Gwadar Port: Pakistan Gifts China a Short Cut to the Persian Gulf
Nitin Gokhale explains what China’s economic corridor from Pakistan to Xinjiang means for India.
China’s President Xi Jingping embarks on his first foreign foray this year starting Monday. Not surprisingly, the visit is to good old trusted friend Pakistan: their friendship being described in the past as being deeper than the Indian Ocean and higher than the Himalayas.
Islamabad will no doubt be relieved that Xi has finally decided to come visiting after a series of postponements. In fact, one of the big disappointments for Pakistan last year was that the Chinese President did not club his visit to India with a stopover in Islamabad, the general practice in previous years.
Going by reports in the Chinese and Pakistani media, Xi is arriving with a big gift. He will unveil the $46 billion economic corridor linking the strategic Gwadar Port in Balochistan to China’s Xinjiang province. The corridor, an ambitious infrastructure project will enable China to transport oil and gas from the Gulf countries through a shorter route instead of the existing arrangement via the Malacca Straits.
Planning though is easier than implementation.
For one, Balochistan, considered Pakistan’s Achilles Heel, is restive and two, the route that the corridor will take is through the difficult mountainous terrain of Pak-Occupied Kashmir (PoK). Yet, China is firm on building this link. The reason is self-explanatory.
Gwadar, situated at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, allows China to unload vital petroleum products from Gulf countries and then transport them through a 3,000-km long land route ending at Kashgar, the biggest commercial centre in the Xinjiang province of north-western China. A natural, deep sea harbour, Gwadar fulfils the long-standing Chinese need for access to the Arabian Sea.
Once the economic corridor is fully developed and Gwadar Port is fully modernised, China is hoping to reduce its dependency on the longer Malacca Straits route for its humungous energy need. The Malacca Straits Sea Lane of Communication that joins the Indian Ocean to the highly volatile South China Sea is vulnerable to disruption and blockades that may come into play in case of rising tension in the region.
Gwadar is therefore a key and secure port in which China has already invested more than $2 billion. With other ports like Colombo and Hambantota in Sri Lanka not fully under Chinese control, gaining full access to Gwadar which can also double up as a much-needed military logistics base in the future is a must for Beijing.
President Xi’s visit starting Monday will ensure that China gets that firm foothold on the cusp of the Persian Gulf. Pakistan in turn receives fresh investment and a boost for its flagging economy, although given the insurgency in Balochistan, sceptics continue to question the viability of the economic corridor.
There is alarm in India too about the increasing Chinese presence in PoK but Beijing has, as usual, brushed aside India’s concerns and gone ahead with the project to connect Gwadar with Kashgar.
(Nitin A. Gokhale is an analyst on National Security, Media Trainer and Author)
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