Official media and strategic analysts here on Friday played down the strategic significance of a Chinese company taking over management of Pakistan’s deep-sea Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea, stressing that Beijing’s interests were purely commercial. Islamabad earlier this week agreed to transfer control of the port project, which has struggled to take off, from a Singaporean firm to the Chinese Overseas Port Holdings company.
The Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said in a report on Friday that the port’s major attraction to China was in providing “an alternative to the Strait of Malacca”, through which 80 per cent of China’s oil imports pass — a reliance dubbed by Chinese analysts the country’s “Malacca dilemma”. China is also considering building a pipeline from the port to its far-western Xinjiang region.
The report also hinted at China’s concerns over the slow-moving project. “Worsening security in the extremist-ridden Baluchistan, a lack of warehouse facilities, and slow pace in building rail and road links have clouded prospects that the port can soon be fully operational,” said the newspaper.
Foreign Ministry spokesperon Hong Lei told reporters at a regular briefing that China “will actively support any programme that benefits China-Pakistan relations and the prosperity of Pakistan”.
Chinese analysts have sought to play down the strategic significance of the deal. Pakistani officials were quoted as saying by local media last year that they wanted China to build a naval base at Gwadar. Wang Weihua, a scholar at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, told the official China Daily newspaper that “the Gwadar project as a port, and not as a naval base, may provide supplies for Chinese merchant ships and escort vessels”. Chinese investment, he added, “can help Islamabad to better develop the Baluchistan province and help boost Islamabad’s influence in the Muslim world”.
Liu Xiaoxue, a scholar at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, added that it was “a little early to talk about the energy corridor” linking China and Pakistan, “as the cost of land energy transportation and risk of insecurity is still higher than maritime transportation”.
A commentary in the Global Times on Friday also sought to address any anxieties in India over China’s involvement in port projects in the neighbourhood – Beijing is also involved in port construction in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
“Due to China’s rise, many Chinese companies’ overseas activities have been painted with a heavy military tint.
If observers interpret China’s every move on the premise that China’s rise will definitely challenge the current international order, all China’s overseas moves would be seen as having a military purpose,” the commentary said.
“In fact,” it continued, “China is not so powerful, nor is India so weak, so as to make it possible that the transfer of a mere civil project can ‘encircle’ India.”
Asked if China had any plans to eventually build military bases in the ports it is building in the Indian Ocean region, Defence Minister Liang Guanglie told The Hindu in an interview in September that the ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, which have been increasingly involved in anti-piracy escort missions in the region, might “consider having logistic supply or short rest at appropriate ports of other countries”. “Such logistic supply activities,” he said, “do not have any connection with establishing military bases overseas”, adding that the PLA had never sought to establish a base overseas.
Lin Boqiang, director of the China Center for Energy Economics Research at Xiamen University, told the Global Times that Chinese investment would “revitalize the port with strategic importance” and kick-start the flagging project. “The Singapore company put more value in the commercial benefits in operating the port, but for China, its strategic values is greater than the commercial significance,” he said. “I do believe China will build the port at the astonishing ‘Chinese speed’ to materialize the port’s strategic values.”