Gwadar: A New ‘Pearl’ Or A Step In China’s ‘March West’ World Politics Review By Abhijit Singh

By some accounts, Gwadar could be one more example of the new Chinese strategy. Developing Gwadar’s port, even without establishing a permanent naval base, would greatly facilitate Beijing’s ability to project power in South and Central Asia.

Pakistan’s decision to allow a Chinese company to take over operations of the Gwadar port in Baluchistan has raised anxiety levels in South Asia. Since Jan. 31, when reports first emerged of the Pakistani Cabinet’s decision to transfer operational control of the port to China Overseas Port Holdings, India has been worried about the strategic consequences of what is being described as the establishment of a de facto Chinese outpost in the Indian Ocean.

Many in India see the move as another bead in China’s “string of pearls” strategy of investing in port and infrastructure deals throughout South and Southeast Asia in a manner that appears to encircle India. The reality could be different, though no less disquieting for New Delhi. In October, Wang Jisi, one of China’s most influential thinkers, proposed a radical idea that he christened “March West.” Its logic is quite simple: China thinks its relations with the U.S. are becoming increasingly contentious and zero-sum. According to Wang, as Washington rebalances to East Asia, China must avoid a head-on military confrontation with America. Instead, it should fill in the gaps left by the American retreat from West Asia and the Middle East. By doing so, China will be able to decisively influence regions free from a U.S.-dominated security order or a pre-existing economic integration mechanism.

China’s prime challenge is to turn its economic prowess into political strength and soft power. It plans to achieve this by allocating more resources to forging closer relations with countries in the targeted regions through diplomatic engagements, human exchanges, foreign assistance and academic research projects. As a part of the March West strategy, China has now decided to speed up construction of the so-called New Silk Road connecting western China to Central and South Asia. China is also playing an active role in rebuilding Afghanistan. In September, Zhou Yongkang of China’s Politburo Standing Committee visited Kabul — the first time a member of the committee had done so in five decades. During the visit, China pledged to assist in “training, funding and equipping the Afghan police.” Significantly, only a few months earlier China and Afghanistan had upgraded bilateral ties to a strategic partnership, with Afghanistan also being given observer status in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In November, a trilateral meeting among China, Afghanistan and Pakistan provided further evidence that China is on the path to enhanced engagements in South Asia.

By some accounts, Gwadar could be one more example of the new Chinese strategy. Developing Gwadar’s port, even without establishing a permanent naval base, would greatly facilitate Beijing’s ability to project power in South and Central Asia.

China has long sought a strategic presence in the Indian Ocean. Now, more than China’s growing influence in South and Central Asia, it is the potential establishment of a Chinese maritime client state in Pakistan that has India really concerned. Some of India’s anxiety is driven by reports that the Pakistani navy played a significant part in the cancellation of the contract held by Singapore’s PSA International, which previously managed the port. Pakistan’s navy reportedly objected to PSA’s continuing management of Gwadar because the company opposed the expansion of a Pakistani naval base to land that had been reserved for the development of the port. Pakistani naval authorities were keen for a Chinese takeover of the port and the possible development of a naval base that would be available for joint use by both the Pakistani and Chinese navies.

To be sure, PSA avoided controversy by agreeing to voluntarily withdraw from the contract. It had not been able to deliver the expected economic benefits, but perhaps also felt let down by local authorities, who let infrastructure projects in Gwadar languish.

The handover of Gwadar not only mitigates China’s strategic vulnerability due to its current dependence for energy imports on the narrow and heavily trafficked Malacca Strait but also addresses its similar vulnerability in the Strait of Hormuz. Indeed, energy security is a strong component of the March West strategy. With no naval presence in the Persian Gulf, China feels defenseless against the strong U.S. naval presence in the Strait of Hormuz. Gwadar could now give China access to alternative safe supply routes for its energy shipments. There is also speculation that Beijing may revive plans to build a pipeline from the port to the western Chinese province of Xinjiang province.

In 2011, when Pakistan’s defense minister publicly urged China to take over the Gwadar port, China declined due to concerns over instability resulting from local Baluch insurgents. At the time, with attacks taking place regularly and scant security, it did not seem worthwhile for China to become entangled in one of Pakistan’s most problematic provinces. The U.S. decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, leaving the country’s political field open for Pakistan and the Taliban, may have altered China’s strategic calculus, however. The drawdown of American troops creates a political gap that Beijing now hopes to fill. The fact that both the Pakistani army and the Quetta-based Taliban leadership are likely to play a significant role in Kabul’s new power structure may have encouraged the Chinese leadership to believe that conditions at Gwadar would be more manageable this time around.

The transfer of Gwadar into Chinese hands, however, significantly shrinks India’s strategic space and regional influence. China’s development of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port, and Colombo’s subsequent aloofness toward New Delhi, illustrate how, once China establishes a presence in a South Asian country, that country tends to drift away from India’s sphere of influence. China is gradually moving into India’s neighborhood; New Delhi would do well to prepare for the consequences.

Abhijit Singh is a research fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, in New Delhi, India. He focuses on political and strategic developments in West and South Asia and littoral security in the Indian Ocean region.

Photo: Gwadar port, Pakistan (photo by Wikimedia user paranda licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license).

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