A Vision of the Future: China's Multimillion-Dollar Port Scheme in Baluchistan Gives It a Foothold in the Middle East That Is Making India and Iran Nervous. If a Naval Base Follows, the US May Well Begin to Share Their Concern

By Barnes, Hugh | New Statesman (1996), April 30, 2007 | Go to article overview

A Vision of the Future: China's Multimillion-Dollar Port Scheme in Baluchistan Gives It a Foothold in the Middle East That Is Making India and Iran Nervous. If a Naval Base Follows, the US May Well Begin to Share Their Concern


Barnes, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)


It is easy to miss the significance of the new port at Gwadar, which had its ceremonial opening in March. Five years ago this was just a fishing village on the Arabian Sea, a remote place on the edge of the desert and mountains of the Baluchistan region that spans Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Camels and horse-drawn carts clogged the streets. Tribesmen wearing Baluch turbans and carrying AK-47s stood on the waterfront like epitaphs for the Great Game.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

But five years is a long time in the politics of Asia, and the former outpost has changed almost beyond recognition. Today it lies, controversially, at the centre of General Pervez Musharraf's vision of the future for Pakistan. Built with Chinese money (how much is debatable, though it would be a safe bet to say at least $250m-plus in loans for the first phase), the multibillion-dollar scheme will inevitably aggravate the tense rivalry between nuclear-armed superpowers in this most volatile region of the world--if it has not already done so.

Musharraf flew in to Gwadar for the grand opening of the port on 20 March. "This is a major event in history," the khaki-clad president told a delegation from Beijing in a toast to the "all-weather" friendship between Pakistan and China. "The same Chinese friends will build a naval base here for us, and an energy hub for the Gulf and central Asian states," he added. China has also invested $200m in building a coastal highway that will connect the new port to Karachi.

In fact, the political weather looks choppy in Gwadar, just 250 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 per cent of world oil supplies flow. Several other countries in the region are not thrilled at the prospect of China gaining a foothold in the Middle East. They suspect Beijing will not only use the port to protect its oil supplies, but also want to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean by spying on US military manoeuvres and threatening its enemies' trade routes.

As such, the new Chinese plans have rung alarm bells in India and Iran. The government in Delhi feels China is encroaching from three sides--Myanmar, Tibet and Pakistan. It is therefore helping the ayatollahs in Tehran to construct a port at Chabahar in Iranian Baluchistan, just over the border from Gwadar, in an effort to compete for the energy trade out of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Here, Iran may have the upper hand, building on better relations with central Asian states such as Afghanistan, under President Hamid Karzai, who remains cool towards Pakistan because of that neighbour's support for the Taliban.

But the fiercest opponents to the Gwadar scheme are the local Baluchis. The billions of dollars going into the project have served only to fuel bitter discontent or, at any rate, a suspicion that the benefits of the project will by pass them on the way to state coffers in Islamabad. Baluchis hate their government, which they refer to as "Pakistan", as if it were a foreign country.

Neither history nor geography has done them any favours. Life is harsh in the arid plains and bare mountains, with very little water, sparse vegetation and extremes of temperature. When the Baluchi tribesmen have not been fighting each other, or the heat or the land, they have fought Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Persians, Hindus and the British. Gwadar even belonged to Oman for 200 years. It was given to the Sultan of Oman by the Khan of Kalat in the 18th century and was sold back to Pakistan for about [pounds sterling]3m only in 1958. Yet the Baluchis have never been fully conquered or subdued--not by the armies of Genghis Khan, nor by Lord Curzon, nor Musharraf.

The latest insurgency began in 2003 and targets Baluchistan's natural resources almost daily. Last year, according to official figures, there were 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity cables and 19 explosions on railway tracks. …

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