By: Imran Malik
As the US/Nato/Isaf combine prepares to egress the AfPak Region (APR), we find Pakistan and China manoeuvring decisively into strategically advantageous positions in the region. Their strategic interests are converging on a grand scale at Gwadar – the centre of gravity and future strategic and economic hub of the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR)-Greater Middle East Region (GMER) complex.
Gwadar sits literally at the mouth of the strategically vital Straits of Hormuz. The leverage it provides is priceless. Its strategic location makes it ideal for any power intending to secure its energy sources in the region or to dominate the SCAR-GMER complex, including all Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) to and from the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, naval forces stationed at Gwadar or other Makran Coast ports could potentially foray deep into the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean too, even impacting east-west trade.
A sea-land trade route to and from western or southern Europe to Russia via the Mediterranean, Suez Canal, (North Africa and the Middle East), Red and Arabian seas, Gwadar (Pakistan), Afghanistan and the CARs could integrate regional economies and create mutually-beneficial interdependencies. From Gwadar, another link could be created with the Xinjiang province in western China, thus cutting by thousands the kilometres Chinese ships would have to travel to and from China through the Malacca Straits. India also could be accommodated at some appropriate stage. Gwadar could provide trans-shipment facilities for the entire region. An exhaustive network of roads and railways, therefore, needs to be developed in the Gwadar hinterland connecting it with Xinjiang, Iran, Turkey, Afghanistan, CARs and Russia.
It as a matter of fact could be a more cost effective, all-weather alternative to the New Silk Route Project (NSRP).
Thus, China’s imperatives to get to Gwadar are manifold.
The US is shifting pivot to the Asia Pacific as a part of its well known policy to manage China’s rise and to contain it. Sixty percent of its naval assets are likely to be deployed to the Asia Pacific by 2020. This would impact China’s ability to foray out of its geographical confines to play a proactive role in world politics and trade. It will contest being hemmed in or circumscribed by the US and its allies.
Further, China’s greatest vulnerability lies at the Malacca Straits, which is the biggest chokepoint in the SLOCs to and from the Asia Pacific region. Thus, any power (ostensibly, the US and its allies) controlling the Malacca Straits could use this leverage to devastating strategic effect on any country in Asia Pacific. By bringing the Straits of Hormuz within its strategic reach, China would acquire a corresponding and competing leverage.
India is expected to play a very important role in the manifestation of this US grand strategic design.
Pakistan and China will do well to operationalise a north-south trade corridor, emanating from the Xinjiang province and going down south to Port Qasim, Karachi and Gwadar. This trade corridor must comprise an expanded and improved KKH with a railway line running parallel to it.
Since New Delhi has opted out of the Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) gas pipeline project under US pressure, therefore, it must now be converted into an Iran-Pakistan-China (IPC) gas pipeline. China could further secure its oil supplies (60 percent of its crude comes from Iran) by having an oil pipeline from Iran running parallel to the IPC gas pipeline.
India stands to lose enormously if it blindly follows the US lead in containing China. It has already soiled its relations with Iran, to a great extent, by siding with the US on its nuclear programme issue and opting out of the IPI gas pipeline project. (Ironically, it has not opted out of the TAPI project.) The Indian SLOCs to and from the Persian Gulf and CARs (via Chabahar-Herat) would lie within constant Chinese oversight and strategic reach. The Indians are already wary of the Chinese, who they feel are encircling them through a series of ports – a consequence of its ‘String of Pearls’ strategy.
By establishing the north-south trade corridor, the Chinese would literally outflank the Indo-US design of containing it to a great extent.
Pakistan has done well to develop Gwadar into a meaningful port. Its strategic implications are quite apparent. China is making a massive investment in the Gwadar area, adding 20 more berths there and will also develop the road infrastructure in its hinterland (Road Gwadar-Ratodero). It also intends to create an Economic Zone in Gwadar, which should go a long way in boosting the local, national and regional economy.
Furthermore, Iran has shown readiness to establish a $4 billion oil refinery there. The IP gas pipeline too would have an enormous economic impact in the region. Pakistan and China must also develop a road-railways network from Port Qasim-Karachi along the west bank of the River Indus and take it right up to Torkham and beyond.
India, on the other hand, must understand the leverage that Pakistan is developing. Good relations with Pakistan could ensure the provision of gas and oil through land routes from Iran and the CARs. India could possibly open land trade routes to the West and get access to Iran and Turkey, on the one hand, and Afghanistan, CARs, Russia and Europe, on the other, NSRP.
Its energy needs could be met expeditiously and at much lower transportation costs. In return, it could make all-out efforts to genuinely resolve all outstanding issues with Pakistan. Kashmir and the water disputes rank the highest these days. Pakistan, in return, could ensure that Indian energy requirements could be met through the fossil fuel pipelines from Iran and the CARs. More so, the NSRP could become a reality. However, if it turns into a gas and oil versus water war, then both sides are likely to suffer. We must seek a win-win solution.
Gwadar is truly a port of immense possibilities and will be the hub of most political, strategic and economic developments in the region for a very long time to come.
The writer is a retired brigadier and a former defence attaché to Australia and New Zealand. Currently, he is on the faculty of NUST (NIPCONS). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org