China Gains Strategic Foothold Near Persian Gulf

By Patrick Goodenough | February 23, 2005 | 7:16 PM EST

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Pakistan, within weeks, will mark the opening of the first phase of a deep-sea port project that analysts say will give China a crucial economic and strategic foothold in the Arabian Sea.

Chinese funding has enabled President Pervez Musharraf's government to push ahead with the project on Pakistan's southwest coast, near the mouth of the Persian Gulf and some 250 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, a major conduit for world oil supplies.

Experts say the project has set off alarm bells in the U.S., where China's military buildup is warily watched; and in India, a major Asian rival to China and a longstanding foe of Pakistan.

The advantages for China include access to port facilities for commercial and naval vessels near the oil-rich Gulf; and a new international trade route linking China's remote western regions to the ocean, via road and rail links through Pakistan.

The port, located at a former fishing village called Gwadar, will also strengthen China's strategic influence with South Asian and Gulf countries.

Pakistan benefits from having a new port as an alternative to the more vulnerable Karachi to the east, which the Indian Navy has blockaded during past conflicts. This will in turn allow Pakistan to bolster its own naval capabilities.

The port will also enable Islamabad to offer lucrative trade routes to the landlocked republics of Central Asia.

Beijing insists its interest in Gwadar is purely commercial. It has contributed almost $200 million -- four times the size of Pakistan's investment -- for phase one of the project, and also supplied 450 workers and technical assistance.

The first phase, due to be officially opened next month in the presence of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, includes three multi-purpose ship berths. A second phase envisages nine or ten more berths, an approach channel, and oil, grain and bulk cargo terminals.

Economic, strategic motivation

In the current issue of the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Pakistani scholar Zia Haider writes that China's interest in the project lies in consolidating its relationship with Pakistan, securing and diversifying routes for oil shipments, and extending its presence in the Indian Ocean.

"A Chinese presence at Gwadar allows China to ensure the security of its energy-related shipments along existing routes," says Haider, who is based at the Stimson Center in Washington.

"It could also monitor U.S. naval activity in the Persian Gulf, Indian activity in the Arabian Sea, and future U.S.-Indian maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean."

According to Tarique Niazi, a University of Wisconsin specialist in resource-based conflicts, Beijing's interest in the project was spurred on by the expansion of the U.S. military presence in Asia following the 9/11 terror attacks.

Writing in a special report in China Brief, a Jamestown Foundation journal, Niazi said "Beijing was already wary of the strong U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, which supplies 60 percent of its energy needs. It was now alarmed to see the U.S. extend its reach into Asian nations that ring western China.

"Having no blue water navy to speak of, China feels defenseless in the Persian Gulf against any hostile action to choke off its energy supplies."

It was this vulnerability that prompted China to look for alternative energy supply routes.

Niazi said that, despite U.S. unease, Musharraf had acceded to a Chinese request for "sovereign guarantees" to use the port facilities.

China therefore gets "a strategic foothold" in the Arabian Sea.

In an assessment to a Senate committee last week, CIA director Porter Goss described a self-assured China that was building up its military and expanding its influence.

"China is increasingly confident and active on the international stage, trying to ensure it has a voice on major international issues, secure access to natural resources, and counter what it sees as U.S. efforts to contain or encircle China," he said.

South Asian rivals

From an Indian perspective, China's strategy with relation to Gwadar is aimed at keeping its giant southern neighbor in check, exploiting the longstanding animosity between India and Pakistan.

In the view of Bahukutumbi Raman, director of the Institute For Topical Studies in Chennai, India, "China's core objectives [are] to keep India confronted with a credible military threat from Pakistan in order to reduce its strategic maneuverability and to hamper its efforts to catch up with the Chinese economy."

Last October, China and Pakistan conducted their first-ever joint naval exercises, for three days off the Shanghai coast.

In a recent article, retired Pakistani army lieutenant-general Talat Masood said China had been Pakistan's strongest military and economic supporter over the past half century, and that the ties had survived significant changes in government in both countries.

"China has been an invaluable external source of military equipment and technologies to Pakistan, especially during the period when the United States and other countries imposed sanctions on this country."

Sanctions against Pakistan over the years have been in response to various sensitive developments, including military coups, Pakistan's nuclear weapons development, and missile technology transfers.

One potential hurdle to the Gwadar project stems from the fact the new port lies in Pakistan's underdeveloped and restive Balochistan province, where nationalist rebels with longstanding grievances against Islamabad are opposed to what they see as an attempt by the federal government to steal their natural resources.

At least three armed extremist groups have emerged in the province, and one of them last May killed three Chinese engineers working on the port project.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow