21 January 2006

China Wants a Pearl Necklace

China is sending strong signals that it wants to improve its standing in the Arabian Sea. Asia Times reports:
BANGALORE - The port project at Gwadar in Pakistan's restive Balochistan.

Gwadar is on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, just 72 kilometers from Iran. It is near the mouth of the Persian Gulf and is 400km from the Strait of Hormuz. The Pakistani government identified
Gwadar as a port site way back in the 1960s, but it was only in 2001-02 that concrete steps on the proposal were taken.

It was the arrival of US troops in Afghanistan - literally at China's doorstep - in the autumn of 2001 that spurred Beijing into action. China agreed to participate in funding, construction and development of a deepsea port and naval base in Gwadar and in March 2002 Chinese premier Wu Bangguo laid the foundation for the port. Its engineers are engaged in the port's design and construction.

China insists its interest in Gwadar is purely commercial. No doubt it is hoping that the port will transform the economy of its landlocked Xinjiang province.

However, Gwadar port has a far-larger significance in China's scheme of things. It is said to be the western-most pearl in China's "string of pearls" strategy (this is a strategy that envisages building strategic relations with several countries along sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea to protect China's energy interests and other security objectives), the other "pearls" being naval facilities in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and the South China Sea.

China's interest in the Gwadar project stems from the port's proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. A base at Gwadar enables China to secure the flow of its oil - 60% of its energy supplies come from the Middle East - through the strait. More important, Gwadar is said to be a "listening post" for the Chinese, one that will enable Beijing to monitor movement of US and Indian ships in the region.

Pakistan is eyeing huge economic and strategic gains, with Gwadar poised to become a key shipping hub at the mouth of a strategic waterway. A port at Gwadar provides Pakistan with strategic depth vis-a-vis India. Gwadar is 725km to the west of Karachi port, making it that much less vulnerable than Karachi to an Indian naval blockade.

Not surprisingly, the construction of Gwadar port and Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the project are causing concern for India, the United States and Iran. The Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea heightens India's feeling of encirclement by China. Iran fears that the development of Gwadar port will undermine the value of its own ports as outlets to Central Asia's exports.

As for the US, it has been uncomfortable with Chinese presence at the mouth of a key waterway. And now in the run-up to a possible war with Iran, Washington appears to be eyeing Gwadar's naval facilities all the more. It appears that the US is pressuring Pakistan to reduce Chinese involvement in the project and to involve Washington instead.

The New Delhi-based online Public Affairs Magazine has reported that the US "could be [pressuring] Pakistan to outprice the Chinese from Gwadar to take over the entire facility". Citing diplomats, the report said: "Pakistan has now raised the cost of Chinese participation to US$3 billion in addition to the $1.5 billion yearly payment, which China has refused, saying it is steep, and in breach of the terms of the contract. China has said that it had already agreed to offset construction costs by giving Pakistan four frigates, but Pakistan is unmoved, and offered to return all the Chinese investment, if they would have it that way."

Dismissing such reports as "wishful thinking on the part of India", a Pakistani government official told Asia Times Online that the Gwadar project was "very much on track" and that "Sino-Pakistan cooperation in the venture remains strong".

But even if the reported differences between China and Pakistan in the Gwadar project were indeed "wishful thinking on the part of India", the project is under fire from Baloch insurgents.

Balochis are not opposed to the Gwadar port project or other megaprojects per se. What they are opposed to is the way these projects have been conceived and implemented. They resent the fact Balochis have been excluded from the benefits of these projects and that "outsiders" have grown rich by exploiting Baloch resources. Balochistan's Sui gas reserves, for instance, meet 38% of Pakistan's energy needs, but only 6% of Balochistan's 6 million people have access to it, and the royalties Balochistan receives for its gas are very low, especially when compared with what other provinces receive.

Likewise, the Gwadar project does not seem to be transforming Baloch lives for the better. Baloch nationalists see Gwadar as "a non-Baloch project", one that has been conceived and implemented without provincial approval or participation, in which "outsiders" have gained the most. They point out that land in Gwadar is being sold at throwaway prices to non-Baloch civil-military elites.

There is concern, too, that the Gwadar project would leave Balochis a minority in their homeland. As the Baloch leader, the Khan of Kalat, pointed out in an interview to the Pakistani daily Dawn, the entire project would need at least a million people, and with Gwadar being a town of 60,000, people from "Karachi, mostly Urdu-speaking", would be brought in.

Not surprisingly, then, the Gwadar project has been repeatedly targeted by Baloch insurgent groups such as the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the Baloch Liberation Front and the Baloch People's Liberation Army. Insurgents have struck repeatedly with bombs and rocket attacks. In 2004 for instance, Gwadar airport was the target of rocket attacks.

Several of the insurgent attacks in Gwadar have targeted Chinese working on this project. About 500 Chinese engineers are employed in Gwadar. On May 3, 2004, three Chinese engineers were killed and nine others injured in a bomb blast by the BLA. On May 14 last year, four bombs went off in Gwadar. Then in October, several Chinese engineers had a narrow escape when the vehicle in which they were traveling missed a landmine. The following month, insurgents launched a rocket attack on a Chinese construction company in the Tallar area of Gwadar district. The Chinese engineers and other staff escaped unhurt but several vehicles were damaged.

In total, according to official data, there were 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity-transmission lines and 19 explosions on railway lines in 2005. At least 182 civilians and 26 security force personnel died in the province during 2005.

An interesting aspect about Baloch nationalist insurgents, who are by and large secular, and the religious militants is that while both view China as an enemy, their opposition to Chinese involvement in the Gwadar project differs. Tarique Niazi, a specialist on resource-based conflict, said: "Baloch nationalists, for instance, are opposed to the Chinese government for advancing its strategic goals at the expense of their freedom and autonomy. But several religiously inspired groups are opposed to the Chinese government for its putative persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority in the autonomous region of Xinjiang."

The kidnapping of two Chinese engineers in October 2004 by members of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) is said to have been a response to Pakistan's killing of ETIM chief Hasan Mahsum, to whom it had provided shelter in South Waziristan, on Beijing's request.

While India, Iran and the US might be wary of the Sino-Pakistan cooperation in Gwadar, internal opposition to the bonding seems far greater, as indicated by the ferocity and frequency of attacks on the Gwadar project and Chinese employees there.

With the Baloch insurgency growing in intensity and the Pakistani government's military approach to the problem only fueling Baloch resentment and the insurgency further, it does seem that even if the Gwadar port project is, as officials claim, "on track", it will be near impossible to realize its full potential.
So, we have China, Pakistan, India, Balochistan, and several insurgent groups all interested in this potential deep water port. I am shocked.

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