Pakistan’s Gwadar Port has got a unique geostrategic and geopolitical importance in the changing dynamics of the contemporary global politics when the sea trade is getting quite complex as it is situated at the mouth of Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz which holds 2/3rd of world’s oil reserves. Further, it is located at cross junction of international shipping lanes and oil trade routes. The Port would connect three important regions, i.e. Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.
The economies all over the world need huge energy resources in order to carry on their development activities. And, Pakistan’s Gwadar Port provides the only feasible and the safest access route to huge potential of energy resources of Central Asia whose “market access is hindered by political and geographic conditions, including continued Russian influence”, in the words of Robert Kaplan, a celebrated geo-strategist. As a result, the port has an inevitable influence on local, national, regional and global politics.
History of Gwadar Port
Historically, Pakistan purchased Gwadar in 1958 from Omani Sultanate at the cost of US$3 million. During its construction phase (1988-1992), only a small port was constructed. In 2007, General Musharraf inaugurated Gwadar Deep Sea Port. From 2007-2012, the Port remained under Port Singapore Authority (PSA) but due to its poor performance, the port was handed over to China Overseas Ports Holding Company (COPHC) in 2013. Since then the construction work has been done at a rapid pace. Along with Gwadar port, the building up of Gwadar city, Gwadar power generation plants and Gwadar International Airport are the projects under construction and development. The port has begun sending shipment, seasonal cargo and commercial trade but it is still under-construction and it has been reported that port would be fully operational till the end of 2016.
But the cherished emergence of the deep-sea port as a vibrant economic hub has caused regional and international consternation. Arguably, Iran, India and UAE — and so does the United States (US) —- are anxious about the potential of the port and consider it a fly in the ointment that could well dwarf their own international ports by throttling back burgeoning business activities. Therefore, they are clandestinely involved in obstructing the timely operation of Gwadar Port by indulging in baser tactics such as fuelling disruptive sectarianism, ethnic militancy and low-level insurgency in the restive province. Other powers such as China, on the other hand, view the port pregnant with numerous economic opportunities and they have a hankering to reap rich economic and military dividends once the port becomes completely operational.
China needs Gwadar Port for two explicit objectives i.e. economic and military. The world’s second largest economy, China, wishes to further expand its trade with the oil- and gas-rich Middle East and mineral-rich Africa via Gwadar port because the port provides the cheapest, the easiest and the nearest point to access these regions. Existing Chinese sea route passes through risky South China Sea, Pacific Rim, the Strait of Malacca and Sri Lanka, and Chinese vessels have to cruise about 10,000 km to reach the trading partners in the region. But Gwadar port will reduce this distance to a mere 2,500 km and land distance for Kashgar to 2,800 because Kashgar is 4,500 Km from main Chinese port, the Port of Shanghai, while Gwadar is 2800 km from Kashgar, thus not only saving time , but also billions of dollars for the country.
Moreover, China has an eye over the obtrusive copper and gold reserves at Riko Deq — the “Hillock of Gold” — situated in Chagai tehsil of Balochistan. According to recent estimates, it has world’s 4th largest reservoirs of gold and copper (These reserves are estimated to have a worth of US$ 260 billion dollars. To achieve these goals, China is financing and constructing a $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that will connect Gwadar to China’s landlocked and economically underdeveloped Xinjiang province.
As regards its military interests, China needs this critical chokepoint to achieve its strategic objective of becoming an “impregnable naval power” in the Indian Ocean. It is a calculated move to thwart the Indo-US domination over the Arabian Sea, and use Gwadar Port as an alternate sea route in case India blocks the Strait of Malacca. China will establish a listening post here to observe the naval actions and manoeuvres of the US in the Persian Gulf and those of India at nearby bases of Gujarat and Mumbai. Moreover, China also intends to monitor the Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs) from the Persian Gulf because about 60 percent of Chinese energy supplies come from the Gulf. China wants to control also the oil sea routes and trade links among regions such as South Asia, Africa, Central Asia, Gulf and the Middle East.
Kaplan opines, “China’s involvement and projection to utilize the geostrategic importance of Gwadar as the development of an oil pipeline which would transport Middle Eastern oil into the western provinces of China, as a result of this action, reducing India’s power to hinder Chinese oil supply through Strait of Malacca.” Quite probably, a commanding Chinese presence at Gwadar port and an Indian at the nearby Chabahar will disturb regional naval calculus at the disadvantage of Pakistan. Both Chinese and Indian blue sea navies will involve asymmetrically in a competitive naval muscle-flexing and encirclement of each other; primarily to clip the naval wings of each other and the domination of energy passages. Such maritime practices will tremendously intensify owing to greatly divergent regional interests of both powers in the near future.
The Central Asian Republics (CARs) are rich in natural resources, oil and gas in particular. These thriving markets have been craving for Gwadar Port since their independence in the 1990s. These republics have to rely on Russian oil and gas companies for the export of their energy resources and, in return, they have to follow Russian diktats on significant domestic and foreign affairs. As a result, sometimes they unwillingly compromise on matters of immense importance; even those related to their vital national interests. Recent blockage of gas supply to the European Union by Russia over the strategic incursion into Crimea resulted in loss of revenues and credibility is a case in point.
