Osama Episode Reinvigorates China-Pakistan Ties

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali.

Pakistan’s Defence Minister Chaudhry Ahmed Mukhtar announced on May 22 that China had “acceded to Pakistan’s request to take over operations” of the Gwadar port while Islamabad also requested Beijing to build a naval base at the same port. This is perhaps the biggest shift in Pakistan’s policy in the aftermath of Osama episode.

Following the completion of Phase I of Gwadar, General Musharraf’s government refused to let a Chinese company run the strategic port of Gwadar that China helped build. In Feb 2007 Pakistan signed an agreement with pro-US Singapore for 25 years, and gave it the status of a Tax Free Port for the following 40 years.

Almost three years after President Musharraf’s escape from Pakistan, the Zardari government and the Pakistani army under the stewardship of General Ashfaq Kayani remained reluctant to cancel the contract with Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and revive work at Gwadar, largely for fear of upsetting Washington.

The Planning Commission’s task force on maritime industry had proposed that the operational agreement be cancelled because the PSA failed to fulfill its pledge to spend $525 million in five years, but nothing was spent during the last three years. The task force also observed that a penalty of $8-10 million would have to be paid to the PSA if the contract was cancelled.

Gwadar Port

Located close to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which over 13 million barrels of oil pass every day, Gwadar is situated at the intersection of oil-rich Middle East, South Asia where one-fifth of the world’s population lives and Central Asian Republics (CARs) having vast reserves of oil and minerals, is also likely to emerge as the country’s most strategically-located deep-sea port.

Pakistan was interested in the project to seek strategic depth further to the southwest from its major naval base in Karachi that has long been vulnerable to the dominant Indian Navy. In the past, it endured prolonged economic and naval blockades imposed by the Indian Navy. To diversify the site of its naval and commercial assets, Pakistan has already built a naval base at Ormara, the Jinnah Naval Base, which has been in operation since June 2000. It can berth about a dozen ships, submarines and similar harbor craft.

Although the total cost of the project is estimated at $1.16 billion USD, China pitched in $198 million and Pakistan $50 million to finance the first phase. China also has invested another $200 million into building a coastal highway that will connect the Gwadar port with Karachi. The second phase, which will cost $526 million, will feature the construction of 9 more berths and terminals and will also be financed by China.

The Gwadar port project, however, is billed to crown the Pakistan Navy into a force that can rival regional navies. The government of Pakistan has designated the port area as a "sensitive defense zone." Once completed, the Gwadar port will rank among the world’s largest deep-sea ports. The port will have global ramifications.

Countries like Russia and China will find this port of great importance to their futuristic needs as both have so far been unsuccessful in establishing ports in hot waters.

China’s decision to finance the construction of the Gwadar port and the coastal highway linking the port to Karachi will help its plans to develop western China. The distance from Kashgar to the Chinese east coast ports is 3,500 km, whereas the distance from Kashgar to Gwadar is only 1,500 km. The cost benefits to China of using Gwadar as the port for western China’s imports and exports are evident.

China has no blue water navy and feels defenseless in the Persian Gulf against any hostile action to choke off its energy supplies. To cope with the new challenges, the Chinese leadership envisaged a new plan that was called by the US as "assembling a string of pearls."

Besides Gwadar, this string includes Chittagong of Bangladesh in the Bay of Bengal and Myanmar in the Indian Ocean. China has helped build the Chittagong port in Bangladesh where it is seeking an extensive naval and commercial access. In the case of Myanwar, Beijing has showered billions of dollars in military aid.

It has provided support for building several ports, road and rail links from the Chinese province of Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal, and a monitoring post on Myanmar’s Coco Islands for sea traffic.

The new Chinese plans have rung alarm bells in India and the US too. India feels that it is encircled by China from three sides – Myanmar, Tibet and Pakistan. To counter Sino-Pak collaboration, India has brought Afghanistan and Iran into an economic and strategic alliance.

Following the Chinese ambitions in the region, India has pursued closer military ties with the US and issued a new naval doctrine stressing the need of protecting energy routes and responding to Beijing’s inroads into the Arabian Sea.

