January 29, 2008 11:30:45 pm
The newly constructed Gwadar port, strategically located on the Baluchistan coast near the Iranian border, some 180 nautical miles from the Straits of Hormuz, has been in the news recently, with Pakistan’s information minister objecting to a statement made by the Indian navy chief and accusing India of meddling in Pakistan’s internal affairs and provoking the ongoing insurgency in Baluchistan.
Gwadar port was part of Oman till 1958, when the British engineered its sale to Pakistan for $8 million. Pakistan uses the sea for 97 per cent of its trade and 78 per cent of its oil imports. Conscious of the strategic limitations of having only one major port (Karachi), which could be blockaded in times of war, Pakistan built an additional naval base at Ormara and the Gwadar port to provide flexibility of operations for its navy. Gwadar served as a bridge to Afghanistan, China and Central Asia. It also provided a way of importing oil by land from Central Asia. The Gwadar project was completed in 2005 and cost $248 million, of which the Chinese contributed $198 million.
This magnanimous Chinese contribution must be seen in the light of its ‘string of pearls’ policy, where it has set up port facilities available to its navy to ensure safety of its imported oil, being shipped from the Gulf to China. It also so happens that the Gwadar port, when connected by the proposed road, rail and possibly oil pipeline links to China and Central Asia, provides China with additional ‘oil insurance’, along with access to the Arabian Sea. But this ‘string of pearls’ could threaten India’s maritime interests, since 90 per cent of our trade and 75 per cent of our imported oil move by sea.
The port was formally inaugurated in March 2007, and the Pakistan navy was reported to have set up a base in the port. It may be noted that all oil tankers from the Gulf, bound for the Gulf of Kutch pass about 40 nautical miles south of Gwadar port and would be within the range of Gwadar-based coastal radar and missile batteries and also PN units operating from the port. Some media reports indicate the possible (unconfirmed) presence of a Chinese electronic ‘listening post’ at Gwadar.
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To fully understand the serious strategic implications for India, we need to note that much of India’s oil imports come by sea, from the Gulf, with tankers exiting through the straits of Hormuz. Seventy per cent of our imported oil arrives at ports in the Gulf of Kutch, the Gulf of Cambay and at Mumbai port. In fact, in 2007, the Gulf of Kutch received 1100 oil tankers (which pass closely by Gwadar), and the number will grow to over 4000 tanker ships by 2025, when India’s oil imports would have quadrupled to 320 million tonnes (China’s imports would also have risen to over 600 million tonnes and hence the possibility of conflict of interests between these two largest consumers of oil). Similarly, the ships carrying imported oil from the Mumbai and Cambay ports will increase manifold.
The global strategic implications are also serious, since the Gulf region has 75 per cent of the worlds proven oil reserves and half of the world’s proven gas reserves. About 15.5 million barrels of oil pass through the straits of Hormuz daily on tanker ships (worth over $200 billion, annually). This amounts to over 90 per cent of the oil exported by the Gulf region and over 40 per cent of the entire world’s oil trade. All this oil passes very close to the Gwadar port. It can be reasonably assumed that Gwadar’s facilities can be made available to the Chinese navy, even though Pakistan tried to allay fears last year by signing on the Singapore PSA to operate the port for 40 years.
Baluchistan is an arid, inhospitable land, which comprises 43 per cent of Pakistan’s land mass, has 5 per cent of its population, and contributes 50 per cent of gas to Pakistan’s national grid, though it was the last to receive piped gas. The Baluchis have negligible representation in Pakistan’s armed forces (the Baluch regiments have very few Baluchs), bureaucracy or other civilian jobs. The problems in Baluchistan have nothing to do with India — they have been caused by economic neglect of the locals, who also fear becoming a minority in their own land. Indeed, Baluchistan has witnessed unrest and uprisings even earlier, in 1948, 1958, 1963-1969, 1973-1977 and 2004 onwards. This is really Pakistan’s internal issue and India has repeatedly stated that a stable, prosperous Pakistan is also in our interests. Gwadar port is a different case, though it does belong to Pakistan — it would be prudent for India and the global community to carefully examine the strategic implications of this port, built largely with Chinese assistance, and located close to the world’s ‘energy jugular’.
The international community and strategic think tanks have often expressed their concern at a worst case scenario of an unstable Pakistan, where its nuclear arsenal may wholly or partly come under the control of fundamentalists. These fundamentalists could also use Gwadar port to destabilise the world economy, by disrupting or threatening to disrupt the oil flow from the Gulf.
The writer is a retired vice-admiral
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