Gwadar has been the lynch-pin of Chinese developmental strategy for the last 50 years, it is an integral part of China,s ‘String of Pearls’, and it is exactly where China’s Maritime Silk Route meets its Eurasian landbased connectivity project. It is the flagship project of a broader policy ‘One Belt, One Road’ for connecting it to its economic markets in Asia, Europe and beyond. The main trade corridor runs along the Southern Eurasian rimland, beginning at Aden, continuing onwards to Hong Kong. Gwadar is situated right on this trade route at a vantage point.
Sino-Pak relations have a particular synergy, impervious to external factors, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor is the culmination of a long-term strategy and China has been in Gwadar , in various capacities, since 2003. Commercially, Gwadar is at an advantage over Dubai and other Gulf ports, as it is situated on the main route, ships have direct access to it without having to enter the Straits of Hormuz. Gwadar provides a direct conduit to western China, this factor is of major significance in the event of a blockage in the bottleneck of the Straits of Malacca, the Gwadar route provides better protection to its oil supplies.
Recently, there have been some speculations whether Gwadar will ever attain its strategic aims, and whether China would shift to Chahbahar port instead, as it is deemed to be safer whilst providing the same location. Chahbahar port is about 175+ km away from Gwadar, the close proximity of the two ports means that all its traffic has to pass by Gwadar, which has a better location as it is situated on the Main Cargo Route. Chahbahar has recently come in the limelight as it is promoted by India as a competitor for Gwadar, India stuggled to build Chahbahar even when there were sanctions on Iran, as it dreads the emergence and completion of CPEC. India has been investing money in Chahbahar since many years, but nothing cohesive has actually materialised. The port of Chahbahar may have infrastructure, but it is a more expensive and unnatural option for China.
Gwadar is situated in the province of Balochistan, which faced instability in the past due to rebel Baloch leaders and proxy warfare, the situation has been contained due to successful operations and development projects. In the same way, Chahbahar is also part of one of Iran’s most volatile regions where anti-regime Sunni Baloch insurgents have launched repeated attacks, the situation improved since the hanging of Jundullah chief Abdolmalek Rigi, yet the insurgency could resurface any time in the region. After Iran,s nuclear deal with the U.S., it has also attained new-found importance as a consequence. This whole state of affairs could be temporary, as it does not seem like the U.S. would let the strategic balance of the region be upset, Chahbahar,s sudden boost might prove to be an illusion created by adversaries of China and Pakistan. The rise of Chahbahar is a transient and temporary phenomenon borne of a fleeting US-Iran partnership.
Iran, also has a stake in the CPEC project, there is a proposal to link the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline with China, such integration would consolidate this region.
There is a Shia-Sunni dimension to this entire scenario, Iran is the largest and most powerful Shia state. It would be quite natural for UAE and Saudi Arabia to prefer Gwadar over the Iranian port, specially with the ongoing war in Syria and Yemen, where these Sunni states have taken an opposite stance to that by Shia Iran. The geopolitical implications of these two seaports in close physical proximity are such that one port would eventually supersede the other. One is an intended launching pad for India, the other for China. China is a much bigger entity, Chahbahar,s military and naval value just cannot match Gwadar due to its location, it is not a viable option given China,s geography. It is inevitable that Gwadar will assume its rightful place, it is a natural deep sea port. Chinese economy is based on the one belt, one road intiative, it would not be logical for China to move to Chahbahar, like some recent media reports suggest.
CPEC is holistic in nature, comprising of Special Economic Zones and energy projects all along the route between Kashgar and Gwadar. $45.6 billion have been allocated for the project, $33.8 billion for power generation plants and $11.8 billion for infrastructure development. The CPEC should be completely operational by 2030, ‘early harvest’ projects such as energy projects and rail and road networks will be complete within the next two to three years. CPEC promises to be a game-changer for China and Pakistan both, it is the largest project of its kind ever executed in Pakistan. The amount of Chinese investment is equal to a fifth of Pakistan,s GDP, more than twice the total amount of direct foreign investment here since 2008.
The U.S. gave $7.5 billion for development projects over a five-year period in Pakistan in 2009, this appears meager in comparison to the colossal Chinese investment. American aid has been ineffective as it has been in small amounts for a large amount of projects, China’s $45.6 billion is concentrated and focused on much larger projects over a period of 15 years. Chinese investment will solve Pakistan,s two major problems of poor infrastructure and power shortages. Natural gas, coal, solar and hydro-power projects will be complete by 2017, providing Pakistan’s national power grid with another 16,400 Megawatts (MW) of electricity, double its current capacity. CPEC would provide a lot of employment opportunities and enhanced economic activity all along the route of the corridor as it passes through Pakistan into China.
The construction of Gwadar Port was necessary as Karachi Port faced serious congestion from commercial, fishing, civil and military shipping. In 1971, the Indian Navy had targeted the Karachi port, any future blockade by India could harm the economy. Gwadar is part of the “String of Pearls strategy” which provides for a number of friendly ports offering naval facilities throughout the stretch of the Indian Ocean to China. It would protect key shipping routes between China and the Middle East or Europe, check Indian domination and beef up Pakistan,s coastal defense. Gwadar would provide the requisite Chinese or joint Sino-Pak naval base, in future will be modeled as a Chinese or joint Sino-Pak naval base.
