Beijing Reaches The Indian Ocean – Through Gwadar

Beijing Reaches The Indian Ocean – Through Gwadar

Beijing's ambitions are no secret. With the Gwadar Port providing direct access to the Indian Ocean, China has moved a step closer to accomplishing its goals.

tippinsights Editorial Board

A direct gateway to the Indian Ocean has for long been a dream of Beijing. Ready access to the third-largest ocean that stretches from Africa in the west to Australia in the east is desirable, ostensibly, to boost trade by cutting cost and time.

Direct entry to the Arabian Sea would mitigate the need to go through the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait and traverse through the Indian Ocean to reach the Middle East and Africa. Such an opening would be staggeringly advantageous in a strategic sense. Geographically, China is impossibly positioned to make it happen.

But Pakistan, Beijing's all-weather friend, is facilitating the Chinese dream. Islamabad has increasingly turned to Beijing to prop up its weak economy and modernize its crumbling infrastructure by bonding over the shared enmity over their common neighbor, India. Pakistan has enthusiastically signed up for Xi Jinping's flagship project, the Belt and Road Initiative.

China's interests in Pakistan add up to the tune of billions of dollars. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), announced in 2015, which came under the BRI umbrella, was initially valued at $47 billion. In 2020, the projects were estimated to be worth $62 billion. This colossal economic corridor includes energy projects, highways, railways, and seaports.

Of significant import is the Gwadar Port, located in the southern province of Baluchistan. The seaport is being built to connect China's western Xinjiang province to the Arabian Sea. China Overseas Port Holding Company (COPHC) has rights to the port for the next forty years, and almost all of the revenue generated will go into the company's coffers.

The purport is that Gwadar port will ease trade with some of China's largest trading partners located in Europe and Africa. But, the distance between the seaport and Kashgar in western China, which is situated about 3,000-kilometres away, raises some serious doubts. The goods will have to be transported across the length of Pakistan (either via road or rail), through the Himalayas, contested territories such as Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the unforgiving deserts, and unfriendly terrain. It is doubtful that this would bring down the cost of goods.

Then why is China going to the trouble? It is not out of largesse. The Gwadar Port is one pearl in a string of pearls that will serve Beijing in the long run. While the port is a part of the BRI said to enhance trade and boost economic relations, one cannot ignore its advantageous location and future-usability to the PLA.

A bulk of Chinese trade, 80% of its oil imports, and 90% of maritime trade pass through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait. Beijing intensely desires, if not dominance, at least a strategic presence here. The CCP has opted to go about protecting their trade by building ports and facilities along the most popular sea routes under the guise of facilitating infrastructure development in countries like Myanmar, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.

But, Beijing's true intentions are laid out clearly. China commissioned its first overseas military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa in 2017. A year earlier, in 2016, they rolled out their National Defense Transportation Law. According to The Diplomat, "the law obligates organizations such as state-owned enterprises to support the State Council and Central Military Commission in the defense of national interests abroad and stipulates that overseas infrastructure projects must be designed to meet military standards."

China has been stealthily going about building its military infrastructure offshore. The commercial ports being built under Beijing's auspices are, in fact, dual-purpose ports that fall in line with the National Defense Transportation Law.

Through a state-owned enterprise, China has acquired a 99 year-long lease for the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. The seaport is already capable of accommodating Chinese naval vessels. Another port developed in West Asia, the Kyaukphyu Port in Myanmar, is strategically located to aid Chinese vessels. It can be used as a resupply stop for the PLA navy in the future.

Chinese-built commercial ports can be easily upgraded to naval bases. It is widely believed that the Gwadar Port is essentially being built to provide the PLA navy with direct access to the Persian Gulf. According to the CMSI's China Maritime Report, "Gwadar could readily be repurposed for use as a PLA military facility." It goes on to state that the port facilities "could support" the Chinese navy's largest vessels, such as its amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers.

Beijing's attempt to secretly build a military facility in UAE, inside the Khalifa Port, was thwarted by intelligence. But, not all efforts of Beijing have been or can be stymied.

U.S. Dept of Defense analysis shows that "PRC is seeking to establish more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure to allow the PLA to project and sustain military power at greater distances."

For decades, the Chinese navy has been calling on Pakistani ports, specifically the Karachi port, to replenish supplies. Plans are underfoot between the two countries to develop the Karachi coast.

But, it may not be smooth sailing for all concerned. The underdeveloped province of Baluchistan witnessed the largest protests ever at the end of 2020. It was directed against the Chinese presence and their activities in the region. Locals allege that their livelihoods, mainly fishing, have been lost due to the port construction. The mineral-rich region is being exploited, but the riches are not trickling down to the population. Promised employment opportunities have not materialized. There have been incidents where militia groups targeted and attacked Chinese personnel. The tensions are bound to increase as China is determined to turn a blind eye to such protests and safeguard its interests.

With the commissioning of the Gwadar Port, and promises to fully utilize the facility, China will have made significant progress in its military strategy - ready access to the Indian Ocean and their sworn enemy, India's west coast.

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