Chinese President Xi Jinping is known for his assertiveness and aggression to install his country at the top in the global pecking order. He has started this long and arduous mission, with a usual clandestine Chinese vision, since his coming to power in 2012.
His gargantuan “China Dream” to rejuvenate the nation and the most ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) have together caused geopolitical concerns, particularly for Asian powers like India.
Undoubtedly, Xi could rightly be called as the reincarnation of late Chairman Mao Zedong. Xi has become the only Chinese leader who has accumulated so much power and position, either in the name of launching China as a global leader or curbing corruption and misgovernance both within and outside the Communist Party of China (CPC).
So today, what is fast unfolding in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, located in its western province of disturbed Balochistan, is just the tip of an iceberg, which is uncovered in front of the international community.
The very presence of China in this port city is absolutely decried by the locals and especially by the Baloch nationalists, who have already been fighting a long war with the federal Government of Pakistan, on various other issues.
Gwadar Port is a warm water deep seaport situated on the Arabian Sea. It is strategically located between South Asia, Central Asia and West Asia at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, just outside the Strait of Hormuz. This critical port has been leased to China by the Pakistani Government for a period of 43 years i.e. up till 2059, starting from 2015.
As per Chinese media reports, the port was upgraded at a cost of $1.62 billion. Most importantly, Gwadar is at the vortex of $50 billion (41 billion Euro), much talked about and controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Further, the CPEC is an integral part of Xi’s signature initiative of the BRI.
Gwadar Port came to light way back in the year 1954. During the regime of former President Pervez Musharraf, he launched the construction of the port in 2007, at a cost of $248 million. However, in 2015, the port was made a part of the CPEC to connect western China and northern Pakistan. This port will also be a site for a floating liquefied natural gas as a part of the larger $2.5 billion Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, connecting Gwadar with Nawabshah.
The CPEC is a 3,218 kilometre long route that is aimed to link Gwadar to Xinxiang Province in western China. And this corridor consists of highways, railways and gas pipelines that could trigger an economy of billion dollars once it is completed.
The Gwadar Special Economic Zone is built around an area of 2,292 acres near the Gwadar Port. The project of Gwadar Sea Port became operational on November 14, 2016 during the time of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But it is worthwhile to see how this port area could serve China’s long term strategic interests.
In a China Maritime Report on Gwadar, the port has been described as a “Strategic Strong point” in the Indian Ocean. The officials, military officers and civilian analysts of China typically employ the “Strategic Strongpoint” concept to describe certain strategically valuable foreign ports with terminals and commercial zones owned and operated by Chinese firms. The top Chinese policy-makers believe that Gwadar, an inchoate point in friendly Pakistan which may certainly support as a major platform for their countries economic, diplomatic and military interactions around the northern Indian region.
China’s strong presence in the Gwadar Port area and in the CPEC across the POK will boost Beijing’s security and business interests in the long run. In reality, China has responded to America’s grand Indo-Pacific strategy that has been long there in place in this zone, apart from its presence in Gwadar Port, Beijing has taken a number of crucial steps to develop its own network around the Indo-Pacific and specifically in the Indian Ocean Rim region. Further, the Indo-Pacific is a strategic area through which two-thirds of the global trade and 80 per cent of the Chinese oil passes. And the most important element in the Indo-Pacific is that all the countries such as India, China, Australia, Japan and the US which are zealously guarding their interests here geographically falls in the region only.
But now the fast-changing geopolitical scenario has made it so that India, Japan, Australia and the US are coming together under the banner of the Quad Group to counter China in the Indo-Pacific. US President Donald Trump has pushed the Sino-US rivalry to all time high. And in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic and last American presidential poll, Trump has got another opportunity to brand China as its grand enemy in the globe. It is expected that even now, under the President-elect Jo Biden, the Sino-US relations may not return to normalcy. However, the Team Biden may easily stitch up a working relationship between Washington and Beijing for sure.
These all will have serious impact on Beijing’s future grand strategy towards expansionist game across the world, particularly along the BRI nations. With a belligerent US, a constant border clash with neighbouring India and massive disturbances constantly emerging from Hong Kong, Xinjiang, South China Sea and from Taiwan, Xi will be certainly bolstering his mission to reach out to countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and of course Pakistan. And herein, the developments in Gwadar Port will be very critical for China.
It is noted that Pakistan has been gradually moving into Chinese arms. This has happened both because of Trump’s decision to cut all funding to that country and an army-backed Imran Khan Government’s decision to play a junior partner role in China’s BRI. Regional experts say that China is soon replacing America as its most important security partner and guarantor. What Beijing expects from Islamabad is an unhindered access to the Indian Ocean as the former is trying to encircle India from all corners. It is estimated that Chinese investment in Pakistan is going to cross $46 billion by 2030. It is simply a serious course change for Pakistan as it is increasingly relying on China for its economic and military assistance instead of the US. This is a game-changing narrative in the power positioning on India’s North-Western frontier.
The current Gwadar Fencing Project launched by the Pakistani Government around the CPEC corridor in the city is sending strong negative vibes to the locals. It is done under the supervision of the federal and provincial authorities. It is hoped that the fencing project, once completed will completely change the security dynamics of the port city. The Balochistan Provincial Government aims to fence off around 24 square kilometre area that is devoted to the building of the CPEC project. It is learnt that there will be only two entry points to the fenced parts of the city and nearly 500 surveillance cameras will be installed to monitor the movements of people in and around the project area. This will turn the city into a fortress, ironically to secure Chinese business and security interests, not to promote the welfare of the poor Baloch people.
The primary objective of fencing is to safeguard the project from the Baloch nationalists who has been voicing concerns against Chinese grand strategy from the beginning. Again, this new design of security network might force many locals to relocate from the port area.
Now the raging argument in Balochistan is that why Islamabad is allowing Beijing to make one of its provinces a Chinese colony? Is that so that the Imran Government is intentionally pushing its belligerent province of Balochistan to the debt-trap of China? It is true that with strong Chinese presence in the port city, Pakistan will be assured that for the coming 43 years (lease time period of the port), there will some signs of development in the most neglected region of the country.
Despite being the most resourceful province of the country, Islamabad has simply ignored the concerns of the Baloch people for decades since independence. Today, Balochistan is recorded as a law and order problem in the lexicon of Pakistan’s establishment. And it is the responsibility of the country’s “Deep State” i.e. the Army to oversee, manage and put down the flames of civil unrest in this part of Pakistan. The successive civilian administrations in Islamabad have directly ignored the local demands for which a constant rage against the federal Government has grown over the years.
Above all, when China has landed up in Gwadar Port, one of crucial cities of the province, the locals see no end of their longstanding problems. Rather, with increasing fortification of the city, will certainly create an atmosphere of fear and alienation among the people of the port city in particular and the Baloch in general.
Truly speaking, it is a disturbing signal. Very soon, Pakistan will realise how it will turn out to be a new protectorate zone of China.