Ms. Sabahat Ali
“This idea was conceived only two years ago, and this day marks the breaking of the dawn of a new era” were the remarks of Pakistan’s Premier Nawaz Sharif at the grand opening ceremony at the Gwadar port on 13th November 2016 marking the operationalisation and opening of trade activities at the port, a key project under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Gwadar Port is a warm-water, deep-sea port situated on the Arabian Sea at Gwadar in Balochistan province of Pakistan. The port features prominently in the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor(CPEC) plan, and is considered to be a crucial link between the ambitious One Belt, One Road and Maritime Silk Road projects.
When Pakistan gained independence in 1947, Gwadar was still under Omani rule. With the independence of Pakistan and accession of all Baloch states to Pakistan, including the Chief Commissioner’s Province of British Baluchistan on 15th August 1947 ; the States of Kharan, Makran and Lasbela on 17th March 1948; and the Kalat State on 27th March 1948, the residents of Gwadar also began raising the demand to join Pakistan. In 1954, Pakistan engaged the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to conduct a survey of its coastline. The USGS deputed the surveyor, Worth Condrick, for the survey, who identified the hammerhead-shaped peninsula of Gwadar as a natural and suitable site for a new deep-sea port. With this finding Pakistan made a formal request to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman for a transfer of control in exchange for cash. After four years of negotiations, Pakistan purchased the Gwadar enclave from Oman for US$3 million on 8th September 1958 and it officially became part of Pakistan after 200 years of Omani rule.
Under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor plan, China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) will expand Gwadar Port with construction of nine new multipurpose berths on 3.2 kilometres of seafront to the east of the existing multipurpose berths. Gwadar Port is being developed in two phases: Phase I covered building of three multipurpose berths and related port infrastructure and port handling equipment, and was completed in December 2006, but inaugurated on 20 March 2007. The second phase of construction is currently underway as part of planned improvements under CPEC and other ancillary projects. The total project is expected to cost $1.02 billion.
China has a great strategic interest in Gwadar. The port is strategically important for China as sixty percent of China’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf by ships traveling over 16,000 kilometres in two to three months, confronting pirates, bad weather, political rivals, and other risks up to its only commercial port, Shanghai. Gwadar will reduce the distance to a mere 5000 kilometres and also serve round the year – as Gwadar is a blue water deep sea port.
China is heavily dependent on Persian Gulf oil which passes through the Strait of Malacca all the way through the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Once the oil reaches China’s east coast ports, it is transported thousands of miles inland to western China. The Gwadar port-Karakoram Highway (KKH) route is safer, cheaper and shorter than transporting the oil by ocean tanker. Chinese goods flowing in the opposite direction will find an easier, shorter and secure route to the Middle East, increasing trade. Feasibility and engineering studies to connect China with Gwadar through a pipeline and railway track have already begun. In 2007, the Civil Aviation Authority of Pakistan acquired 4,300 acres to construct a new green field airport, the New Gwadar International Airport, on 6,000 acres, at an estimated cost of Rs. 7.5 billion.
Planned investments in Gwadar Port as part of CPEC will improve connectivity to restive Xinjiang, thereby increasing the region’s potential to attract public and private investment. CPEC is considered central to China–Pakistan relations; its central importance is reflected by China’s inclusion of the project as part of its 13th five-year development plan. The Gwadar Port project will also complement China’s Western Development plan, which includes not only Xinjiang, but also the neighbouring regions of Tibet and Qinghai.
The Straits of Malacca will provide China with its shortest maritime access to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Approximately 80% pass of its Middle Eastern energy imports also pass through the Straits of Malacca. As the world’s biggest oil importer, energy security is a key concern for China while current sea routes used to import Middle Eastern oil are frequently patrolled by the United States’ Navy. The sea-route via the Straits of Malacca is roughly 12,000 kilometres long, while the distance from Gwadar Port to Xinjiang province is approximately 3,000 kilometres, and another 3,500 kilometres from Xinjiang to China’s eastern coast.
As an emerging nation China along with India knows that the focus of the future growth will be in the Indo-Pacific region that includes South East Asia, Eurasia and even Eastern Africa and possibility of Western Australia. Under “One Road One Belt’ initiative of the Chinese plan that includes land based Silk route and the Maritime Silk route, China is simply preparing itself to be a dominant nation in the region and perhaps in the world. CPEC is only the central arm of the land based Silk route. There is a Western route and a Southern one as well.
Even after the widening of the Panama Canal recently the major US ports on the east coast, who are eager to trade with China, will find the above corridor when completed, provides a reduction of 2000 miles in the journey of goods from the western hemisphere. It could possibly become an equidistant route competing with the Panama Canal route.
Upon completion of CPEC-related infrastructure projects, transit times between Kashgar and Pakistan’s Gwadar Port will be greatly reduced, which in turn will also reduce transit times to the Kyrgyzstan and hydrocarbon-rich Kazakhstan through already existing overland routes.
The Government of Pakistan has committed to providing a naval base to China in Gwadar. This will not only help secure Gwadar but also take Pakistan-China relations to new heights. Although some analysts claim that China intends to establish a naval presence at Gwadar, others argue that China will be cautious about such a development. A Chinese military presence in Gwadar though may provoke a significant reaction from both the United States and India. Gwadar can help China to monitor the sea-lanes from the Persian Gulf as about 60% of Chinese energy requirements come from the Persian Gulf and transit along this sea-lane. Gwadar is also further away from the reach of the Indian Navy than Karachi, which was attacked twice during in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. The port of Gwadar can provide China a Listening Post to observe the Indian naval activities around the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Aden.
The writer is freelance columnist and rights activist based in Abbottabad.