United States Interests in Gwadar Port

Termination of the Cold War ended a pretext of heavy US naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

China is helping Pakistan in building this port as well as a host of associated projects such as railroad links, industrial complexes, etc. India and Iran are raising eyebrows over the increased Chinese presence, which is also attracting the attention of the US. Regionally, India and Pakistan are involved in an intense security dilemma and Iran is struggling to assert its influence as a regional power broker. Natural resources of Central Asia can only find their way to the Gwadar port through Afghanistan, which is in a state of persistent instability for the last many decades. An environment of suspicion has already started fermenting in policy making circles of all the concerned states due to increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean, and it could particularly blow out of proportion if it turns out to be a prelude to a military presence.

In the aftermath of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), stemming from 9/11 incidents involving a majority of the terrorists from Middle Eastern countries and their heavy crackdown, American support is dwindling in the Middle East countries. The US, due to its strategic interests, is maintaining a heavy military presence in the area. The requirement of a base in close proximity to the Persian Gulf may arise if the US decided to pull out its forces from the Middle East. In this context, one would not rule out the US’s desire to have military basing rights at the Gwadar port, as there are abundant occasions of extending such facilities by Islamabad in the past. This would, however, surely trigger uproar in Chinese circles and Pakistan’s time tested entente cordiale and strategic partnership could be put to an extreme test. Additionally, such an eventuality will put Pakistan in a very odd situation Middle Eastern countries.

Can the Gwadar port project harness enough US attention to stimulate its interest in keeping the region stable? Substantially improved capacity of the US to project power confirms its intentions to take a more active role in the affairs of this region. Although the termination of the Cold War ended a pretext of heavy US naval presence in the Indian Ocean, American policy makers were still ‘preparing for two major theater wars (MTWs) in Northeast Asia and the Persian Gulf.’ That is why, in May 1997, in the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the Navy retained its 12 Carrier Battle Groups and 12 Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs). US academia has its own ambitions, Koburger, Jr., in his book Sea Power in the Twenty-First Century, projected that by 2021, the US Navy should have seven super carriers plus reserves and a sealift capability of 12 Marine Expeditionary Units.

The US has an interest in keeping the oceans open to all, which is evident from the presence of, at the minimum, US Middle East Force in the Persian Gulf since 1949.
 
