Is the talk around the port of Gwadar a sign that China is considering a string of pearls strategy? Anti-air missile batteries will be the first sign.
Last weekend, the Pakistan Navy briefly dominated headlines when two unrelated events took place the same day. Both constituted part of the fallout from the US Navy SEAL raid on Abbottabad, which claimed the life of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. On Sunday, Taliban militants struck at a naval air station in Karachi, killing 13 Pakistan Navy personnel and torching two US-built P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. A seesaw gun battle raged into Monday before the militants were finally silenced. The attack on Mehran Naval Air Station was part of a spate of Taliban operations evidently meant to remind Islamabad, the region, and the world that Islamist militancy remains a going concern despite bin Laden’s death. In essence, it was Taliban commanders’ way of messaging vis-à-vis important audiences.
Also on Sunday, Pakistani officials made an announcement of potentially seismic importance for the Indian Ocean region. It pertained to the western Pakistani seaport of Gwadar, which has occasioned no end of buzz among China-watchers since construction of deep-water port infrastructure began there in 2002. Gwadar lies near the Strait of Hormuz, along sea lanes bound to and from the Persian Gulf. More noteworthy, China bankrolled the project, putting up $200 million—or some 80 percent—of the initial funding. The harbour’s strategic site, coupled with the identity of its external funder, has fanned speculation that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, will someday convert Gwadar into a forward naval station in the Indian Ocean—paving the way for a standing PLAN Indian Ocean squadron.
The first part of the Pakistani announcement was innocuous. A Singaporean firm, PSA International, has administered the container terminal since it commenced operations in 2008. Islamabad has been having second thoughts about the arrangement, which came under legal challenge last autumn. Chinese officials have made occasional noises about taking over management of the port.
It was the other part of the announcement that raised eyebrows. Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar accompanied Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on a mid-May trip to China. Upon his return, Mukhtar reported that the Pakistani delegates had proposed both shifting management of Gwadar to a Chinese firm and constructing a military facility there.‘We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,’ Mukhtar told the Financial Times. While he offered no timetable for the move, Mukhtar alleged that China had agreed to take over port operations. He added that Islamabad would be ‘more grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base was being constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan.’ His words seemed designed to put Washington on notice that Islamabad has other allies as US-Pakistan relations sour following the Abbottabad strike.