- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2001

China has clinched a deal to develop a major deep-sea commercial port in western Pakistan, giving Beijing a potential staging ground to exert influence along some of the worlds busiest shipping lanes flowing into and out of the Persian Gulf.
The long-discussed project to create a major shipping station in the Pakistani coastal town of Gwadar opens a new front in the simmering rivalry between India and Pakistan and is the latest move by Beijing to project power throughout South Asia through a greatly expanded naval presence.
Islamabad and Beijing have both denied Pakistani press reports that a secret understanding has been reached to allow Chinese naval vessels to dock at the port, which is expected to be completed in about six years. But both sides have talked openly of increasing "economic strategic ties" and the heavy Chinese involvement in the $1 billion deal is a prime example.
"Beijing has a history of piggybacking military cooperation onto commercial ventures," said Richard Fisher, an Asian specialist at the Jamestown Foundation. "From what we know now, this is a commercial deal, but it can easily set the stage for military cooperation in the future."
China, which lacks a blue water port in the region, is also continuing its extensive aid to improve Pakistans road networks. Indian military analysts fear that the combination of the vastly improved Gwadar site and reliable overland links could give China a well-equipped staging ground on Indias western flank.
Chinas role at Gwadar echoes similar concerns voiced when a Hong Kong firm with close ties to Chinas communist leadership won the leases to two ports near both ends of the Panama Canal in 1997. Clinton and Bush administration officials have said they have seen no interference by China in the operation of the canal, but a U.S. intelligence report in October 1999 called the leases "a potential threat" to U.S. interests.
The Gwadar site also heightens the intense jockeying already under way among India, China and Pakistan for influence in the region.
Pakistan staged naval exercises with Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal on Indias east coast last month, followed almost immediately by a precedent-setting port call by three Pakistani naval vessels to the secretive military regime in Burma.
The Texas-based private intelligence service Stratfor recently noted that Islamabad "is looking toward naval cooperation with Indias eastern neighbors to gain something it has not had since East Pakistan became Bangladesh — the ability to flank India."
A Pakistan Ministry of Defense source said of Gwadar: "The decision is a landmark as a tactical deterrent to the mighty Indian naval establishment in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean."
New Delhi has begun its own "Look to the East" campaign, cultivating better ties with Vietnam and Burma, while seeking its own flanking maneuver against Pakistan with improved relations with Iran and Israel.
The United States has also made a pronounced shift toward India, even as Pakistans military and commercial ties to China have strengthened.
The Washington Times in February reported that a CIA analysis has concluded Beijing continues to send "substantial" assistance to Pakistan for its ballistic missile program, and U.S. experts say they cannot rule out Chinese aid for Pakistans nuclear missile program as well.
China has clashed repeatedly with the United States over Taiwan and with Southeast Asian nations over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
In addition, Beijing has recently been courting dissident elements in Indonesia and island governments throughout the South Pacific, a direct challenge to the long-standing U.S. and Australian naval presence in the area.
The Gwadar deal was formally announced during an extremely cordial four-day visit earlier this month by Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Pakistan, a visit that produced a number of bilateral deals to increase cooperation in trade, rail transport and tourism.
Pakistani Chief Executive Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in an October 1999 coup condemned by the United States, said: "I am confident that [the Zhu visit] will send out a strong signal to everyone of the continuing strength and durability of the multifaceted relationship between Pakistan and China."
Just days after Mr. Zhu left, two Chinese naval vessels were received with high honors in Karachi, Pakistan, to celebrate 50 years of friendly relations between the two nations. Rear Adm. Zhang Yan, deputy commander of the North Sea China Fleet, met with top officers of the Pakistan navy and attended a dinner at the Pakistan Maritime Museum.
A backwater fishing village with an airport but primitive road connections, Gwadar barely rates a mention in Pakistani tour guides. Plans to build a deep-sea port in the excellent and well-guarded harbor have foundered a number of times, most recently when an accord between Pakistan and Singapore announced in 1995 fell through.
According to Pakistani press reports and the official Chinese Xinhua news agency, the Gwadar "megaproject" includes a deep-sea port and land connections to Karachi to the east and Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, to the northwest.
In addition, a new dam will be built to ensure adequate water supplies to support an increased population and industrial activity.
Pakistani military planners have long recognized the commercial and military significance of the site, which is near the mouth of the Gulf of Oman about 50 miles from Pakistans border with Iran. The port of Karachi currently handles about 98 percent of the countrys shipping and Pakistani military planners were stunned by the ease with which Indian forces bottled up the Pakistan navy in Karachi during a 1999 standoff over Kashmir.
Bhashyam Kasturi, writing in the September 1999 issue of the journal Strategic Affairs, noted that the commercial and military development of Gwadar would give the Pakistan navy the "capability to potentially choke the movement of oil and other trade" and move Pakistani naval assets farther away from Indian attack.
"A single Agost 90B submarine operating out of Gwadar, armed with Exocet anti-ship missiles, could be an effective sea-denial platform in the Straits of Hormuz," Mr. Kasturi wrote.
Indian officials privately say they are very aware of the Chinese activity both in Gwadar and on Indias eastern flank in the Bay of Bengal, both of which give Beijing the potential to influence and even choke off maritime trading routes critical to India and to the flow of oil and other goods throughout the Pacific Rim.
The Gwadar project has remained a commercial venture, at least on paper, so the Indian government has not publicly aired its concerns about last months accords.
But "India needs to carefully analyze whether Chinas action of increasing its presence in the Bay of Bengal through close links with [Burma] and its decision to help Pakistan with [Gwadar] are merely defensive or whether they are designed to assert a military presence encircling India," according to a recent analysis in the trade publication Alexanders Oil and Gas Connections.


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