These republics are landlocked and have to rely on other littoral states for a port to carry out their exports and imports. In this region there are two ports that can serve the purpose: Iran’s Chabahar and Pakistan’s Gwadar. The former is surrounded by a host of uncertainties and imminent barriers due to covert Iranian nuclear programme. Therefore, the CARs are disposed to utilize the Gwadar port to have access to Indian, Far East Asian, Middle Eastern, African and European markets.
To their advantage, all CARs are members of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) and have intimate historical, cultural, ideological and religious connections and affinity with Pakistan, which would greatly help them in fostering economic ties with Pakistan and capitalize on its ports. More importantly, with Pakistan’s membership of the powerful Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), it is likely that these republics will ratchet up diplomatic endeavours to enhancing bilateral relations so that their long-cherished dream of accessing Gwadar port may be fully realized.
Iranian and Indian Interests
Gwadar Port, apparently, is not in Iranian or/and Indian strategic interests. They perceive it as a threat to their escalating regional interests. Both have established a deep-sea port at Chabahar in Iran mostly with the help of Indian investments. With the advantage of a developed road infrastructure — through Afghanistan to Central Asia — Chabahar is ready to take the most vital position in the region. Interestingly, Chabahar and Gwadar ports are separated by a distance of less than 110 miles and both Iranian and Pakistani governments are in a fierce competition to exploit the Central Asian resources.
India is predisposed to import oil and gas at throwaway prices from the region while exporting cars, computers and IT-related products in return. Moreover, India also wishes to singlehandedly access and utilize fully the resources of Afghanistan while hampering Chinese interests in the same. Both India and China, Asian giants, are trying to develop major ports, road, train connectivity to approach the Central Asian natural reserves. It has spurred an intense competition between China and India.
India also sees Gwadar port from a realistic perspective, and is apprehensive about Chinese coming in close proximity to its naval bases; thus challenging its naval hedge in the India Ocean regions. Kaplan argues, “Additional important element of this economic and energy competition is that China’s establishment of noticeable military presence in Gwadar, called by the name of the “string of pearls” strategy, immediately challenges India’s place and situation in the region where India does not let any nation to challenge its authority”.
Both China and India import a major part of their energy supplies through the Strait of Hormuz. Gwadar port will provide an extra edge to China to have its large military and naval presence in the IOR. It will also give a significant and valuable quality for protecting Chinese shipments which is an extreme threat to Indian conditions. It has, therefore, forced India to finance and provide engineers, technicians and experts for the development and up-gradation of Chabahar deep-sea port to swiftly counter and contain Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean.
While Iran is poised to exploit the potential of its Chabahar port by offering port access to Afghanistan, Central Asian states and India, it would, in turn, acquire billions of dollars in revenue that will boost its sagging economy.
Here comes Gwadar port as a formidable challenge to the regional interests of so-called Indo-Iranian nexus. Resultantly, both these countries have been fuelling low-level insurgency and ethnic militancy in the restive province of Balochistan. Arguably, the rising Indo-Iranian bloc will be out to ramp up such insidious, obstructive and covert shenanigans in minerals-rich Balochistan only to render Gwadar port useless for China.
Since the launch of the Gwadar port project, the US has been concerned about growing Chinese interest in the port. It fears that China would use the port to carve up ‘spheres of influence’ in the Middle East and Africa while threatening American interests in the region. Furthermore, the US perceives the arrival of Chinese Navy in the warm waters of the Arabian Sea as a challenge to its long-lasting hegemony in the Gulf and in the Indian Ocean. It, too, is striving to stop China from becoming economically more powerful by banking on resources of Balochistan, Africa and oil and gas of the Middle East via Gwadar Port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As a result, the US has been, and will be, stoking the simmering insurgency and Shia-Sunni schism in Balochistan.
Europe is faced with energy shortages mainly due to Russian stoppage of oil and gas supplies to the continent over Crimea and resultant economic sanctions on Russia. Interestingly, Russian companies purchase the Central Asian energy and sell it to the European nations on profit. These practices created strong encouragements for European nations to build pipelines from Central Asia to Gwadar because these pipelines would greatly benefit them by freeing them of Russian tentacles.
From the above discussion, it is crystal clear that the Gwadar Port endows Pakistan with both strategic opportunities and challenges. After all, the ball is still in Pakistan’s court as to how effectively it employs its legislative, executive and judicial organs to maximize the deep sea port. If Pakistan succeeds in this game, Gwadar port will ensure country’s all-weather connectivity to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and Central Asia. It will also ensure speedy movement of goods between these countries and CPEC would result in qualitative up-gradation of Pakistan’s land connectivity related infrastructure. Arguably, if Pakistan moves at a snail’s space in fostering Gwadar port, India and Iran will reap the benefits, thus undermining our national interest.