The US has an interest in keeping the oceans open to all, which is evident from the presence of, at the minimum, US Middle East Force in the Persian Gulf since 1949. In 1992, the Pentagon drafted a new grand strategy designed to preserve unipolarity by preventing the emergence of a global rival. Although the strategy never saw approval at the time due to severe internal resistance, it did generate discussions across the board by academia as well as different states. The focus being, is the unipolar world stable? Interest in this discussion is to elucidate the US role in the Indian Ocean. Charles Krauthammer argued that unipolarity is durable and peaceful, but the chief threat is Washington’s failure to do enough. What is the US required to do in this area and why? It is talked about more often than not that China and the US are destined to be adversaries as China’s power grows. Both states so far, however, have shown restraint and avoided situations that can destabilise the area.In the Middle East, the US main ally, Saudi Arabia, has 261 billion barrels of proven oil reserves (more than one/fourth of the world total) and up to 1 trillion barrels of ultimately recoverable oil. Shortly after the Arab oil embargo in 1973-74, the US (and other Western countries) created the Strategic Petroleum Reserves (SPR) as the nation’s first line of defense in case of an oil crisis. In November 2001, former President Bush made an unprecedented decision to fill the SPR to its full capacity of 700 million barrels. And in 2001, the US imported 54 per cent of its oil requirements, out of which 30 per cent came from the Persian Gulf region. The US economic prosperity and strategic security, therefore, depends on an uninterrupted supply of oil.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks against the US have created a significant challenge to the long-term partnership between Washington and Riyadh. Trickling control over the Middle Eastern region would also mean loosening its grip over the dynamics of the region. For this reason, the US desires a strategic alternative of Middle Eastern oil, and natural resources of CARs are bound to become a strategic alternate of the US oil supply. Pakistan’s Gwadar port is one of the probable sites to provide an outlet to CARs natural resources, via Afghanistan. Only a few days before the 9/11 attack, the US Energy Information Administration documented Afghanistan’s strategic ‘geographical position as a potential transit route for oil and natural gas exports from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea. American intervention into Afghanistan in pursuit of suspected terrorists has only further complicated an already delicate regional balance.Hopes of keeping economic interests alive nevertheless remained alive even after US operations in Afghanistan, as The New York Times reported on December 15, 2002 that, ‘The State Department is exploring the potential for post-Taliban energy projects in the region.’ The future of Afghanistan will determine the future of the US influence over the routing of CAR resources through this area. Circumstances after the unfortunate September 11 attacks not only brought an ‘old ally’ (Pakistan) back into its camp, but also suited its alternate strategic oil supply plans. Although a reasonable portion of US oil tycoons support CARs oil supply through Iran, the policy goals oppose the building of a pipeline that transits ‘energy competitor’ Iran, or otherwise gives it undue influence over the region.Desire for a strategic alternate of oil aside, the indications of wearing American commitment in the Middle East does not necessarily indicate lowering of its resolve in the area as the Pentagon is becoming increasingly interested in the concept of mobile offshore bases for deployment in the Persian Gulf, to ensure the US military access to critical regions in the future. Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean areas are, therefore, likely to remain the priority of US policy makers for the foreseeable future. Naval presence is likely to increase even further due to increased discontentment in Middle Eastern countries and declining acceptance of US ground forces. This presence will have a direct bearing on the Gwadar port project, and it ought to have positive effects.In the same context, one would not rule out the US desire to have military basing rights at the Gwadar port, as there are abundant occasions of extending such facilities by Islamabad. This would, however, surely trigger uproar in Chinese circles and Pakistan’s time tested entente cordiale and strategic partnership could be put to an extreme test. Additionally, such an eventuality will put Pakistan in very odd situation Middle Eastern countries. Chinese probable response to such a request will be discussed in subsequent paragraphs.

As far as the US is concerned, China has not replaced Russia as a significant global threat. China, nonetheless, is likely to be a major American foreign policy problem of the 21st century and the evidence suggests that China will probably be powerful enough to challenge America’s preferred order in Asia.
 
Next, one would discuss Washington’s potential response if China increases its military presence in the Indian Ocean. The US view of the threat and the stakes in the Indian Ocean, particularly the Persian Gulf, has its source in misunderstanding of the events of the 1970s; that of a severe oil supply crisis in the 1990s ‘and probably beyond. President Carter’s statement in his 1980 State of the Union address, subsequently labeled as the ‘Carter Doctrine’ that ‘Any attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf Region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the US and such assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.’As far as the US is concerned, China has not replaced Russia as a significant global threat. China, nonetheless, is likely to be a major American foreign policy problem of the 21st century and the evidence suggests that China will probably be powerful enough to challenge America’s preferred order in Asia and may, indeed, wish to do so. A serious security situation may arise if China chooses to increase its military presence on the pretext of protecting its interests linked with the port project. Pakistan, being the country housing this port, will have to convey the port’s ‘utility’ terms in the most explicit way to dispel port’s military usage by any of the states.

The Indian Ocean region has remained and will be an area of interest for the American policy makers. It is, however, a well recognised fact that the US helps to ‘shape the environment’ (in the words of the Pentagon’s quadrennial defense review) in various regions. Pakistan does need that help to ensure success of its port project. Notwithstanding internal dynamics, which are pushing policies, overall economic and strategic interests ought to drive the US to foster cooperation amongst states of the region. The US ‘assured’ stabilisation in the area will guarantee success of the Gwadar port project, and Islamabad needs to formulate policies that can attract such ‘assurance.

By: Muhammad Shahrukh Niazi

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