China is flexing its muscles to enhance its influence in South Asia. Triggered by a roaring economy, propelled by swelling confidence and funded by chequebook diplomacy, China is projecting its new might across the sub-continent through its strategic presence in the ambitious "Gwadar Port Project" in Pakistan, thereby setting off alarm bells in the region's security architecture.
By virtue of its excellent location, the Gwadar port is a place of great strategic value, giving tremendous boost to Pakistan's importance in the whole region. It allows Pakistan to extend an influence from the Persian Gulf through the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia. Pakistan identified Gwadar as a port site in 1964. However, the idea was not pursued for many years owing to lack of funding until Pakistan's "all weather friend" China came forward with requisite resources to construct the port. China's green signal to participate in the construction and development of port was given when its Premier Zhu Rongji visited Pakistan in May 2001, leading to the signing of three agreements in August 2001.
While the construction work on the port is proceeding ahead in full swing, a series of supporting infrastructure facilities are also being constructed. China is to finance a highway-link from Gwadar to the central Balochistan town of Khuzdar on the Karachi-Bela-Khuzdar-Kalat-Quetta-Chaman Highway (RCD Highway), connecting Karachi and Quetta. Similarly, both countries are considering the upgrading of the existing highway via Loralai and Dera Ghazi Khan. Under a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the two, China will build a 90-km. highway link connecting the Chinese side of the Karakoram Highway to the Russian built highway network that already connects all the five Central Asian Republics. This regional highway network will directly be linking Gwadar to Xingjiang and the landlocked Central Asian Republics.
The involvement in the Gwadar project manifests China's attempt to influence developments far beyond its borders to sustain its security interests and enhance its force -projection capabilities. China has marked the turn of the millennium with a significant decision to embark on the development of strategic infrastructure in its Western periphery, particularly Xinjiang and Tibet. These frontier regions link China in one continuous chain with Eurasia, Central Asian Republics, South Asia and Southeast Asia.
China's use of the Gwadar port for exports originating from the western region would eventually provide it with another vital foreign trade route. Considering that the existing Karakoram Highway already connects western China to Pakistan, any further expansion of this line, along with prospective linkages to Gwadar via planned the Ratodero-Khuzdar road would make it the shortest and viable route connecting Gwadar to Western China.
There are other strategic manifestations to China's presence in the Gwadar port. Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, recently remarked that the main objective of letting the Chinese develop Gwadar port was that "as and when needed the Chinese Navy would be in Gwadar to give befitting reply to anyone". It was always clear that Pakistan viewed this project as a means to seek strategic depth to the southwest from its major naval base in Karachi, which has long been vulnerable to the Indian Navy. This significance about Gwadar is clearly proven by the Pakistan government's recent designation of the port area as a "sensitive defence zone."
The Gwadar complex would substantially diminish India's ability to blockade Pakistan in wartime. It would also substantially increase the capability of China to supply Pakistan by sea and by land during a conflict. New highways, railways, pipelines, cargo terminals and freight handling facilities of all sorts would have the capacity to expedite movement of military as well as civilian cargoes. Its existence would also diminish India's ability to isolate Pakistan from outside support in the event of a conflict. Simply, the Gwadar project fits in with its longstanding ambitions of establishing Pakistan as the main corridor for trade and transport between the newly independent Central Asian republics and the outside world.
Gwadar also fits into China's long-term security strategy for the Indian Ocean. Through this port, Beijing can aspire to exercise considerable influence in the region, and also monitor US naval activity in the Persian Gulf, Indian activity in the Arabian Sea, and future US-India maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean. The Chinese are well aware of the geo-strategic realities and have of late engaged in diplomatic, economic and military activities to build a maritime infrastructure to safeguard its maritime interests.
Present Chinese eagerness to expand infrastructure is significant as it is probably the start of long-term Chinese objectives in the Indian Ocean. However, the strategic competition surrounding the Gwadar Port and the transit routes need not be viewed solely through a confrontational lens. The inter-port rivalry may in fact prove to be beneficial by stimulating even greater trade in the region. The competition and cooperation over the Gwadar Port thus demonstrates the increasingly important and fluid linkage between countries in West Asia and Central, South, and East Asia, as economic ties are created and new security relationships are formulated.