The chief minister of Balochistan, Nawab Aslam Raisani, put on notice the first “objection” to the port’s management in his speech and reminded us of the past decades of bickering over the project. He said Gwadar was on the land of Balochistan and its economic aspects must benefit the Baloch above everyone else. This was in answer to the federal ports minister, Mr Nabil Gabol, who said the new port will “generate massive economic activities in the region”. The chief minister didn’t like the fact that labour in Gwadar was being “imported” from other provinces. He swore he would not allow the Baloch “majority” of Gwadar to be converted into a “minority”. And he referred to the Lahore Resolution of 1940 which had envisaged the provinces as “sovereign” entities.
When the construction of Gwadar began in 2002, objections to it were galore: that it was redundant because the existing ports had enough handling capacity for the next 20 years; that Gwadar was next to nowhere and without water and electricity and would need the construction of a coastal highway 600 km long. More “strategic” trouble came Pakistan’s way when China agreed to provide only $198 million of the $298 million needed for Phase One. Phase Two was estimated at $600 million.
The world, and the not too-happy neighbours, began to concentrate on other details: Gwadar would provide a stable and proximate point of access to the other Gulf ports and it would be just 250 miles from the Straits of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil supplies flow; the port would be strategically located to serve as a key shipping point in the region; it would also provide the landlocked Central Asian republics, Afghanistan, and the Chinese Xinjiang region, with access to the Arabian Sea’s warm waters, etc.
The port was delayed for a number of reasons. It was supposed to open in 2005 and has come on line after three years of glitches and after the Baloch rebels had killed engineers there and generally rejected it. India, still posturing aggressively in the aftermath of the 2001 military face-off with Pakistan, said it was “carefully monitoring” the port and Chinese activity on the Makran coast together with Chinese activity on the Myanmar coast. Iran and America were also supposed to be “offended” by the idea of Gwadar serving as a Chinese “foot in the door” in a region they considered their strategic backyard. The Iran-Indian partnership had taken off and India was helping build Iran’s Chabahar port which they thought might be rivalled and eclipsed by Gwadar. But regional alignments have changed significantly since 2002 when the port aroused the hostile imagination of strategists around the world. Today the world is in a downward economic spiral and neighbours are busy tackling other problems of greater importance.
The Iran-India relationship has cooled as India has decided to move closer to America with a nuclear deal — the US Hyde Act requires “India’s cooperation against Iran” — and Iran has retaliated by revising upwards the price of its LNG exports to India after having signed on a price agreement. (Iran has since gone back on the price of the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline gas too.) Gwadar had once also jeopardised the Iran-China equation that was motivated by a desire to oppose US “hegemony” at the global level, giving an opportunity to China to “forward buy” Iranian gasfields. But today that scenario too has changed as China moves to the centre of America’s attention as an important “indirect” supporter of the Iraq war. The Chinese-Indian equation too is no longer hostile, thanks to the growing volume of bilateral trade and China’s decision not to veto sanctions against Pakistan after the Mumbai attack last month.
Gwadar is not any more “strategy-neutral” than it was in 2002. Indeed, it can be everybody’s point of access to Central Asia and China’s western provinces. As a part of SAARC, Afghanistan needs a better trade outreach inside South Asia and Gwadar could be become an important conduit after Pakistan removes its mental cobwebs and decides to allow the trade routes that will bestow on it the geopolitical importance it doesn’t have now. That requires Pakistan to shift from the geo-”military” to the geo-”economic” way of thinking about itself. It is only after that that the world will come to its help in getting rid of its “non-state actors” and in becoming a great trading nation ordained by its physical positioning in the region.