Restive regions may yet spell trouble for China's Gwadar plan
The proposed $18 billion (Dh66bn) economic corridor linking Pakistan's Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea and Kashghar in China's northwestern Xinjiang province by road, rail and an energy pipeline, could be described as a "game changer" for the whole region.
The two countries recently inaugurated the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Secretariat in Islamabad, where they also discussed laying an oil pipeline from Gwadar in southwestern Balochistan to western China. The proposed pipeline might eventually be connected with Iran.
The economic corridor will not only enhance trade between the GCC and south-west Asia, but will also enable China to secure energy routes through Gwadar, a strategic seaport located near the Strait of Hormuz, itself a gateway for a third of the world's traded oil.
Gwadar is important to China for both commercial and defence purposes. The port will ultimately give China an entry point into the Arabian Gulf with the aim of widening its geopolitical influence and military presence in the region.
From a geopolitical and strategic viewpoint, operational control of Gwadar port, which was developed by China, is a win-win for Beijing.
Its interests are served by the access the port gives the Chinese navy to the Indian Ocean's sea-lanes, as well as offering an alternate land-based route for crude imports. Gwadar may yet also turn into a transit terminal for Iranian and African crude oil imports for China.
However, China's presence in Gwadar raises concerns in both New Delhi and Washington.
The US sees the development of Gwadar port as part of China's strategy of building a "string of pearls" presence on the Indian Ocean. India fears the port will soon become the Chinese navy's key regional staging post.
The US has always viewed the growth of Sino-Pakistan strategic ties with suspicion. It has been unhappy over the rapidly growing power and influence of China in Asia. The US military presence in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Iraq is believed, in part, to be aimed at containing China in Central Asia.
China has expedited the Sino-Pakistan corridor project at a time when the US is set to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The port may effectively be used to cap US influence in the Arabian Sea.
After construction of the proposed rail, road and pipeline projects between China and Pakistan, Gwadar port will handle most of the oil imports to China.
China wants to secure energy supplies that can be shipped overland since the US navy currently exerts great control over the seas and could interrupt Chinese energy flows.
Competing for regional hegemony, China and India are already locked in an energy game.
India controls no choke point on the coastline of the subcontinent through which international shipping must pass, while Gwadar port would enable China to exert influence over the strategically important sea-lanes of the Gulf.
New Delhi feels that the port will have serious strategic implications for India. Besides Gwadar, China has also funded Hambantota port in Sri Lanka and Chittagong port in Bangladesh. What haunts India is the perception of its virtual encirclement by China.
Under the "string of pearls" strategy, China actually wants to set up outposts located along its energy lines across the globe to monitor and safeguard energy flows.
Beijing is likely to use Pakistan as a pipeline corridor, bringing oil and gas from the Middle East to China. China has also shown interest in joining the US$7.4 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, a project that faces stiff opposition from the US.
If China joins the project, the pipeline from Pakistan's south to the Khunjerab Pass, linking the two countries, would be raised until it crossed the pass at 15,000 feet, thereafter more than half of the length would be in descent.
For an ambitious China, getting operational control of a port near the Strait of Hormuz is nothing less than a strategic win.
However, the volatile regions surrounding the port and the province at the far end of the corridor may yet convert it into China's great strategic mistake.
Balochistan and Xinjiang are the largest, least developed and restive provinces in the two countries.
China wants to develop Gwadar as a gateway port for Xinjiang, which is also called Eastern Turkestan, where the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a militant Muslim separatist group, has been involved in many terror attacks on China.
Balochistan also faces a separatist insurgency. Seven security personnel were killed on July 27 in an act of terrorism in Gwadar.
The established connection between Pakistan-based terrorist groups with Muslim separatists in western China would continue to be a source of worry for Beijing. Last year, the ETIM leader Emeti Yakuf was killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan's northwestern tribal belt along Afghanistan border.
China's prospects for strategic access to Central Asia through the economic corridor are however muddied by the worsening security situation in Balochistan and Xinjiang.
The uncertain security situation may also discourage Beijing from importing Iranian gas through a proposed pipeline. If that was the case, the Gwadar port linking the two restive regions is likely to trade terror, instead of goods.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a development analyst in Pakistan. He is the author of several books, including The Economic Development of Balochistan
Updated: September 10, 2013 04:00 AM