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New port marks China’s growing presence in the Persian Gulf region

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Brian M Downing

China and Pakistan recently signed an agreement granting Beijing the operating rights to the Gwadar port facilities in western Pakistan, along the Arabian Sea and near the Strait of Hormuz.

[See: China takes over Gwadar, Pakistan's deep-water port, in strategic coup, East-Asia-Intel.com, Feb. 6, 2013]

Last year, China rejected Pakistan’s offer to build a naval base in Gwadar – a move that humiliated Pakistan and thwarted its effort to play China against the U.S.

Gwadar is expected to become a key naval hub for China.  /Reuters

Gwadar is expected to become a key naval hub for China. /Reuters

A non-military facility linked to China is less than optimal for Pakistan, especially its powerful army, but the arrangement is exciting interest and concern in many quarters, especially in India and in countries along China’s eastern periphery. Concern may be overstated, as almost always is the case in national security institutions around the world. Nonetheless, events in Gwadar bear consideration.

New Delhi will see Chinese operations in Gwadar, albeit civilian in nature, as a step toward a Chinese naval base there in coming years. This would make Gwadar part of China’s “string of pearls” (along with Burma, Sri Lanka, and the Seychelles) that seek to surround and isolate India.

However, India and its allies are better positioned to choke off China’s lines of communication to this string of pearls and also China’s sea lanes to Middle Eastern oil. China’s naval bases are vulnerable to isolation and may be strategic liabilities rather than assets.

Gwadar is situated a scant three hundred miles from the Strait of Hormuz and, whether commercial or naval, the deal further signals the growing Chinese presence in the Persian Gulf region.

China already has large oil leases in Iraq, considerable ties with Iran, and good relations with Saudi Arabia as well. This diplomatic feat ensures that China will have considerable influence in the region for years to come. In fact, Beijing may have sufficient influence in both Tehran and Riyadh to bring or impose a measure of stability to the critical region.

Pakistan undoubtedly sees the Gwadar deal as a boon. This, however, may not be very farsighted. Gwadar is in the western province of Baluchistan, which has long felt it was unjustly subjugated by Pakistan in 1947 and which has fought intermittent insurgencies over the last sixty-five years. A low-level one has been underway for several years now.

China’s presence has been a source of irritation to Baluchs and expansion of that presence will underscore local resentments toward Pakistan’s heavy-handed politics and extractive economic policies.

China’s relationship to the province of Baluchistan will be based on economics and geopolitics; the province’s relationship to Pakistan is of little concern to the politburo or to the People’s Liberation Army for that matter. Accordingly, should Baluch separatism reach a critical level, China may accept, if not support, detaching the province from its near colonial status vis-a-vis the Pakistani army and state.

Beijing may be especially accommodating of Baluch aspirations for independence if it faces political disintegration in the rest of Pakistan and an attendant disruption of commerce between China’s considerable assets in Afghanistan and the export routes to the port of Karachi. That port city, of course, faces fierce ethnic violence and an Islamist fervor whose differentiation with that of Al Qaida is often not easy to discern. The routes between Afghanistan’s mineralogical wealth and Gwadar may seem relatively secure.

Gwadar’s future – civilian or military, peaceful or aggressive – cannot be fully known at present even in the high councils of Beijing. The port will be a point of contention between the more staid, business-oriented politicians and the more zealous, military-oriented ones who are uncomfortable with the materialistic and “bourgeois” course that the nation has taken. That course, in the army’s view, is not conducive to proper government, military discipline, or Confucian decorum for that matter. Gwadar’s future, then, may grant us insight into ongoing power struggles in Beijing.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at brianmdowning@gmail.com.

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