An ensuing legal battle over running the operations of Gwadar Deep Sea Port is a prelude to many interesting developments in the region. The head of Pakistan's Balochistan province, where the port is located, pledged on Tuesday to challenge in the courts what he said was a "one-sided" deal with a Singapore company to run a strategic harbor in Gwadar port. And this new development is not intended to do what was done in the times of Musharraf; this has some major economic and strategic implications.
This port which is strategically located at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, was built by China but its operations were handed over to Port of Singapore Authority (PSA). Very close to this port, an other deep sea port at Chabahar in Iran was built by India. Both the ports have the potential to link Makran coast to Afghanistan and Central Asia. But both these ports have strategic as well as commercial significance. India's aim to build the port and oversee its operations was extend its influence in the area and encircle Pakistan. But to the contrary, India will be encircled if China obtains similar influence in Gwadar. The port of Myanmar to the east of India has already been built by China.
China figures in as the most important factor in Pakistan’s foreign policy. Their military relationship has often been regarded by the leaders of both the countries as all-weather and time -tested. This relationship between two Asian countries, who share a common border, is important in the world's geo-strategic alliances. The policy of having good relations between the armed forces was taken by the leaders to counter the balance of power in the Asia. In recent years this relationship has deepened even further by having defense agreements between Pakistan and China and the latter has been a steady and reliable source of military equipment to Pakistani Army and also has helped Pakistan set-up mass weapons production factories.
In this backdrop, it is strategically very critical to carefully decide the question of Gwadar port. It may also be kept in mind that India is hell-bent to ensure that Balochistan province remains unstable so that Pakistan cannot build necessary infrastructure connecting Gwadar with Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is for economic as much as strategic considerations. The following elements of this new Great Game may be of interest to the readers:
- India has built Chabahar Port on the Makran Coast to keep a watchful eye on Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the same coast. USA’s and Indian’s interests converge to the extent of the utility of this port to check China and Pakistan.
- Iran is pursuing a multi-billion dollar railways project which was named "Iran's Eastern Corridor". It will connect Chabahar port to Central Asia, Afghanistan and Central Iran. This project would have three branches including Chabahar-Iranshahr Fahraj County, Chabahar-Iranshahre-Zahedan-Mashahd and Chabahar-Iranshahr-Zahedan-Milak. India is helping develop the Chabahar port, which will give it access to the oil and gas resources in Iran and the Central Asian states. This is done by India to compete with the Chinese, who are building Gwadar Port, in Pakistani Balochistan.
- Iran plans to use Chabahar for transshipment to Afghanistan and Central Asia, while keeping the port of Bandar Abbas as a major hub mainly for trade with Russia and Europe. India, Iran and Afghanistan have signed an agreement to give Indian goods, heading for Central Asia and Afghanistan, preferential treatment and tariff reductions at Chabahar.
- Work on the Chabahar - Milak - Zaranj - Dilaram route from Iran to Afghanistan is in progress. Iran with Indian aid is upgrading the Chabahar-Milak road and constructing a bridge on the route to Zaranj. India's BRO is laying the 213-kilometer Zaranj-Dilaram road. It is a part of its USD 750 million aid package to Afghanistan by India. India and Iran are discussing building a gas pipeline between the two countries along the bed of the Arabian Sea to bypass Pakistan, using the Chabahar port.
In this background, the politics of operations of Gwadar port have external dynamics which is evident from the fact that the separatist elements have been trying to disrupt the construction and operation of the port on nationalist pretext. It is not difficult to conclude whose interests are being served through Balochistan insurgency and why USA has no concerns about it. It is a more serious threat to Pakistan’s integrity than the troubles in FATA.
Will China push for a major say over the port to back its bid to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean, is a question only time will answer. Pakistan, struggling to revive its debt-hit economy, is keen to become a conduit for trade to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. It has three major ports -- Gwadar in Baluchistan and two at Karachi, 450 km (280 miles) to the east.
As initially envisaged, former president Pervez Musharraf's government gave management and operational control of the deep-sea port to Singapore's PSA International Ltd in February 2007 for 40 years. Reuters has reported that the chief minister of the government of Baluchistan, the southwestern province where Gwadar port is located, said he would seek its cancellation by the Supreme Court this month. But nobody seems to understand that PSA has failed because no infrastructure was available to link the port with rest of the country. It is a Great Game now being played on the shores of Makran.