Gwadar Port, situated in the restive Balochistan province, has been the ‘it’ project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the torch bearer of the China-Pakistan relations, which Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani once said is "higher than mountains, deeper than the ocean, stronger than steel and sweeter than honey." The Gwadar Port is expected to provide China’s western hinterland with access to the Arabian Sea – and in turn the Indian Ocean – for maritime trade. Now partly operational, the port is one of the first visible signs of the $62 billion CPEC, which is a network of infrastructure projects that are currently under construction throughout Pakistan
On Monday, Pakistan prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi inaugurated the Economic Free Zone at the Gwadar Port, which will be run by China Overseas Port Holding Company. A Xinhuareport said that 30 companies belonging to businesses such as hotel, banking, logistics and fish processing will be in the free zone. The free zone is expected to garner direct investment of about $474.3 million, while the annual output is expected to be $790.5 million after full operation.
On the same day, both countries also signed six agreements to further develop the capacities of the deep water port.
Ever since it was first launched in 2002, the Gwadar Port has been a point of discussion among the Indian strategic community. With China asserting its claim to be a global power, its military interests in the Indian Ocean Region have seen a spike in the recent years. An ambitious China attaches paramount importance to the Indo-Pacific Region, an area which includes the Western Pacific Ocean as well as whole of the Indian Ocean, but this runs in parallel to India’s pre-eminence in the region.
Pakistan expects Gwadar to be a "gamechanger" – a term often used by the Establishment there – due to its strategic location near the Gulf of Hormuz. This gives China access to the Gulf region, a major route for oil supplies in the world. Moreover, there are military implications of the project too.
The Gwadar port has been called a 'gamechanger' by the Pakistani establishment. Reuters
China is expected to be in control of the port till 2059 after which will turn into Pakistan’s second naval base – after Karachi. However, what is more worrying are reports of Gwadar being a part of grand Chinese designs to encircle India through strategic ports in the Indian Ocean. Called the “string of pearls”, the true nature of the plan has been a matter of speculation, with The Economistconsidering it to be of commercial rather than military value. Nevertheless, a recent report claimed that China was building a naval base off the coast of Gwadar, which was denied by the Chinese foreign ministry.
While the opening of the Chabahar Port in Iran is being dubbed as India’s counter to Gwadar Port, only time will tell if it serves India’s economic as well as strategic purpose. The port, located in the Sistan-Balochistan province on the energy-rich Persian Gulf nation’s southern coast, lies outside the Persian Gulf and is easily accessed from India’s western coast, bypassing Pakistan.
The CPEC and India's concerns
More than the Gwadar Port, it is the CPEC that has been a contentious issue for the Indian government. The reason being that parts of the corridor passes through Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), which is legally a part of India. India has been raising the issue of "sovereignty" while opposing the CPEC as well as associated plans like the One Belt One Road (OBOR) Initiative.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, which is the largest part of PoK, hydropower dams and railway lines are the major CPEC-related infrastructure projects.
Speaking in the Lok Sabha in December last year, MoS, External Affairs VK Singh had said, "The government has conveyed to the Chinese side, including at the highest level, its concerns about China's activities in PoK and asked them to cease these activities. However, there may have been a softening in China's stance over CPEC too. China on Monday said it is ready to hold talks with India to resolve their differences on the controversial issue.
As to the differences between China and India, China stands ready to communicate and hold talks with India to seek a proper solution so that these differences will not affect our general national interests. This best serves the interests of the two countries," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said.
Not only in India, but concerns over CPEC have been raised in Gilgit-Baltistan region as well. Activists in the disputed region claim that China’s pace of implementing projects will environmentally harm the region. They also believe that these projects will lead to rampant land grabbing and loss of employment opportunities for the locals.
Despite local concerns, including opposition from Baloch groups for the fear of alienation as well as economic exploitation by Chinese companies, the project is likely to continue. But CPEC, as a project linking two of India's major geo-political rivals, spells a major security threat to India.
As noted by this Firstpost article, written on the eve of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s maiden visit to Pakistan, "CPEC project would mean Chinese presence in entire Pakistan, including Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, becomes all pervasive and powerful. China’s hectic economic and so-called 'commercial' engagement with Pakistan, which is nothing but a strategic gamechanger in the region, would go a long way in making Pakistan a richer and stronger entity than ever before."
Since the last decade, the fear of a two front-warhas been bothering the strategic community in India. Echoing similar sentiments, former northern army GoC, DS Hooda told The Times of India in 2017 that with China investing $62 billion in the corridor, any war with Pakistan will invariably also involve China.
"You have to be prepared for China. For India, the prospect of a two-front war is a real one. The question is: will China resort to armed hos tilties if a conflict breaks out between India and Pakistan? We are looking at it carefully and preparing," Hooda said while stressing on the reported close military relationship between the two of India's arch rivals.
Between June and August 2017, India and China were involved in a military standoff at the Bhutan-India-China tri-junction at Doka La. While border disputes between the countries were not new, the intensity and the persistence of the standoff was unprecedented. An opinion piece in The Economic Times at the time of the standoff linked the standoff to India's refusal to join the OBOR, which India had boycotted in May 2017 as part of CPEC passed through Gilgit Baltistan.
"The actual theatre of Doklam war might not be the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction where Indian and Chinese soldiers are facing off. It could be thousands of kilometres away—the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. In Doklam, China might be manoeuvring to secure CPEC, its biggest strategic asset in the region," the opinion piece noted.
As CPEC projects near their completion dates, Balochistan may well be at the centre of a security strategy of China. Beijing will like to securing Balochistan as a major part of the CPEC passes through the insurgency-ridden state. Two factors may force China to be proactive with regards to any security threat to Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reference to the persecuted population in Balochistan and the rise in Chinese casualties in terror attacks in the insurgency-ridden state.
As China embarks on its ambitious connectivity programme, India may find itself in a spot of bother as Beijing has brought almost all of New Delhi's neighbours on board. Afghanistan, which is a strategic partner of India, has also expressed interest in joining the connectivity programmes. Amid such developments, India-China rivalryacross South Asia will be watched out.
With inputs from agencies