Pakistani officials have announced that the Chinese look favorably on taking over the operation of the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar close to the entrance of the Strait of Hormuz, and perhaps building a naval base for the Pakistanis there as well. The Chinese have apparently contradicted these claims, indicating that they have made no such decisions on these matters.
The fact that Pakistan should want deeper Chinese involvement with this strategically located port, even as the Chinese are hesitant to do just that, should surprise no one. Gwadar is where dreams clash with reality.
Robert D. Kaplan's exclusive tour of the new center of geopolitics.
The Chinese have already invested $200 million in building a modern port in Gwadar. Furthermore, a presence of some sort at Gwadar makes estimable sense for Beijing in the abstract. China faces what has been called a "Malacca dilemma." It is too dependent on the narrow and congested Strait of Malacca between Indonesia and Malaysia for its oil and natural gas shipments from the Middle East to Chinese ports.
Thus, China has been engaged in port-building projects in Pakistan and Burma, which, someday, may be linked by roads and energy pipelines directly to China. Besides offering an alternative route for energy supplies, such new ports will be the 21st-century equivalent of 19th-century British coaling stations for China's budding maritime empire spanning the Indian Ocean. Once China has developed a blue-water navy to protect its sea lines of communications, it will require port access along the global energy interstate that is the Indian Ocean. For Pakistan's part, a robust Chinese presence at Gwadar would serve to check India's own strategic ambitions, as Islamabad leverages Beijing against New Delhi.
The problem is that these are all long-range plans -- and dreams. They conflict with messy ground-level realities. Visiting Gwadar for a week in 2008, I was struck not only by how isolated it was, between pounding sea and bleak desert, but how unstable was the region of Baluchistan, which lies immediately beyond the port in all landward directions. Ethnic Baluchi rebel leaders told me that they would never permit roads and pipelines to be built there, until their grievances with the Pakistani government in faraway Islamabad were settled.