CPEC and Gwadar are purely commercial projects; so let’s leave it at that

CPEC and Gwadar are purely commercial projects; so let’s leave it at that


From the beginning, critics of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) have been struggling to prove that the military has a lot to gain from the project. However, Islamabad and Beijing, without mincing their words, denounced such statements. Indeed, there are certain factors which create the impression that the military might gain from the CPEC due to its links to the Gwadar port.

The growing geopolitical and economic influence of China, in the region, and across the world, have raised alarm bells for both the United States and India. While India continues to maintain important bilateral and trade ties with China, it is worried about Beijing's increasing influence in the neighborhood. Washington, on the other hand, has imposed sanctions against Chinese entities due to their purchase of military hardware from Russia, such as the S-400 surface to air missiles and the SU-27 fighter jets. 

On December 18, last year, a New York Times (NYT) report stated that: “Chinese officials have repeatedly said that the Belt and Road Initiative is purely an economic project with peaceful intent. But with its plan for Pakistan, China is for the first time explicitly tying a Belt and Road proposal to its military ambitions — and confirming the concerns of a host of nations who suspect the infrastructure initiative is really about helping China project armed might.”

Both Chinese and Pakistani officials had publicly dismissed the notion of the military using CPEC and the Gwadar port. On December 27, Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Dr. Mohammad Faisal reiterated: "The CPEC has helped Pakistan improve its economy, particularly energy and infrastructure sectors. The CPEC is a bilateral economic project, which is not against any country."  Additionally, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said: "According to our information, the relevant report is not true."

Despite the clarifications issued by China and Pakistan, several analysts maintain that in addition to economy and trade, the CPEC would have military dimensions, too. They are convinced that the project is building roads that will be used for military purposes. According to the NYT report: “A Chinese-built seaport and special economic zone in the Pakistani town of Gwadar is rooted in trade, giving China a quicker route to get goods to the Arabian Sea. But it also gives Beijing a strategic card to play against India and the United States if tensions worsen to the point of naval blockades as the two powers increasingly confront each other at sea.”

They assert that the build-up of roads is the extension of China's ‘String of Pearls' maritime strategy.

The strategy refers to "the network of Chinese military and commercial facilities and relationships along with its sea lines of communication, which extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan in the Horn of Africa.”

A Chinese-built seaport and special economic zone in the Pakistani town of Gwadar is rooted in trade, giving China a quicker route to get goods to the Arabian Sea.

Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal

China has been cultivating friendly and cooperative relations with the Indian Ocean littoral states by investing in their infrastructure buildup in ports near the Strait of Malacca on Cocos Keeling Island, the Chittagong port in Bangladesh, and a port in Hambantota on the southeastern part of Sri Lanka.

China has been assisting Pakistan in the construction of a new deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea in Gwadar, in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, too.

The geographical location of Gwadar makes it strategically significant for the neighboring countries and regions such as Afghanistan, China, West Asia, Central Asia, and Eurasia. The port will establish unprecedented sea and road links between West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and Eurasia due to the development of the CPEC and the BRI. Therefore, many countries, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, have planned to invest in the mega-project, with reports stating last week that "Pakistan and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have finalized the Memorandum of Understanding for the construction of a multi-billion dollar Saudi Aramco oil refinery in Gwadar”.

Analysts from India claim that Pakistan had permitted China to build a naval base including the docking facility for its conventional submarines at Gwadar. They believe that China -- through its String of Pearls and CPEC – will encircle India and obstructs its role in the Indian Ocean region. They are of the opinion that with the control of Gwadar would have strategic position in the northern Indian Ocean.

In reality, the perception that Pakistan will give its control to any other state, including China is incorrect. China’s assistance in the building of the Gwadar port does not infer that its control automatically would be transferred to China. Indeed, the Gwadar port is a significant addition to the regional maritime landscape. However, it is a purely commercial project without any military facet to it.

• Dr. Zafar Nawaz Jaspal is an Islamabad-based analyst and professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Quaid-i-Azam University. E-mail: [email protected]

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