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Gwadar Port may be given to China

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By Amir Mateen
 GWADAR: The news that Gwadar port is all set to be taken away from the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and is likely to be given to the Chinese may have repercussions that go much beyond its white sand shores.

Official sources confirm that “an understanding to that effect has already developed at the highest levels but it will take a while before the legal and administrative constraints are removed.” The biggest constraint remains the agreement with the PSA, which was given the right to run the port for 40 years. However, official sources are confident that the PSA had given them sufficient grounds to revoke the agreement. Apart from its failure to bring a single commercial ship to the Gwadar docks, the PSA has not invested even a fraction of the $525 million it had committed to spend in five years.

“The port should have gone to the Chinese, who built it largely from their own investment, in the first place,” says Baloch nationalist Rauf Khan Sasoli, who accuses former President Pervez Musharraf of giving it to the PSA “to please his American masters.”

It may not be easy for Pakistan as the move has the potential to throw the regional geo-politics into a tailspin. Analyst Farman Kakar sees it as a paradigm shift in what he calls the new Eurasian great game over energy. It does add a new perspective to the pipeline warfare that was seen earlier as the battle between two competing pipelines – Iran-Pakistan-India (IPI) and Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI). The geo-strategic rivalry was believed to be the real basis for much of the action that has taken place in and around Afghanistan in the last two decades.

The move to hand over Gwadar to China, among other things, may just be the first step to replace the erstwhile IPI into a new reality – Iran-Pakistan-China (IPC). The acronym already stood dissolved after India backed out of the Iran-Pakistan gas deal.

It will mean much more than the transfer of power at the Gwadar port. The Chinese will build Gwadar as tax-free industrial hub which may include oil and gas refineries and a network of roads and railways from Gwadar to China through the ancient silk route. An ambitious deal to build railways along the Khunjrab pass has already been signed between Pakistan and China.

The Chinese are more suited to develop the Gwadar port and the network of rail and roads in Balochistan as they have experience and the muscle to work in the troublesome part of Pakistan. “They are already in Saindak and have completed Gwadar despite repeated kidnappings and attacks on their employees,” said journalist Behram Baloch. “China may be the only country which can work under the difficult Balochistan conditions.”

The Chinese have the capacity to not only make Gwadar port viable but can complete the expansion plan, which includes increasing the existing three berths to 18 by 2014. The volume of the Chinese trade is so much that Gwadar can beat regional giants like Dubai hands down if China could divert only a fraction of its trade to pass to its burgeoning western regions through the mighty Karakorams.

This might herald Gwadar’s entry into the league of cities that it always deserved but was denied by the currents of history. It has all the ingredients that should make it an exotic 21st century city – a deepwater port equipped with a network of rail and roadways, industrial tax-free zones and oil and natural gas pipelines, extending north into China on one side and through a stabilised Afghanistan into Central Asia on the other. Gwadar offers to become a gateway to landlocked, hydrocarbon-rich Central Asia; the hub of a new Silk Road, both land and maritime; a regional centre of trans-shipping heralding Pakistan’s drift into Middle East rather than the traditional subcontinent polemics. What it lacks is the political stability – an essential requirement for any grand agenda to materialise.

This may be the weakest link that invites trouble from all the powers whose perceived interests get affected in Gwadar. So we have a theatre of proxy war where everybody, from CIA, Mossad, RAW, Khad to M15, may be involved in festering trouble in our backyard. For all its dreamy features, Gwadar trickles not just the local imagination but it ripples across the world over.

The project is bound to arch lots of eyebrows in India on our east and NATO forces, read the US, sitting on our right flank. China has capitalised on India’s loss. Beijing and Islamabad had set up an agreement whereby China would import most of this Iranian gas left by India. Islamabad hopes to make a billion dollar a year just from transit fee.

Gwadar is the ideal transit corridor for China to import oil and gas from Iran and the Persian Gulf. It represents a cheaper and safer alternative route than the Strait of Malacca, where Beijing faces problems of piracy and which is under US sphere of influence. Analyst say even the Russians may not have an issue with the advent of the IPC.

With Iranian gas diverted to south Asia, Russia’s Gazprom has one rival less for the European market. Brussels was relying on Nabucci pipeline, which bypasses Russia, to lessen its reliance on the Russian gas. But the Nabucco project is dependent on gas from either Iran or Turkmenistan. The Turkmenistan distribution is controlled by Russia. The IPC can deprive the Nabucco project of its second major source.

It’s a nightmare scenario for Washington. Even the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) pipeline, if things go well for the US in Afghanistan, may become TAPC (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-China).

This might be a vindication for all those ‘conspiracy theorists’ who have always claimed that the real reason for the American war on terror was this energy game. This makes Pakistan, actually Gwadar, the most important theatre of war in the coming days. It becomes even more important for Pakistan to handle the Balochistan issue, mend its fences with the estranged pawns in this grand game of global chess.

Robert Kaplan wrote about Gwadar that its development would either unlock the riches of Central Asia, or plunge Pakistan into a savage, and potentially terminal, civil war. The way things are going in Balochistan we seem headed towards the second option.

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