By Sajjad Shaukat
When during the Musharraf regime, Pakistan government initiated the construction of Gwadar deep-seaport in the Balochistan province in March 2002 with Chinese assistance, a siren went off in the capitals of the United States, India and Israel. The US took it as a threat to its global plans, and India felt that it threatened its integrity. Israel also took it as a greater threat from an Islamic country. Some defence analysts had opined that development of Gwadar port would shift the great game of Central Asia to Pakistan, though Afghanistan would remain its gateway.
As regards its strategic importance, due to its proximity to the vital sea lanes, Gwadar is the major important seaport in the world. Located on the southwestern coast of Pakistan, it is close to the Strait of Hormuz from where more than 17 million barrels of oil passes every day. Its ideal location between three key regions, South Asia, the oil-rich Middle East, and oil and gas-resourced Central Asia have further increased its significance.
If once becomes fully operational, Gwadar Seaport could connect the landlocked Central Asian states with rest of the world. Being the commercial hub, the port is likely to increase volume of trade, bringing multiple economic and financial benefits to Pakistan like the Suez Canal which changed the destiny of Egypt when Israel returned it to the former. It will enable high-volume cargo vessels to move in the major oceans. Otherwise, big vessels cannot move from and to Karachi Seaport owing to dearth of depth. Therefore, small cargo ships with low weight are sent to Dubai from where containers are re-loaded on big vessels. This practice causes many problems for businessmen, discouraging Pakistan’s imports and exports.
In case of its completion, Gwadar project will not only uplift the impoverished people of Balochistan by providing thousands of employment opportunities and is likely to develop whole the province by redressing their grievances. The resulting prosperity would trickle down to the Baloch people and damp the separatist sentiment.
Besides, as an alternative deep water port, it is situated 470 km away from Karachi making it less vulnerable to the Indian naval blockade which Pakistan faced in 1971 during the war with India.
As Pakistan has close friendship with China, so in the long term, the Gwadar Seaport could serve as a port of entry for oil and gas to be transported by land to the western region of China. If Beijing wants to emancipate itself from transportation or military problems along Asia’s southern coastline, direct access to the Indian Ocean may be the solution.
In this respect, Balochistan’s Gwader project where China has invested billions of dollars irks the eyes of US-led India and Israel; hence, they have been supporting Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), Jundollah (God’s soldiers) and other separatist elements which are arranging subversive activities in the province as part of their covert designs. In this regard, Pakistan’s civil and military leadership has repeatedly said that training camps are presence in Afghanistan from where arms and ammunition are being sent to the militants in Balochistan in order to dismember Pakistan. In the past few years, a number of Chinese engineers, working at Gwadar were kidnapped and killed by the foreign-affiliated insurgent groups. The main aim behind is to discourage Beijing for the development of Gwadar port.
Although secret agencies like American CIA, Indian RAW and Israeli Mossad have been arranging acts of sabotage in Balochistan including other parts of the country for their countries’ collective strategic interests, yet it is our misfortune that Pakistan’s political leadership has caused delay in the completion of Gwadar Seaport owing to lack of interest and willingness, instead of vigorously pursuing the project. Unfortunately, short term vested interests of these politicians have prevailed over the long term national interests, creating differences between the state institutions which further complicated the situation rather than a progress for the rapid development of the project.
In this context, Pakistan’s Minister of Port and Shipping, Senator Baber Khan Ghauri has often found involved in blame game so as to shift his responsibilities and failures in relation to the Gwadar project. On August 28, 2012, in a meeting of the Senate Committee on Ports and Shipping, he pretended that government’s failure to transfer 584 acres of land in possession of Pakistan Navy at the mouth of the port was a major obstacle with Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and resolution of the related issues.
Notably, in 2006 after completion of the Phase-1 construction work, Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) invited offers from experienced port operators for the management of the project, and in February 2007 signed an agreement with Concession Holding Company (CHC), a subsidiary of PSA for operational control of the seaport. PSA was to invest $ 550 million during the next five year for development of the port, but since than, no substantial progress was achieved. In fact, GPA’s lack of thinking in strategic terms in maritime sector and its inability to persuade PSA in marketing and operationalisation of the current terminal area has failed to capitalise on the immense potential which resides on this project.
However, actual facts which have delayed the completion of strategically important deep-seaport of Gwadar have not made public. In this regard, the agreement between GPA and PSA was flawed, and the Minister of Port and Shipping, Senator Baber Khan Ghauri is largely to be blamed. It was because of the minister that contract rules were violated and laws were bent wherever these were needed to ensure the interests of the concession holders rather than to safeguard the business interests of both the parties. In this context, a former chairman of Gwader Port Authority disclosed in 2009, “People fear that PSA Gwader’s name is only being used as a cover and the party is really interested in running the port will come to the fore after the former disinvests.”
While Senator Baber Khan Ghauri who is from Karachi-based MQM political party, is not interested in the operationalisation of the Gwadar port because it will reduce national dependence on Karachi Port Complex. As a result, his party will lose political leverage and in turn control of Karachi city. So the minister who has deliberately neglected development of Gwadar project, himself is involved in land grabbing in Gwader city rather than acquiring land for completion of this key port. It is owing to these reasons that even after the lapse of several years, Gwadar city still lacks road and rail track connectivity due to which, its usage is severely limited.
Now, Pakistan has decided to give the operations at Gwadar port to China as soon as the terms of agreement with the Singapore Port Authority expire. In this regard, the Planning Commission’s task force on maritime industry has proposed that an operational agreement with PSA be cancelled, which had undertaken to spend $525 million in five years, but nothing was spent during the last three years. No commercial vessel had arrived at Gwadar port during the same period.
Nevertheless people regret that like PIA, railways, power and energy sector, steel mills, poor performance of the government on the Gwadar Seaport is yet another tale of woes. But reality remains that the project has been victim of deliberate carelessness by the Senator Baber Khan Ghauri who can not be exonerated from his responsibilities as Minister of Transport and Shipping.
While the ball is in government’s court, so it is the right hour that an amicable solution of the issue with effective plan so as to take corrective measures, and appointment of sincere leadership could play a positive role in completion of the Gwader project which is in everyone’s best interest. Nonetheless, this port needs special attention for its completion. Otherwise, immense benefits like advancement of the strategic value of Pakistan including socio-economic development of Balochistan will remain a dream.
Sajjad Shaukat writes on international affairs and is author of the book: US vs Islamic Militants, Invisible Balance of Power