China's dream of Indian Ocean ports -- the so-called string of pearls -- is heightening geopolitical tensions in a rough neighborhood.
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.
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.
The security situation is indeed fraught with peril. The Chinese know this. They know that a pipeline network from Gwadar into Central Asia and China must await the political stabilization of Afghanistan -- and Pakistan, too. Until such a day, Gwadar, while a potentially useful coaling station for a budding Chinese navy, constitutes, in essence, a road to nowhere.
Bottom line: The Chinese may be as frustrated and aghast at the dysfunction of the Pakistani state as are the Americans. Yes, they built the port, with hopes of using it someday. But it seems from their latest statements that they have reservations for the moment. True, they seem to have moved closer to Pakistan to take advantage of Islamabad's estrangement from Washington in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, but they are nevertheless still being cautious. And the caution, I believe, comes not from a lack of geopolitical ambition regarding Gwadar, but from the present security situation in Pakistan, with a government that frankly cannot control its own territory, whether it be the lawless frontier with Afghanistan, or Baluchistan.
Furthermore, just as the Pakistanis want to use China as a bulwark against India, China -- while not shying away from strategic competition with India -- must at the same time be careful not to unduly antagonize India. For China is building or upgrading ports not only in Pakistan and Burma, but in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, too. The point must be emphasized that it is unclear exactly what China intends for these Indian Ocean ports -- China's so-called "String of Pearls." India already feels surrounded by China and has greatly enlarged its own naval base at Karwar, in the country's south, partly in response to Chinese construction work in Gwadar. Given that India and China may soon constitute the world's largest bilateral trading relationship, China must tread carefully. After all, it has always claimed to its neighbors that its rise is benevolent and non-hegemonic.
Indeed, Gwadar is important: not for what it is today, but for what it will indicate about Beijing's intentions in the coming years and decades.
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