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SAUD BIN AHSEN|

The strategic importance of Indian Ocean in the region can never be undermined. The Indian Ocean has proven to be the center of global politics among the regional and international actors. Now, with the development of Gwadar port, the dynamics of ‘the future great game’ in the Indian Ocean have reached a new critical level altogether. The Gwadar port is a game changer in the Indian Ocean and its link with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) further enhances the importance of the latter. Various nations have shown both concerns and interests in the Indian Ocean in terms of exploring new maritime trade routes and gaining access to the vast energy resources.

Chinese Interests in the Region

Pakistan and China agreed to develop a deep-sea port back in 2001 in Gwadar. The site is 72 km away from the Iranian border and almost 400 km from the Strait of Hormuz. Gwadar port’s proximity to Iranian ports of Chabahar and Bandar Abbas is of great importance. India has heavily invested in Chabahar port and is spending $ 84 million in 213 km long Zaranj-Dilaram road with the view to ultimately link it up with Central Asia for trade purposes. Through Iran and Afghanistan India wants to have access to Central Asian Republics (CARs) – rich in fossil fuels and mineral resources – but Gwadar port could possibly have a negative impact on Iranian port and thus be a hurdle in making it emerge as the hub of future regional trade. Same goes for the port of Dubai.

Read more: Chinese Actions in the South China Sea frighten the US & its allies?

As agreed by Pakistan and China, work on Gwadar started in 2002 with an estimated cost of $1.16 billion and the first phase was completed in 2005 with China investing $198 million. Whereas an added amount of $ 200 million was spent in the construction of a road connecting Gwadar to Karachi.

Chinese investment in Gwadar guarantees a secure trade route for China. China imports 80% of its oil through Strait of Malacca. Increasing US presence in that region has created security threats for Chinese ships. With Gwadar port being functional, China could import oil from the Middle East and take it to Xinxing via Pakistan.

China’s interest in the region increased after the US declared it was evacuating its forces from Afghanistan. China, after the completion of port, had refused to take control of the Gwadar port and allowed Singapore Port Authority to handle the port. After a few years, though, China took back the control of the port from Port of Singapore Authority. On February 6th, Pakistan officially handed over Gwadar port to Chinese-owned Port Holding Authority Company. It became officially functional on November 13, 2016, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the port by sending cargo coming from China through CPEC route.

Chinese authorities have time and again stated that China will not use this port for military purposes.

Gwadar Port and Pakistan

Geographically, Pakistan does not have much strategic depth but the establishment of Gwadar port can turn the tables completely. Gwadar is 460 km away from India which decreases the vulnerability of Pakistan in this regard. It will also help Pakistan keep an eye on the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) which are located from the Persian Gulf to the neck of Strait of Hormuz. Establishing naval bases at Gwadar and Ormara will also help Pakistan to monitor the Chinese naval Assets (if any), the US 5th fleet in the Persian Gulf, and the Indian naval efforts to become a Blue Water Navy.

Gwadar port has numerous potentials:

  1. Its location is close to the international SLOCs and is suitable for trans-shipment facilities.
  2. It is farthest from Pakistan’s eastern neighbor and thus provides more warning time against air and naval threats.
  3. It offers natural protection against weather.
  4. It is more suitable for capitalizing trade opportunities with energy-rich Afghanistan and Caspian Region.
  5. Gwadar Port being a gateway to the Persian Gulf at the Hormuz Strait will offer various harbor services like showcasing and storage of sea resources, shipment, transshipment, and manufacturing conveniences for regional, extra-regional key players: UAE and the European nations.
  6. With the development of Gwadar port, all trade to and from Central Asian Republics (CARs) is definite to adopt the shortest available route via Gwadar and the trade benefits of Pakistan are expected to multiply.

For proven reserves and production, following are the implications of Gwadar Port:

  1. Estimated production of dry cargo is more than liquid cargo, which means larger ships and deep sea port will prove better.
  2. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will produce more dry cargo than other CARs and Gwadar will prove to be the shortest access to warm waters.
  3. Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan having more liquid cargo can export it through pipelines and have an alternate route to the Mediterranean Sea through Caspian Region which is about 1800 Km long route. Through Gwadar, the distances will reduce to 1400 Km.

Indian Reservations and Designs

Gwadar Port is of high strategic importance and has the ability to become a hub of regional trade. Moreover, the establishment of this port will make Pakistan-China alliance much stronger, along with the advantage of giving them an opportunity to keep an eye on Indian designs in the Indian Ocean. Gwadar Port has the potential to acquire the place of Strait of Hormuz and can compete with UAE port. China will also have an alternative route in the shape of Gwadar port.

Read more:  Are Indian fears about CPEC related to Kashmir issue?

Gwadar Port is of high strategic importance and has the ability to become a hub of regional trade.

India has most reservations on this step taken by Pakistan because it feels China is trying to build ‘Strings of Pearl’ of ports and bases around them to get strategic dominance in the Indian Ocean. Chinese authorities have time and again stated that China will not use this port for military purposes. However, India is skeptical of Chinese position, thus India’s closer alignment with Washington.

Treading Tactfully

Keeping the strategic importance and the probable upheaval in the region, Pakistan needs to handle the situation tactfully. Concerted diplomatic efforts are required to enhance regional cooperation in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) for mutual benefits. Cooperation with landlocked Afghanistan will also help connect with Central Asian Republics which can bring peace and prosperity to this part of the world through greater trade and economic connectivity. Pakistan is required to make necessary provisions of infrastructure besides ensuring the security of the CPEC network for fully reaping the benefits of the Gwadar port.

Read more: Will Pakistan muddle through or will CPEC allow it to control its destiny?

Pakistan can bank on principles of regionalism to cultivate renewed ties with Afghanistan, Iran, and – most importantly – Central Asian Republics. The role of diplomats needs to be proactive in building good relations on the basis of mutual respect and fraternity in the public affairs of the regional countries. Composite dialogues with India may also be held to lessen tension on all disputes, as the charter of United Nations Convention states that neighbors need to resolve their issues peacefully and bilaterally. The regional forum of Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO) can also be used  to increase regional integration.

Pakistan can bank on principles of regionalism to cultivate renewed ties with Afghanistan, Iran and most importantly Central Asian Republics.

Latest ECO summit in Islamabad has substantially enhanced chances and viability of regional integration in this regard. Regional trade, tourism, and connectivity will be affected as a result of this important step, as stated in the ECO Islamabad declaration of March 01, 2017:

“Enhance ECO-wide connectivity in terms of transport and transit; telecommunications; cyber; and all forms of energy; as well as people-to-people exchanges, including through regional tourism arrangements. Welcome in this regard the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a far-reaching initiative that would act as catalyst for the development of the entire region…. (note that the multi-dimensional connectivity in road, rail, energy, trade and cyber and associated infrastructure and industrial development can promote integration and economic development of the wider region). And to encourage all relevant international and regional financial institutions to actively cooperate with the ECO Member States in financing the development of ECO transport corridors, related connectivity, and energy projects.”

 

 

Saud Bin Ahsen is Post-Grad student of Public Administration at Institute of Administrative Sciences (IAS), University of the Punjab, Lahore. He is interested in Comparative Public Administration, Post-Colonial Literature, and South Asian Politics.

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