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Gwadar, Hambantota and Sitwe: China's Strategic Triangle

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Very few would have heard of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Sitwe (Akyab) in Myanmar before 2002. These were essentially fishing harbours used by the fishermen of these countries. Sometimes, there used to be references to these places in articles on fishing rights, but rarely in articles on possible threats to India’s national security. Since 2002, studies on maritime security have started making references to these places. Initially, the focus was on Gwadar. Now, it is also on Hambantota. In the months to come, it will be on Sitwe too.

2. What made these sleepy fishing harbours suddenly become areas of strategic concern to India’s maritime security experts? The growing Chinese interest in these places and China’s generous offer of assistance to these countries for converting these sleepy fishing harbours into maritime ports of international standards. What explains the Chinese interest in these places?

3. China’s economic and strategic interest in Gwadar and Sitwe is obvious. It is worried over the possibility of disruptions in the movement of oil and gas tankers to China from the Gulf and Africa through the Malacca Straits due to attacks by pirates and/or terrorists. It wants to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Straits for the movement of its oil and gas supplies. It, therefore, makes eminent sense for itto develop alternate routes. It has prepared two contingency plans for this. Under the first plan, some of the oil and gas tankers will go to Gwadar and from there the supplies will be sent to Xinjiang by pipelines via Pakistani territory, including Kashmiri territory under the occupation of Pakistan. The second plan envisages sending some of the supplies to Yunnan by pipelines from Sitwe.

4. In addition to reducing the vulnerability of energy supplies, Gwadar would also serve as an outlet for the external trade of Xinjiang and the neighbouring provinces of China. Sitwe would serve as an outlet for the external trade of Yunnan and the neighbouring areas. Pakistan has also agreed to let China set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Gwadar, exclusively for the use of Chinese industries manufacturing goods for export to Africa. The manufacturing and transport costs would be less if these industries are located in Gwadar instead of in China. There is presently no proposal for a similar SEZ in Sitwe.

5. The Chinese interest in Gwadar is not just economic and energy supplies related. It is much, much more.It is of immense interest to its Navy—as a port of call, as a refuelling halt and as a listening and watch tower to monitor developments in the Gulf—particularly the movements of the US Navy.

6. Pakistan’s interest in having Gwadar developed as a major international port and a naval base dates back to 1971. The successful raids by the Indian Navy into the Karachi port during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 made the Pakistani military planners realise the folly of over-dependence on Karachi. Their plans for developing Gwadar into a naval base, which would give a strategic depth to their Navy, were drawn up in the years after the war. These plans did not have an economic component at the time they were drawn up. The economic component was integrated into the plans only after the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of its Central Asian provinces as independent States. The economic component of the integrated plans provided for the construction of an international port, which could serve as an outlet for the external trade of the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and the Xinjiang region of China. The military component provided for the construction of a naval base, which would provide a strategic depth to the Pakistani Navy.

7. These plans could not be taken up for implementation till 2002. Pakistan did not have the funds or the technical expertise to implement them on its own. There were no takers fior the plans in the Gulf countries. The Governments of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were reluctant to approach China for assistance lest US concerns be aroused. Even at the risk of causing concern to the US, Gen. Pervez Musharraf sought Chinese assistance for the implementation of the plans when Zhu Rongji, the then Chinese Prime Minister, visited Pakistan in 2001. China immediately responded positively and started the implementation.

8. The construction of the international commercial port at Gwadar was completed ahead of schedule by Chinese engineers in the beginning of 2006 and handed over to the Pakistani authorities. It is expected to be commissioned later this month by Musharraf. The construction of the naval base by the Chinese engineers has started and it is expected to be completed by 2010.

9. The initiative for the development of Sitwe as an international port would seem to have come from China and the Myanmarese Government, facing economic difficulties due to Western economic sanctions, readily agreed to it. Details of the plan for the Chinese-aided development of Sitwe are not yet available. As of now, it seems to have only an economic component and not a military component too.

11. The initiative for a Chinese role in the development of Hambantota would seem to have come from Sri Lanka during the tenure of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga . A joint communique issued on April 10,2005, at the end of a visit by Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo to Sri Lanka had referred to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding for the Development of the Hambantota Bunkering System and Tank Farm Project between the Sri Lanka Ports Authority and the China Huanqiu Contracting and Engineering Corporation.Its implementation, which did not make much progress since then, has now picked up momentum duringthe recentvisit ofher successor President Mahinda Rajapakse to China.

12. A joint communique on his talks with the Chinese leaders issued at the end his visit on March 3, 2007, did not refer to the Hambantota Project. A statement by the Hsinhua news agency on the various agreements signed during the visit merely referred to the signing of an Agreement between the City of Guangzhou and the District of Hambantota on the Establishment of Friendship City Relationship. However, Priyatha Bandu Wickrama, the Vice-Chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, who had accompanied Rajapakse to China, has told accompanying Sri Lankan pressmen that China has agreed to begin the implementation of the project within two months. According to him, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have promised to provide financial assistance for the Hambantota port development project afterRajapaksa emphasised the need to commence the implementation ofthe project immediately.

13. According to him, the work of implementation will be entrusted to the China Harbour Engineering Corporation and the Syno Hydro Corporation. He added that the project is estimated to cost US $ 420 million, of which US $ 375 million would be given by China. He did not specify how much of this would be a grant and how much a loan.During the first phase of the project, an industrial port with a 300m jetty and an oil terminal wouldbe constructed at Hambantota and it wouldbe expanded to a container handling port in the next two stages to handle 20 million containers per year. The first phase of the project would be completed within the next three years and the whole project within 15 years. Source reports say that Rajapakse has agreed to give the Chinese the same facilities at Hambantota as Sri Lanka has given or proposes to give to India at Trincomallee.

14. Presently, the Colombo port enjoys a better reputation in international shipping circles than the ports in South India for its modern facilities and efficiency. The turn-over time for ships in Colombo is much less than in the ports of South India. As a result, about 60 per cent of the container traffic to and from South India is reportedly trans-shipped at Colombo. The Sri Lankan authorities are worried that the Colombo port might lose the advantages presently enjoyed by it vis-a-vis the ports in South India when the construction of the Sethusamudram Canal and the work of modernisation of the ports in South India undertaken by the Government of India is completed The Sethusamudram Canal would reduce the distance to be traversed by ships going from West to Eastand vice versa and the modernisation of the South Indian ports would increase the efficiency and rapidity of their cargo handling. To neutralise these advantages, Sri Lanka proposes to undertake a crash programme for the further modernisation of the Colombo port and for the construction of an equally modern and efficient port at Hambantota capable of handling container traffic. And the Chinese have agreed to help it.

15. Hambantota would have no economic significance for China either from the point of view of its energy supplies or external trade in the same manner as Gwadar or Sitwe. Despite this, they have agreed to help Sri Lanka mainly because of its potential significance for their Navy as a port of call, as a port for refuelling purposes and as a listening post and watch tower on India’s nuclear, space and naval establishments in South India. The details of the proposed project as known till now do not speak of a military component, but the Chinese assistance to the project does not make sense except from a military perspective. The Chinese Government is trying to give its Navy a greater visibility, operability and rapid action capability in the Indian Ocean region than it enjoys now. Gwadar, Hambantota and Sitwe form important components of its maritime security strategy. At the conclusion of his recent visit to Africa, Hu Jintao also visited Seychelles. It is important to monitor the growing Chinese interest there too in any study of China’s maritime security strategy.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies. e-mail:

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