To counter the Gwadar port that is also called the Chinese Gibraltar by Washington, India has built Chabahar port in Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran – just adjacent to Gwadar. India is also helping Iran in building a 200km road that will connect Chabahar with Afghanistan. It will provide access via land to the port for their imports and exports to and from Central Asia. Presently, India is in urgent need of a shorter transit route to quickly ship its trade goods to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Defense ties

Defense Minister, who accompanied Prime Minister Yusuf Ali Gilani during his recent visit to Beijing also revealed that China has agreed to expedite the delivery of 50 J-17F Thunder fighter jets to Pakistan. The Thunder jets are expected to be delivered within weeks to help bolster the Pakistan Air Force’s defense and tactical capabilities.

According to Mr Mukhtar, the prime minister also asked his counterpart, Wen Jiabao, to consider inducting the JF-17 Thunder aircraft into the PLA (Peoples Liberation Army) fleet as it would enable Pakistan to sell a large number of the planes to other countries. Pakistan has also requested for 4,400-tonne frigates on credit basis.

China will also launch a satellite for Pakistan in August this year. The purpose of this satellite has been described as ‘multifarious’.

Not surprisingly, India has expressed “serious concern” on the growing defense ties between China and Pakistan. Indian Defence Minister AK Antony told reporters on Friday: “It is a matter of serious concern for us. The main thing is we have to increase our capability – that is the only answer.”

China has been a steady source of military equipment to the Pakistani Army and also has helped Pakistan to set up mass weapons production factories and also have given technology assistance and modernized facilities.

In the last 20 years, the countries are involved in the joint venture of several projects to enhance military and weaponry systems. China transferred equipment and technology and provided scientific expertise to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs throughout the 1980s and 1990s, enhancing Pakistan’s strength in the South Asian strategic balance.

The most significant development in China-Pakistan military cooperation occurred in 1992 when China supplied Pakistan with 34 short-range ballistic M-11 missiles. Recent sales of conventional weapons to Pakistan include JF-17 aircraft, JF-17 production facilities, F-22P frigates with helicopters, K-8 jet trainers, T-85 tanks, F-7 aircraft, small arms, and ammunition. Beijing also built a turnkey ballistic-missile manufacturing facility near the city of Rawalpindi and helped Pakistan develop the 750-km-range, solid-fueled Shaheen-1 ballistic missile.

While the U.S. has sanctioned Pakistan in the past–in 1965 and again in 1990–China has consistently supported Pakistan’s military modernization effort. The terms on which the Chinese provided weapons and equipment was not aimed at perpetuating Pakistan’s dependence on Beijing but on encouraging self-reliance and indigenisation. This included supply of spare parts, setting up local overhauling facilities, license production and joint ventures.

However, New Delhi alleges that the main anchor of the now 60-year old Sino-Pakistani relationship is the Indian threat, and China needs Pakistan to be a destabilizing force to check its Indian rival. That is why Beijing has lavished Islamabad with weapons to use against New Delhi and Beijing is quite happy with a Pakistan that is stable enough to allow Chinese investment and domestic stability but unstable enough to check India.

Tale End

Since the US announced its special forces had killed Osama bin Laden in the town of Abbottabad on May 2, Pakistan’s relationship with America has come under intense strain amid accusations that its special forces knowingly harbored and assisted the world’s most wanted terrorist. China, by contrast, has remained steadfast in its support.

China fully acknowledges Pakistan’s contribution and the sacrifices it has made in the fight against terror. Pakistan has at least a hundred thousand troops deployed on the border with Afghanistan, in the tribal areas of its northwest. Many of its soldiers have died.

As China Daily pointed out: “Pakistan’s sincerity in the anti-terror crusade should not be questioned as the country has borne and continues to bear the brunt of international terrorism. In addition to the huge cost in human lives, direct and indirect Pakistani losses engendered from the fight against terrorism over the past 10 years have reached $100 billion.”

Interestingly, China has declined to confirm Pakistan Defense Minister’s statement about Gwadar and expedite delivery of 50 J-17F Thunder fighter jets to Pakistan.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: www.amperspective.com email: asghazali2011(@)gmail.com

Osama Episode Reinvigorates China-Pakistan Ties

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