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Gwadar Deep Water Port Project: Implications For Pakistan And China

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by Lt. Gen. (R) Talat Masood
Published on September 22nd, 2004

Cooperation between China and Pakistan dates back several decades, in large part due to shared national interests, particularly mutual suspicion of India. Their joint efforts in a wide range of activities including economic, defense, foreign policy and cultural matters embody a relationship that has transcended major change in both governments. The people of Pakistan in particular have demonstrated a sustained pro-China sentiment that further strengthens this bond. Nearly 60 percent of Pakistan’s military systems and equipment is of Chinese origin. Several collaborative projects between the two countries include, for example, the manufacture of tanks, trainer and fighter aircraft, patrol boats, guns, missiles, telecommunication equipment, and the construction of nuclear power plants. Another landmark project is the Karakorum highway, which links China's Sinkiang [Tsiensing] province to Pakistan's northwest, construction that was completed in the 1980s.

Islamabad considers China a strategic partner. Beijing characterizes the relationship as a constructive partnership. Semantics aside, maintaining a close relationship with an ascending power capable of countervailing India has always appealed to Pakistan's policy makers no matter what their political stripes. On the other hand, China recognizes Pakistan’s importance in the regional context, its eminence among the Muslim countries, and its usefulness as an ally at international forums. With the two countries enjoying such good relations, it is no surprise that Islamabad is very comfortable working closely with Beijing on the important Gwadar port project.

A new port at Gwadar will supplement Pakistan’s existing one at Karachi, and its Port Qasim extension, which dates from the late 1980s. Karachi handles nearly 50 million tons. With Pakistan’s economy expected to grow at a minimum of 5 percent to 6 percent annually, the volume of trade is projected at about 75 million tons by 2015. The government has already undertaken expansion programs at both ports to cater to the growing commercial demands. Nonetheless, there is still a need for an additional seaport to handle peak season overflow of incoming and outgoing cargo and to cater to transit traffic from the Central Asian states and Afghanistan. Equally significant is the national defense need for redundancy in the communication infrastructure. A single port complex is vulnerable, especially during times of crisis or war.

The Gwadar port project arose from a Sino-Pak agreement signed in March 2002 and under which China Harbor Construction Corporation will build the port. Beijing has provided $198 million and Islamabad $50 million. The scope of Phase One includes construction of three multipurpose berths, each 200 meters long and capable of handling vessels up to 30,000 DWT. This first phase should be completed by late 2004 or early 2005. The estimated cost of Phase Two, planned for development by the private sector, is $600 million. It envisages ten more berths, a 5-kilometer approach channel and the capacity for vessels up to 50,000 DWT.

Gwadar is also visualized as becoming a regional hub, serving commercial traffic to and from the Mid East, the Persian Gulf, and China’s Xinjiang province, Iran, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Its location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and at the opposite end of the strategic choke points of Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman enhances its strategic importance. Its development could as well favorably influence the geo-strategic environment of the region and have an overall beneficial impact on Pakistan. Additionally, the port would facilitate efficient exploitation of Pakistan's exclusive economic zone, which so far has remained largely unexplored. The area is known to be rich in fisheries and if the 600 kilometer long coastal line is fully exploited could give a substantial boost to fish and crab exports and promote food-processing industries. Gwadar lying close to the oil rich Gulf-states could be a potential source of off–shore gas and oil reserves.

The existing highways on the Afghan border, which connect the border towns of Chamman and Torkham, provide the shortest all-weather road and rail links. They will have to be brought up to international standards, however, if Gwadar’s potential as a major economic and commercial center is to be realized. Pakistan is already at work, with its 700-mile Mekran Coastal Highway, connecting Gwadar with its own major cities and ports. The development of comprehensive network of roads and other communication infrastructure, however, entails heavy investment and several years to complete. Rail and air services between Gwadar and other important commercial nodes in Pakistan will have to be either upgraded or established and upgraded.

Development of the Gwadar port, which is located in the relatively backward province of Baluchistan would benefit its overall economy and unlock its potential. Regrettably, both local people and tribal leaders are not enthusiastic about the project. In fact, some are actively opposing it. Their fears are that outsiders, whether foreign or domestic, will undertake the development work and that this will threaten the identity and livelihoods of the locals. Tribal leaders who have monopolized power in Baluchistan are apprehensive of losing their hold when the project materializes. This would entail building consensus through a sustained and well-coordinated political process and winning local confidence.

Beijing, according to some sources, intends to take advantage of Gwadar’s most accessible international trade routes to CAR and Xinjiang. The plan envisages extending China’s East-West Railway from the Chinese border city of Kashi to Peshawar in Pakistan's northwest. Cargo to and from Gwadar can then be delivered to China along the shortest route, from Karachi to Peshawar. The same road and rail network could also be used to supply oil from the Persian Gulf to the western provinces of China. Additionally, China could gain rail and road access to Iran through Pakistan’s internal road and rail network. Use of Gwadar port by China, which is one of the fastest growing economies in the world would accelerate the growth of both the port and the hinterland as well as enhance Gwadar's overall commercial and strategic value.

The Chinese have all along denied that the Gwadar project has any military dimension. It is, Beijing emphasizes, a civilian port. At the same time, China--with heavy imports of Persian Gulf oil, most of which is routed through this sea-lane--maintains that its interest in having secure and uninterrupted flow of oil is justified. Joint naval exercises, goodwill visits by its naval vessels and increased trade and commercial activity with Pakistan are likely to raise China's profile in the Arabian Sea.

As a matter of policy, China has always assisted Pakistan in strengthening its defensive capability. Beijing's involvement in the Gwadar sea port project is motivated primarily by commercial considerations, but it also sees distinct advantages for both its and Pakistan's navy in having a friendly port of call close to the Persian Gulf region. Between that and a reliable network of road and rail links, both Pakistan and China are sure to benefit commercially and strategically.

From a defense perspective, Pakistan's navy would find it easier to operate closer to the Gulf. During times of crisis, it could move its naval assets farther from any Indian air and naval threat. In the event of war, a port in Gwadar would provide strategic depth to Pakistan’s commercial and military vessels and be in a relatively advantageous position from which to operate against an Indian navy. Gwadar is, however, well within range of land-based and sea-based Indian missiles.

Lt.Gen.(R) Talat Masood retired as Secretary Defense Production in the Ministry of Defense, government of Pakistan in early 90's. He also served as the Chairman Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board. He has a Bachelors in engineering and a Masters in Defense and Strategic Studies. Since retirement he is closely associated with several regional and global think tanks and universities. He contributes to national and foreign newspapers and magazines and comments on television and radio networks.

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