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Pakistan’s strategic port in China’s hands – a U.S. response?

Mansoor Jafar

Published: Updated:

At last, Pakistan finally took the gutsy decision of handing over the strategically vital Gwadar port to China, ignoring the raised eyebrows from the U.S., India, several western and Gulf countries including Iran.

Located at the top of Arabian sea and mouth of Gulf near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Gwadar port is at the apex of busy trading and oil shipping route and surrounded by a region that houses around two-thirds of the world's oil reserves. Besides Pakistan and China, its natural beneficiaries will be the landlocked, but energy-rich, Central Asian Republics and Afghanistan, for whom it is the nearest warm-water sea port.

The project of world-class sea port that could monitor and share bulk of world’s oil trade has always been a temptation for entire world; like the strategic Strait of Hormuz, which has enabled its controller Iran to see eyeball to eyeball with the mighty super power, the U.S. So, Gwadar always remained a prized object inviting all the mighty countries of the world to win it.

Major political mileage

Before creation of Pakistan, Gwadar was gifted to Sultanate of Oman by its controller, Khan of Kalat (present day district in resources rich Baluchistan province), as part of dowry to his daughter when she married prince of Muscat. Due to its strategic importance, India made several attempts to purchase it, all of which were foiled by Pakistan, and finally purchased it back from Oman in 1958.

Pakistan is just three months away from elections, the project of Gwadar port is being seen as a major political mileage that is akin to the motorway project of 1998, which too, was seen as a major trade route for the newly liberated central Asian republics to Gulf via Gwadar port. At that time, the same angry world powers opposed the motorway project, considering Central Asia as their domain which a pygmy-like Pakistan trying to wrestle away along with innumerable trade and other benefits.

Tagged with all those multi-billion dollar profit options, Gwadar port will now being operated by China, against a vehement resistance by the U.S. Obviously, controlling the huge unfathomable resources of central Asia is perhaps one of the major objectives of the long and the costliest ever military campaign in Afghanistan. Despite all the lip service, none of the western countries has ever been willing to give any substantial help to Pakistan which could enable this nuclear power grow into a strong economic regional power.

China’s help

China, on the other hand, has a long list of projects that helped out Pakistan, including many defense projects, Karakoram Highway, Gwadar port etc. After China was awarded the contract to build Gwadar port, Beijing won over its operation contract on strong merit as other contenders like the UAE and Singapore were far less suitable, both economically and strategically.

UAE being owner of rival Dubai port, would have clash of interests in the entire Gulf region. While Singapore remained unable to advance the deal, presumably due to its inability to resist western pressure. Though former Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, imported from Citibank, had decided to give operations contract to Singapore, there were reports that a certain piece of land meant for developing duty free zone remained disputed since it was owned by the Pakistan Navy which refused to surrender it.

China’s 60 percent oil comes from Gulf by ships traveling over 16,000 kilometers in two to three months, confronting pirates, bad weather, political rivals and other risks up to its only commercial port, Shanghai. Gwadar will reduce the distance to mere 2500 kilometers and also serve round the year.

Besides China, Gwadar will be a much cheaper alternative to the traders of Europe, Japan, the Far East, and Central Asia, who could use the under-construction airport to air-lift their good from here, saving over half of the costs and time.

Regional politics

But from the phase of construction to operating, China has given up two subsidiary projects which were part of original Gwadar port. Beijing refused to build the oil refinery at Gwadar, and to review the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline through its economic experts. Nevertheless, Pakistan made “significant progress” this year in shape of commissioning IP gas pipeline and Gwadar port projects despite world's sanctions on Iran.

How will the U.S. respond? It is the key question on which the regional politics in near future will rest. Both these decisions are being termed as historic and a feather in the cap of otherwise the ever-notorious president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari who is also practically controlling the affairs of the ruling PPP. He made those toughest decisions at the tail-end of his party’s five-year rule, leaving the consequences to be faced by the next government.

(Mansoor Jafar is Editor of Al Arabiya Urdu based in Islamabad. He can be reached through email: mansoor.jafar@gmail.com and Twitter: @mansoorjafar.)

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.