Gwadar has geostrategic significance as it lies on the conduit of three most commercially important regions of the world. Gwadar has geostrategic significance as it lies on the conduit of three most commercially important regions of the world. The oil rich Middle East, Central Asia bestowed with natural resources, and South Asia having the potential for growth, for this century.
The transfer of project operations to China caught attention of the international media and triggered discourse on the economic and strategic shift that the presence of China tends to induce in one of the world’s major maritime zones. Naturally, it raised concerns of major stakeholders in the Indian Ocean, particularly Pakistan’s eastern neighbour, India, and the United States.
It was March 2002, when the groundbreaking of Gwadar Port marked the execution of the decades-old plan of Pakistan to build a deepwater seaport (Panamax port) at its coastline in Balochistan province. Highlighting the paramount geo-economic and geostrategic significance of the port, the then president Pervez Musharraf said:
‘The Gwadar port shall provide modern, up-to-date facilities for cargo vessels in line with modern ports. The coastal highway which is also being constructed simultaneously with the port, will provide a very healthy linkage between Karachi and Gwadar ports. If we see this whole region, it is like a funnel. The top of the funnel is this wide area of Central Asia and also China’s western region. And this funnel gets narrowed on through Afghanistan and in Pakistan northern areas into Pakistan and goes through Pakistan and the end of this funnel is Gwadar port. So this funnel, futuristically, is the future economic funnel of this whole region. All the top of this funnel, the broad top of the funnel, anything going into it or out of it, Pakistan and Gwadar port provides the real input, the inlet and the outlet into it. There is no doubt that Gwadar port, when operational, will play the role of a regional hub for trade and commercial activity.’
The port was established with the help of a Chinese construction company and the first phase of the project was completed with initial investment of 248 million dollars in a record time of four years. After completion of the first phase of the project, the operational contract was given to the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) through open bidding in 2007. Owing to some unforeseen reasons, the PSA expressed reservations on investing the agreed amount in five years time. Also, it failed to operationalize the port as expected and agreed in the contract. Later on, Pakistan offered the operational contract to China which the latter rejected.
With the changing dynamics of regional politics and the global shift that has taken places during past couple of years, apparently, three key factors compelled China to opt for taking the operational command of the Gwadar port. First, the increasing US influence in the Asia-Pacific poses considerable economic and strategic challenges to China. Second, Gwadar port provides China with an alternative route and eases its reliance on Strait of Malacca. Third, the expected withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan by 2014 is going to provide other countries a room for economic ventures Afghanistan as well as the Central Asian Republics.
Criticism and apprehensions apart, economically, the port is expected to be the hub of trade and commerce in the region as it holds tremendous opportunities to boost economic prospects and activity in Pakistan. Pakistan has a coastline of about 1100 km along the shores of Arabian Sea. Total annual trade of Pakistan is about 38 million tonnes out of which 95 per cent takes place through sea. According to projected estimates, Gwadar port will exponentially increase the shipping activity in other ports (Karachi port and Ports Qasim) as well. However, Baloch nationalists have expressed reservations and has severely criticised the decision to provide China access to the Gwadar port. They view it as an unlawful exploitation of the resources and depriving people of Balochistan of their own economic asset. Also, they are sceptical of China’s plans believing it would lead to further militarization of the region.
While analysing the future of Balochistan with reference to Gwadar port, Robert D. Kaplan, an American Geopolitical analyst stated:
‘One key to its (Balochistan) fate is the future of Gwadar, a strategic port whose development will either unlock the riches of Central Asia, or plunge Pakistan into a savage, and potentially terminal, civil war.’
From a geostrategic perspective, Pakistan will have a strategic depth and access to the finest naval facilities. It may also enjoy greater maritime interaction with the Middle East countries as well. The Chinese naval presence may also meliorate Pakistan’s coastal defence. It will also give Pakistan an edge over India, economically and strategically.
Along with opportunities, a number of challenges and risks are also involved in the Gwadar port project for both Pakistan and China. Baloch nationalists’ stance towards the project and the continued unrest in Balochistan needs to be dealt with carefully and sensitively. China, while expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean, may also come across the problem of distance for shipping activity. The unrest in Balochistan may also pose some security-related risks and challenges to development activity in Gwadar. Moreover, China needs to be cautious and conscious of its internal economic and political weaknesses which, at certain point, may cause trouble to its greater interests in the Indian Ocean.
As the Gwadar port project will require time to be fully functional, speculations and predictions will keep circulating and resonating in the media and policy circles of major stakeholders. Nevertheless, the port is destined to change the future course of commercial activity in the region.