Will Piekos is a Research Associate for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
There is a lot of speculation as to China’s intentions surrounding the acquisition of Pakistan’s Gwadar port by China Overseas Port Holdings. China bought the rights to develop Gwadar from the Port of Singapore Authority, and the purchase ostensibly will give China access to a deep sea port on the western side of India. The company plans to establish a pipeline from the port to China’s western borders, which would provide Beijing with an invaluable source of oil; currently around 80 percent of China’s oil imports arrive by sea, and much of it through the easily disrupted Malacca Strait. In addition, China will gain a listening post on the Gulf of Oman, giving it the ability to monitor maritime activity moving through the Strait of Hormuz and the Indian Ocean. Eventually, some fear Gwadar could be used to house the PLA Navy and project Chinese naval power.
For its part, Pakistan gains the use of a deep sea port on its western maritime border. Built, but largely unused and lacking sufficient infrastructure, Gwadar now stands to serve as an economic hub for years to come. Pakistan’s main shipping port, Karachi, is close to the border with India; the port in Gwadar provides Islamabad with another option—both for shipping and its navy—should relations with New Delhi deteriorate. With Chinese investment promising infrastructure development and deeper Sino-Pakistani cooperation, there are few downsides to the deal for Islamabad.
In India, the buy has sparked renewed accusations of encirclement. India is fearful that China seeks to restrict its maritime capabilities and establish dominance in its neighborhood. New Delhi contends that China is surrounding India with a ‘string of pearls,’ with ports all around the Indian Ocean, including in Burma, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. Of all these development, the establishment of a port in Pakistan, India’s historical enemy, is most distressing to New Delhi. The specter of closer Sino-Pakistani military cooperation looms large.
As of now, however, such fears are premature. Political instability in Pakistan, militant extremists, or Chinese economic volatility could all derail the project. The port is years away from being fully developed, and China has yet to base military units abroad.
As Chinese interests stretch further into the Indian Ocean, China and India must resist the urge to demonize each other. As both nations invest more in their navies, historical animosities and the possibility of strategic misperception could force them into the classic security dilemma. With this in mind, the two nations should reenergize military-to-military relations, frozen for the past five years, through joint exercises, anti-piracy missions, and military exchanges. Beijing and New Delhi have shown they can cooperate on issues of mutual concern, such as global health and climate change, and both have a vested interest in guaranteeing safe passage for commerce on the high seas. There is enough room for the two to coexist in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Should China tighten its string around India, though, neither side will benefit, and China will have earned itself yet another maritime adversary.