CPEC can transform the economy of China,s Xinjiang province, which is alienated, restive and under-developed, a lot like Balochistan, this strategy was adopted to end the Uyghur rebellions there with economic development. The trading hub of Kashgar would link CPEC with the Silk Road, it is predominantly Uygher, China anticipates that prosperity would put an end to separatist sentiment there. In the same way, the CPEC can bring an era of peace and prosperity to Balochistan, it would generate a lot of revenue for Pakistan on the whole, such projects improve credit ratings and the analysis becomes optimistic.
The Straits of Malacca are China,s current route for transporting oil and other commodities from western Asia to Chinese ports, it is about 12,000 km long. It is another 3,500 km of overland travel from Chinese ports to Xinjiang. The route from Gwadar to Xinjiang is just 3,000 km, saving shipment time, distance and costs for China and other countries opting for this route. CPEC would also free China from its ‘Malacca Dilemma’, which is its dependancy and risk factor while using the Straits of Malacca, if they come under influence of hostile states, China,s trade would be blocked. 80 percent of China,s oil comes from West Asia and Africa, passing through the Straits of Malacca, this bottleneck could get it trapped in an energy crisis paralyzing its economy. Gwadar, CPEC and the Kyaukphyu port in Myanmar which connects to the Chinese province of Yunnan, are China,s alternative routes to protect its oil. China intends to establish a ‘listening post’ to observe U.S.naval maneouvres in the Persian Gulf and the Indian bases of Mumbai and Gujarat, it also plans to monitor the Sea Lines of Communication from the Persian Gulf as 60% of its energy requirements come from the Gulf.
Even if only China uses Gwadar port initially, the fact remains that it is equal to many countries put together, Gwadar will thrive even if Afghanistan starts using Chahbahar instead. Afghanistan remains un-stable even after the end of the War on Terror, the U.S. has had to retain some forces there to ensure the Afghan government survives. It is interesting to note that despite India,s considerable interest in Afghanistan, it has been kept out of quadri-lateral peace talks involving the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The U.S. does not appear averse to Pakistan,s role in the region, Iran has been kept out of these talks along with India. In fact, what if the U.S. were actually willing to let China have its CPEC project, this being the reason everything has gone quite smoothly, the U.S. and China are co-dependent economically and each cannot really afford to aggravate the other party. There are no permanent friends and enemies in realpolitik, U.S. and China support each other economically, and both cannot survive without the business they do daily. Recently, the U.S. has approved the sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Pakistan, at the expense of upsetting India considerably, it wants to maintain strategic balance in the region. The U.S. envoy to India was summoned by their government, India expressed its disappointment and displeasure over the sale. The F-16s are just a token, there is a lot more to come, last year the U.S. also approved the sale of 15 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters to Pakistan. Restoration of the balance of power is imperative for America, negative comments regarding CPEC could be an eyewash to placate India.
The geopolitical significance of Gwadar to China makes any Indian subconventional response in Balochistan exceedingly complicated, if it inflicts damage to China,s investments and interests, it would spoil its relations with the economic giant. The complicated relationship among the countries involved in this port game is of great significance, it is only Pakistan and China that are the strategic partners among the players and their relations are not prone to external factors. Iran and India have never had such strategic depth in their bilateral relationship that can jointly and openly counter Sino-Pak relations. India and Iran have had a varied level of bilateral relations.
Another important factor is the future of US-Iran relations, for now everything seems settled after the nuclear deal, but what if in the future bilateral relations regress back to former unstable levels. The U.S. might not like to depend on Iran as yet where its long-term strategy for this region is concerned, it is Pakistan that it relies on for maintaining the balance of power.
The development of Gwadar will attract Kabul and Central Asian Republics eventually, India wants to deny Pakistan the advantages of its geo-strategic location. Most South Asian states have no say or the will to stand up to India. Pakistan, in fact, balances India. India has even set up a special cell under the supervision of the RAW chief to subvert the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, $35 million were reportedly reserved for this purpose. Pakistan,s refusal to provide a land route for Indian shipments to Afghanistan via Wagah derailed India’s efforts to exploit Afghanistan economically and strategically. India will try its level best to prevent Pakistan and China from completing CPEC, even though the project benefits the entire region.
Gilgit Baltistan is the gateway of CPEC and China is already working on various projects there to redress energy issues. Gilgit-Baltistan and the Kashmir region of Pakistan stand to make huge gains in tourism, the region is home to five of the highest mountain peaks. Adversaries tried to create controversies regarding the status of Gilgit Baltistan to try and jeopardise CPEC right at its point of entry, so there has been talk of elevating its status from a semi-autonomous region to an additional province in the future.
A special security force comprising of 10,000 personnel will soon become completely operational from Gwadar to Karakoram Highway. A heavy police presence, guarded convoys, new checkpoints and troop reinforcements are there to secure Gwadar from any proxy attack from frustrated adversaries. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said progress so far on the corridor was “generally speaking, quite smooth”. The Pakistani government has done a great deal of work to protect the security of Chinese organisations and citizens. China is deeply thankful for this,” Lu added.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Forum met in August 2015 in the Chinese city of Karamay, 300 officials and representatives from various enterprises, social organizations and research institutions joined heads to discuss ways to enhance mutual co-operation through the economic corridor. The Karamay manifesto ‘praised the significance of the Belt and Road Initiative and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road initiative for the political trust, economic co-operation and cultural exchanges of the countries along the road. Trade between both countries has crossed over $319 million in 2014-2015, up by 114.9% as compared to the preceding year. All the mechanisms are in place for the smooth completion of the CPEC, once it is complete, even all of its adversaries will reap benefits.