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Will Piekos: China’s Port in Gwadar—Another Pearl Encircling India?

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
February 7, 2013

A view of Pakistan's deep-sea port of Gwadar on the Arabian sea in the southwestern province of Baluchistan on February 6, 2007. A view of Pakistan's deep-sea port of Gwadar on the Arabian sea in the southwestern province of Baluchistan on February 6, 2007. (Qadir Baloch/Courtesy Reuters)

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.

Post a Comment 6 Comments

  • Posted by Amal Varghese

    Will Peikos makes a few salient points regarding China’s strategic encirclement around India, but I feel two things need to be added.

    Firstly, India features as a very low foreign policy priority in the Chinese strategic community; but in contrast, China features as the single most pressing external threat for New Delhi. To add to that, India’s weaker military capabilities (though marginally superior navy) means that New Delhi’s perceptions as the under-dog will continue for some time.

    Secondly, India will continue to claim that China is intruding into an area that has traditionally been under its sphere of influence; and if China fails to address these legitimate concerns, and India’s ‘Look East’ policy takes a more activist approach into the South China Sea and East Asia generally (not India is now a participant in the East Asia Summit), tensions will only aggravate, and a military confrontation by error and miscommunication becomes much more likely.

    A well written piece otherwise.

  • Posted by Felix

    How useable for PLAN-operation is Gwadar really, right now?

    China can dock ships in Gwadar, but hardly supply or maintain them. Neither exists a supply route by railway to Western China nor is Gwadar’s Jiwani Airport eligible to host support planes. The road through the Sino-Pakistani Khunjrab Pass is not more tarred hiking trail.

    Yes, China is massively increasing its navy and working on “pearls” in the India Ocean. However, there are many reasons to doubt the operational usability, given that ships cannot be permanently based, rather have to Malacca Strait every time towards the Indian Ocean and back.

    Hence, no need for alarmism. The PLAN is far away from a permanent and operational credible Indian Ocean presence.

    Last, but not lest, I agree with Amal: well written piece.

  • Posted by Sher

    Indian paranoia needs to be ignored. Conspiracy theories are rife. Firstly, it makes perfect sense from a Pakistani perspective to handover a port which was built with Chinese blood and sweat. The Chinese have invested heavily in building the infrastructure. The Chinese also deserve to run it. Not to mention the enormous economic benefits such as transit fees that Pakistan can earn by allowing China to conduct business at the deep sea port.

    Frankly , there’s no need for other ships to dock at Gwadar. Chinese endeavors alone are sufficient to develop and flourish Gwadar/Baluchistan. Pakistan and China are natural allies as most of their interests converge on many major political issues. It makes perfect sense for both Pakistan and China to join hands and empower their peoples.

    Indian paranoia is based on unfounded fear. Of course, this fear is further stoked by certain stakeholders i.e. superpowers. China doesn’t have any intention of encircling India. Neither does China have any ambition of building a naval base at Gwadar. In fact, China understands that peace is in the best interest of the region. Also, Pakistan would never allow the presence of foreign military personnel on its soil. China is willing to contribute to the region by investing and building infrastructure and building relations. Gwadar is a fine example of Chinese cooperation on regional level. China needs to be commended.

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    I think the string of pearls strategy is effective if one has a large navy,like the UK had and the US has.Otherwise one coud quite easily seige any particular.

    In the case of Gwadar….havyng a deal with Packistan is no prise nbeing the rabble they are.Of course being close to Iran…..it might be worth it.

    Yeah I think that China has devided its naval power may end up constructing a shooting gallary. bob

  • Posted by RousseauC

    If you think one port linked to China constitutes a China encirclement, how about the 1,000 US military bases and many ports owned by US interests around the world….

    This is purely paranoid.

  • Posted by Dan

    Gwadar came up in my thesis research in Sino-Pakistani relations last year. Reports have been bouncing around about this place for years with little substance.

    More importantly, all reporting on the PLAN establishing any military operation at the site have simply been wishful thinking on the part of the Pakistani press.

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