March 06, 2007

China chequers India : Gwadar - Hambantota - Sitwe

PIONEER--OP- EDIT 07 Mar 2007

B Raman

Chinese interests in Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Sitwe in Myanmar have serious security implications for India

Very few would have heard of Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Sitwe (Akyab) in Myanmar before 2002. These were essentially fishing harbours used by the fishermen of these countries. Sometimes, there used to be references to these places in articles on fishing rights, but rarely in articles on possible threats to India's national security. Since 2002, studies on maritime security have started making references to these places. Initially, the focus was on Gwadar. Now, it is on Ham-bantota. In the months to come, it will be on Sitwe too.

What made these sleepy fishing harbours suddenly become areas of strategic concern to India's maritime security experts? The growing Chinese interest in these places and China's offer of assistance to these countries for converting these fishing harbours into maritime ports of international standards. What explains the Chinese interest in these places?

China's economic and strategic interest in Gwadar and Sitwe is obvious. It is worried over the possibility of disruptions in the movement of oil and gas tankers to China from the Gulf and Africa through the Malacca Straits due to attacks by pirates and/or terrorists. It wants to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Straits for the movement of its oil and gas supplies. It, therefore, makes eminent sense for it to develop alternate routes. It has prepared two contingency plans for this.

Under the first plan, some of the oil and gas tankers will go to Gwadar and from there the supplies will be sent to Xinjiang by pipelines via Pakistani territory, including Kashmiri territory under the occupation of Pakistan. The second plan envisages sending some of the supplies to Yunnan by pipelines from Sitwe.

In addition to reducing the vulnerability of energy supplies, Gwadar would also serve as an outlet for the external trade of Xinjiang and the neighbouring provinces of China. Sitwe would serve as an outlet for the external trade of Yunnan and the neighbouring areas. Pakistan has also agreed to let China set up a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Gwadar, exclusively for the use of Chinese industries manufacturing goods for export to Africa. The manufacturing and transport costs would be less if these industries are located in Gwadar, instead of in China. There is presently no proposal for a similar SEZ in Sitwe.

The Chinese interest in Gwadar is not just economic and energy supplies related. It is much, much more.It is of immense interest to its Navy - as a port of call, as a refuelling halt and as a listening and watch tower to monitor developments in the Gulf, particularly the movements of the US Navy.

Pakistan's interest in having Gwadar developed as a major international port and a naval base dates back to 1971. The successful raids by the Indian Navy into the Karachi port during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971 made the Pakistani military planners realise the folly of over-dependence on Karachi. Their plans for developing Gwadar into a naval base, which would give a strategic depth to their Navy, were drawn up in the years after the war. These plans did not have an economic component at the time they were drawn up. The economic component was integrated into the plans only after the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of its Central Asian provinces as independent states.

The economic component of the integrated plans provided for the construction of an international port, which could serve as an outlet for the external trade of the Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and the Xinjiang region of China. The military component provided for the construction of a naval base, which would provide a strategic depth to the Pakistani Navy.

These plans could not be taken up for implementation till 2002. Pakistan did not have the funds or the technical expertise to implement them on its own. There were no takers for the plans in the Gulf countries. The Governments of Ms Benazir Bhutto and Mr Nawaz Sharif were reluctant to approach China for assistance, lest US concerns be aroused. Even at the risk of causing concern to the US, Gen Pervez Musharraf sought Chinese assistance for the implementation of the plans when Zhu Rongji, the then Chinese Prime Minister, visited Pakistan in 2001. China immediately responded positively and started the implementation.

The construction of the international commercial port at Gwadar was completed ahead of schedule by Chinese engineers in the beginning of 2006 and handed over to the Pakistani authorities. It is expected to be commissioned later this month by Musharraf. The construction of the naval base by the Chinese engineers has started and it is expected to be completed by 2010.

The initiative for the development of Sitwe as an international port would seem to have come from China and the Myanmarese Government, facing economic difficulties due to Western economic sanctions, readily agreed to it. Details of the plan for the Chinese-aided development of Sitwe are not yet available. As of now, it seems to have only an economic component and not a military component too.

The initiative for a Chinese role in the development of Hambantota would seem to have come from Sri Lanka during the tenure of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1995 when Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabo visited Sri Lanka. Its implementation, which did not make much progress since then, has now picked up momentum during the recent visit of her successor President Mahinda Rajapakse to China

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