Despite its continuing concerns over the freedom struggle of the Balochs which shows no signs of letting up, China, which originally constructed the languishing commercial port of Gwadar on the Mekran Coast of Balochistan, is reported to have agreed in principle to take over the responsibility for the operation of the port.
2. The 40-year-old contract awarded by the Pakistan Government in 2007 to Singapore’s PSA international for the operation of the port has been a non-starter due to disputes between the Pakistan Navy and the PSA International over the free transfer of land to the PSA international for the construction of warehouses for containers and other infrastructure facilities and over the failure of the Pakistani authorities to improve the road and rail connectivity of the port as promised in the contract.
3. The Pakistan Government agreed to the request of the PSA International to withdraw from the contract. Islamabad has now approved in principle the signing of a contract with the Chinese Overseas Port Holdings giving it the responsibility for operating the port.
4. The problems created by the Pakistan Navy in the transfer of land for the PSA International indicated a lack of enthusiasm in the Pakistan Navy for the operation of the port by a Singapore company and its preference for handing it over to the Chinese company.
5. In the eyes of the Pakistan Navy, the Chinese taking over the responsibility for the operation of the port will have two advantages. Firstly, the Chinese, with their reputation for the timely construction of projects, will be able to get the languishing operations revived quickly. Secondly, it could prove to be the first step towards China agreeing to a Pakistani request for upgrading the port into a naval base, available for joint use by the Pakistani and Chinese navies.
6. Taking over the responsibility for the operation of the port, will have strategic advantages for China. It can bring oil and gas from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Gwadar and have them transported to Xinjiang through pipelines. Secondly, it will provide a port of call for ships of China’s Indian Ocean fleet for refitting and other purposes. At present Beijing has not shown any open interest in helping Pakistan by upgrading the existing Chinese-aided commercial port into a Naval base for joint use by the two navies.
7. The Chinese took nearly two years to make up their mind as to whether they should get involved in the operation of the port due to the deteriorating security situation in Balochistan because of the on-going freedom struggle of the Balochs. The Balochs are opposed to a Chinese presence in Gwadar because they look upon the area as their traditional homeland over which the Pakistan Government has no right to negotiate with any foreign power. Moreover, the Balochs fear that the Chinese taking over the responsibility for the operation of the port would result in an induction of a large number of Punjabis into the Gwadar area to work.
8. The Pakistani authorities are hoping that the Chinese agreement to take over the operation of the port could act as a deterrent to India whom they suspect of helping the Baloch freedom-fighters.
9. Beijing’s agreement in principle to take over the operations of the port speaks of its confidence that they could meet any security threats from the Baloch freedom-fighters. Whether their confidence will be sustained or belied has to be seen. The Pakistan Army will not be able to assure the security of the Chinese working in Gwadar. Unless the PLA decides to post its own security contingents in Gwadar as it has done for the security of its nationals working on the upgradation of the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan, security for the Chinese in Gwadar will be uncertain.
10. What the Pakistan Government announced on January 30, is an agreement in principle for the Chinese company to take over the responsibility from the Singapore company. The details of the final agreement are still to be worked out.
11. There is a case regarding the security situation in Balochistan presently pending before the Pakistan Supreme Court. The Gwadar project is also linked up in the case. The Supreme Court has to agree to the Gwadar agreement with China being treated as a stand alone issue before the final agreement with China is signed. This should not pose any difficulty.
(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. Twitter: @SORBONNE75)