The Chinese are feeling their oats. Earlier this week, the New York Times reported that a Chinese management company is taking over control of a strategic deep sea port in Pakistan’s south-west.
The fate of Gwadar, once billed as Pakistan’s answer to the bustling port city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, has been a focus of speculation about China’s military and economic ambitions in South Asia for the past decade. Some American strategists have described it as the westernmost link in the “string of pearls,” a line of China-friendly ports stretching from mainland China to the Persian Gulf, that could ultimately ease expansion by the Chinese Navy in the region. Gwadar is close to the Strait of Hormuz, an important oil-shipping lane.
But other analysts note that Gwadar is many years from reaching its potential, and they suggest that fears of creeping Chinese influence might be overblown. “There may be a strategic dimension to this, where the Chinese want to mark their presence in an important part of the world,” said Hasan Karrar, an assistant professor of Asian history at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, referring to the management transfer at Gwadar. “But I wouldn’t go so far as saying this implies a military projection in the region.”
Whether the alarmists are ultimately right or not, this is a question of context and optics. This news is sure to intensify fears in India that China is trying to project its power into the Indian Ocean. Even if the deal turns out to be purely commercial and the Chinese navy does not build a base there (as it has been rumored it might do), it will serve to strengthen the hand of policy-makers in India who think the defense budget needs to be increased and that India needs to tighten its links with Japan and other countries worried about China’s ambitions. Thus, the Asian game of thrones continues…