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China Pakistan find a.common interest

The chief of the Pakistan naval staff Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah salutes Chinese sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer PLA (N) Harbin. Pakistan Navy

by Christopher Zinn

We hear a great deal about risks in the South China Sea as Beijing expands its interests there. But there are intriguing developments half-a-world away, in the Arabian Sea surrounded to the north by Oman, Pakistan and India but in which Australia has a direct interest.

The Pakistan port of Karachi has just played host to a multi-national naval exercise, involving military ships from 36 countries including from the Royal Australian Navy. The exercises was focused on defending sea trade routes; the all-important Indian Ocean lies to the south of the Arabian Sea.

AMAN-17 (aman means 'peace' in Urdu) was a chance for the nuclear-armed and fast-growing Pakistan Navy to show off its latest acquisitions, which include two new Chinese built warships.

The objective in bringing together vessels from the UK, US, Indonesia and China, among others, was to build a coalition on maritime issues and develop tactics against non-traditional threats such as smuggling.

Commander Cameron Steil (2nd left) greets the top brass of the Pakistan Navy, including Admiral Zakaullah, on the bridge of the frigate HMAS Arunta. Christopher Zinn

India was conspicuous by its absence — not surprisingly given 70 years of war tension on both sides over Kashmir, nuclearisation and state-sponsored terrorism.

Apart from the normalised security threat, it was the opportunity for discussion of the massive economic and geopolitical challenges which informed much of the talk, especially with a view to China.

The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)  is an audacious project funded by more than US$56 billion in loans from Beijing to give China trade access to a new mega-port called Gwadar in Pakistan.

The project involves railways, roads and power stations leading from the south of Pakistan through some of the most rugged and unstable parts of the country to the border with China in the north. It is, in the words of Pakistan's defence minister, Khawja Muhammad Asif, a 'game-changer'.

The land link, and the transformation of Gwadar into a large and secure hub, would shave two weeks off the travel time of shipping from China's east coast to the Middle East and beyond.

Chinese missile destroyer PLA (N) Harbin in Karachi, Pakistan. Christopher Zinn

Major economic hub

The project underlines Pakistan's desire to become a major economic hub and more dominant maritime power while insisting it's committed to peace and not interested in 'escalating adventurism at sea'.

"With the operationalisation of CPEC and the port of Gwadar maritime activities will increase exponentially in north Arabian sea and beyond," said defence minister Asif.

"Consequently the responsibility of the Pakistan Navy could also increase in maintaining a secure maritime environment and the smooth flow of sea routes."

The CPEC project forms part of the China's larger vision of the much-vaunted Belt and Road Initiative for enhanced trade and development with a land-based economic belt and maritime 'road' involving 60 nations.

It's one of several economic co-operation corridors and maritime pivot points and has enthusiastic support around Pakistan.

But the development of new routes to get Chinese goods to new markets, and improving to the connectivity and activity of its vast interior regions, is not without its critics, India in particular, which claims it's more about exerting global influence than need for more infrastructure.

A maritime conference being held in tandem with the AMAN 17 exercises pointed to the CPEC project as a key to the overdue economic development not just of Pakistan but also the western Indian Ocean region.

CPEC significant project

Dennis Rumley, professor of Indian Ocean Studies at Curtin University in Perth, says if the sums add up CPEC could be one of the world's most significant geopolitical and geo-economic projects.

"Of course the Chinese want access to the Indian Ocean and why not? The problem with that access is it's going to take billions of dollars, it's going to the construction of railway that'll take at least five years in the best-case scenario and it's going to run through a region which is highly insecure," he said.

"You have to solve all those problems first and of course the money is not a grant it's a loan and there's a real possibility that given the economic situation in Pakistan they may be unable to repay the loan. So the long-term issues are rather fragile."

But Sydney-based funds manager Jack Lowenstein of Morphic Asset Management, who is a keen investor and visitor to Pakistan, has a more bullish take on the project.

He predicts the country's economic growth will pick up from 3-4 per cent to 5 per cent within a few years and CPEC will bring much-needed investment particularly to correct the nation's chronic power shortage.

"We believe the Chinese have far too much 'face' at stake to pull out and we see no evidence of the Pakistanis doing anything other than rolling out a very large red carpet," he said.

Almost 40 per cent of the world's trade passes through the Indian Ocean including most of Australia's fuel and food and the RAN has been active in the region and the Gulf since 1990.

Australian presence

Flying the Australian flag at AMAN was the frigate HMAS Arunta, now on a nine-month deployment in policing some of those non-traditional threats such as piracy and arms, drugs and people smuggling.

Commander Cameron Steil declines to be drawn on the related South China Sea issues, but says given the size and strategic location of the Indian Ocean region it's essential Australia maintains a presence.

"Everything that happens here is in our direct interests, so to come and contribute here and learn what's going on together and develop that understanding means that AMAN is peace plus," he said.

On a ceremonial visit to HMAS Arunta, the chief of the Pakistan naval staff, Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah, summed up the scale of CPEC and its strategic significance: "This huge area is so large no one nation can think of making it safe and secure; absolutely we need friends to join hands and make sure the maritime environment is safe and secure."

Christopher Zinn is a journalist and former correspondent for The Daily Telegraph (London) and Guardian. He travelled to Karachi for the AMAN-17 exercises as a guest of the Pakistan Navy.

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