where India is investing generously – gives access to India into Afghanistan. Normally, it is the weaker country that gets concerned when a stronger country adds to its national power, but it seems to be an established pattern now that whatever is in Pakistan’s interest is a matter of concern for India.

India was never unaware of the significance of Gwadar in the global power play and therefore came up with a two-ponged strategy: a) by constructing a sprawling naval base at Karwar south of Goa on the western springboard of the Indian Ocean and b) investment in Chahbahar to provide India access to Afghanistan via the Indian Ocean. The first phase of the Karwar base was completed in 2005 at a cost of US $8 billion while India, Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to give Indian goods destined for Central Asia and Afghanistan preferential treatment and tariff concessions at Chah Bahar.

India and China are locked in an intense competition astride the energy highway of the 21st century in Chahbahar and Gwadar. India is in the process of constructing the Chahbahar-Milak-Zaranj-Dilaram road from Iran to Afghanistan, while the 213 kilometres long Zaranj-Dilaram section in Afghanistan’s Nimroz province has already been completed.

It is also assisting Iran in upgrading the Chahbahar-Milak rail track. For Iran, a well developed rail/road infrastructure from Chahbahar stretching to the Afghanistan border translates into greater influence in Afghanistan over Shia and non-Pakhtun ethnic groups and is an added political dividend in its relations with Pakistan and the US.

To exert further pressure on China on the Hormuz to Malacca straits oil route, India is accelerating construction of a high-tech naval base at Rambilli west of Visakhapatnam on its eastern coast which will include underground berths for nuclear weapons armed submarines. The force levels at the Eastern Naval Command (ENC) headquartered at Visakhapatnam have already been enhanced where at least 50 warships, including an amphibious landing ship and nuclear submarines, are based. Likewise, the tri-services Andaman and Nicobar Commands (ANC) has been bolstered from where high-tech IAF aircraft occasionally break the sound barrier over the narrow Malacca Strait to announce their arrival. The Indo-US strategic relationship and the US pivot to the east only add to the concerns of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean.

While other facilities at Myanmar and Sri Lanka can help China towards increased energy security, it is Gwadar – due to its geographical location – that can free oil-thirsty China from security concerns over a longer southern transportation route as it vies with the US for number one economy by end of this century. Direct access to the Indian Ocean through Gwadar would also give China a strategic post of observation and a key location for its navy, whose ships recently participated in a multination exercise in the waters south of Gwadar.

China Central Television (CCTV) recently announced the acquisition of four diesel electric submarines to add to its fleet of 65 subsurface vessels and two squadrons of advanced multi-role fighters from Russia. The deal, the first major purchase in a decade, was later denied by Russian news agency Itar-Tass. Whatever the truth, China may have executed its own ‘pivot’ by coming closer to Russia in order to counterbalance US interests in Asia.

Certain western capitals that tow US foreign policy understand this great game well and extend hospitality to Baloch nationalist politicians, as do the US senators who sponsor resolutions in their senate, sidestepping the legally vexing question of how Nasir Khan I could, in the first place, ‘grant’ Gwadar to Al Bu Sai’d of Muscat who was a ‘refugee’ in the territory of the Khan of Kalat in the 18th century – an act for which Pakistan had to pay $3 million nearly a century later.

As part of hinterland infrastructural development, China has is interested in the construction of Gwadar to Nawabshah and upgrading the Karakorum Highway to connect China’s Xinjiang region with Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region. In 2006, a memorandum of understanding was signed between both countries to upgrade this road and connect Kashgar and Abbottabad.

President Asif Ali Zardari and China’s President Hu Jintao are believed to have discussed a 3,000 kilometres rail line between Gwadar and Kashgar in July 2010. The cost would be enormous, up to US $30 million per kilometre in the highest mountains but this kind of money will have to be found if the Gwadar-China connection is to become the Suez Canal of the 21st century as described by some analysts.

But we also need to understand that, while Pak-China friendship is higher than the Himalayas and deeper than the Indian Ocean, the Chinese are not careless with their money and will invest only if they see any dividends. We, therefore, have to create the right conditions in Balochistan for such ambitious projects to take off so as to contend with Indo-US challenges in the region.

The successive governments in Pakistan have not paid due attention to the ports and shipping sector and almost every political party in power has managed it more for personal gains than national interest. As we stand to almost certainly usher in another corrupt government, there is unlikely to be sufficient funding for any robust defence of our maritime interests. The least we can do then is improve our energy security through Gwadar so that the county can put up a spirited defence should the need arise.

The 30,000-odd navy personnel and a few thousand merchant mariners are not enough to engage the national imagination. The strategic location of Gwadar be as it may, we shall not be able to draw the fullest advantage from it unless there is a larger national orientation towards the other ‘great game’ that is being played on the ocean in the south.

The writer is a retired vice-admiral and former vice-chief of the naval staff. Email: tajkhattak@ymail.com

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