The first signs of the shifts in the geopolitics of the region are surfacing following the United States’ Abbottabad operation. Pakistan has once again sought China to reconsider its earlier decision not to get involved in the management of the Gwadar port and this time around, Beijing has allowed itself to be persuaded in principle. The announcement came from the Pakistani defence minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar, but the fact that Global Times reported it today amounts to a tacit acknowledgement by Beijing.
Mukhtar said: “The Chinese government has acceded to Pakistan’s request to take over operations at Gwadar port as soon as the terms of agreement with the Singapore Port Authority expire.” China had funded 80% of the 248-million dollar Gwadar construction project during 2002-2007, but has since been chary of taking over its management and instead advised Islamabad that it was best the the port was managed by some other country, keeping in view Indian sensitivities over Chinese presence in that region. Singapore’s PSA (which has US business links) was accordingly given a 40-year management contract. But PSA’s performance turned out to be dismal and Islamabad is reviewing the contract (which also happens to be sub judice at the moment). Therefore, the time frame for Chinese entry into Gwadar’s management remains uncertain. The Baluchistan government has also raised objections.
All the same, China’s willingness to get involved would have major implications for regional politics. For one thing, China would establish a new communication system, as there are plans to build an oil pipeline from Gwadar to northwestern China, apart from developing better road and rail links. A viable, dependable alternate transportation route to the circuitous one via Malacca Straits connecting China with the Persian Gulf has been a top priority for Beijing.
Curiously, Mukhtar also mentioned Pakistan’s interest in building a new naval base near Gwadar. “We are grateful to the Chinese government for constructing Gwadar Port. However, we will be more grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base is being constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan”, he said cryptically. Interestingly, the GT report has somewhat poured cold water saying this is only a ‘proposal’, but, GT went on to quote a Chinese scholar asserting nonetheless that ‘China has its own interests in the Indian Ocean, just like other countries in the region, including India’ and, besides, “It serves China’s interests to see peace and stability in the region, so any speculation on China-Pakistan cooperation will be meaningless.”
In sum, GT has plainly told off Delhi that it is none of its business to question, as Defence Minister A.K.Antony reportedly did Friday , the directions of China’s cooperation with Pakistan. Antony took exception to China selling JF-17 jet aircraft to Pakistan and the very next day Mukhtar spoke. Why Antony needlessly resorted to rhetoric puzzles me. Neither China nor Pakistan is climbing the rooftop to protest about our MMRCA deal. Nor does Indian public opinion show any inclination to question the need of India’s massive arms procurement estimated to be in the region of 100 billion dollars or so in the coming years. So, what is the problem? If India has certain threat perceptions, the government should by all means do the best it can to meet them adequately. The Eurofigher we seem to be finally deciding to buy is apparently decisively better than the very best fighter aircraft that Chinese air force has. What is the big deal, therefore, if PAF gets 50 JF-17 aircraft? Is it our contention that Pakistan has no legitimate defence needs? Of course, there is every sign that an arms race is building up in the region but that is a complex issue.
Surely, the deterioration of US-Pakistan relations gives China a great opening to try and erode the American military presence in the region. China sees the massive build-up of the US presence in the region against the broader context of US-China relations. The US’ efforts to expand its influence into Central Asia and to get for NATO a presence in the countries bordering China (eg., Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, in particular) do not exactly help raise Beijing’s comfort level. The probability of a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan even beyond 2014 also worries China. The opinion piece by a leading Chinese scholar in the government-owned China Daily on Friday is fairly explicit about the Chinese motives in drawing closer to Pakistan. The commentary merely tries to assuage US’ apprehensions regarding what China is doing but the Chinese intention to step up ties with Pakistan is quite obvious. The commentary actually repeats the recent train of Chinese argument that it is possible to harmonise the Chinese and US policies toward Pakistan on the issue of terrorism and that there needn’t be any serious contradictions.
What Indian pundits need to guard against is that we do not appear to be colluding with the US in “pressuring” Pakistan. Let us not resuscitate rhetoric. The worst case scenario from our point of view would be if India-Pakistan tensions get intertwined with a possible confrontation between the US and China. There are disturbing signs. It may be in the American interests if that happens, but certainly not in our interests. It seems to me we have been doing just fine, navigating a path of our own on regional security through a most difficult corridor of time, engaging Pakistan rather than accentuating its acute sense of insecurities.