Pakistan's Black Pearl

The hype about a Chinese-built port on the Arabian Sea says more about Islamabad's desperation than it does about Beijing's imperial ambitions.

State visits between friendly countries seldom produce surprises or unscripted moments, but the recent trip to China by top Pakistani officials managed to do just that.

Upon returning to Islamabad, the defense minister, Ahmed Mukhtar, made two eyebrow-raising announcements: first, that Beijing had agreed to take over operation of Gwadar port in Baluchistan, and, second, that he had invited the Chinese to build a naval base there. China's leaders, seemingly caught unaware by these statements, promptly denied them

Nevertheless, Mukhtar's seemingly ad-libbed remarks revived the debate about China's ambitions in southwest Asia. For example, last week, a Wall Street Journal opinion piece provocatively titled "China Breeds Chaos" claimed that "China wants to get into the great-power maritime game by operating ports throughout the Indian Ocean." Is Gwadar an isolated case or an important platform for the projection of Chinese influence in the region?

For much of the past decade, a theory called the "string of pearls" has gained currency, with proponents suggesting that Beijing is seeking to expand its influence by developing a "string" of commercial ports and listening posts -- "pearls" -- along the rim of the Indian Ocean. The term seems to have been first coined by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report "Energy Futures in Asia" and elaborated upon by dozens of armchair strategists since. A 2006 study from the U.S. Army War College described this purported strategy as a "manifestation of China's ambition to attain great power status and secure a self-determined, peaceful, and prosperous future" and hailed the development of Gwadar's port -- then in its early stages -- as a "win-win prospect for both China and Pakistan."

But is it?

It is easy to understand why Beijing would be keen to build and operate a port in southwest Pakistan. Gwadar's strategic location at the crossroads of the global energy trade -- opposite the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf -- offers Beijing a handy transit terminal for Middle Eastern energy imports. With the Middle East likely to remain the largest source of China's crude oil imports, a significant portion of this supply will continue to transit the Indian Ocean. China therefore has an obvious interest in securing vital sea lanes. A commercial port facility offers a relatively uncontroversial means to achieve an important energy security objective.

Some have taken the "string of pearls" vision a step further, suggesting that military factors are also at play. In particular, some observers have claimed (so far without much evidence) that China is constructing naval bases at Gwadar, among other places. For example, Robert D. Kaplan writing in Foreign Affairs in 2009 claimed: "The Chinese government has already adopted a 'string of pearls' strategy for the Indian Ocean.… It is building a large naval base and listening post in Gwadar, Pakistan, … a fueling station on the southern coast of Sri Lanka … and a container facility with extensive naval and commercial access in Chittagong, Bangladesh." (Kaplan seems to have changed his assessment since then.)

It all makes sense -- in theory. A naval base in Pakistan would be a strategic asset for China. As a rising power, being able to project power in the Middle East and parts of Africa -- regions on which it is heavily dependent for natural resources -- is undoubtedly attractive. A naval base would also enhance China's influence in Central Asia, another area of increasing importance for Beijing. Also, with U.S.-Pakistan relations under strain and with American troops due to begin drawing down from Afghanistan in 2014, some, such as Nayan Chanda in a recent Times of India article, argue that China will look to seize an opportunity to fill a power vacuum.

But the truth is that Beijing is treading carefully, and with good reason. A combination of compelling economic, security, and political factors ensure that a fully functioning commercial port -- let alone an operational military base -- remains a distant prospect.

By far the most obvious deterrent to development is the endemic instability in Baluchistan province. Despite being the largest (and arguably most mineral-rich) of Pakistan's four provinces, Baluchistan has suffered decades of neglect by the central government. Chronically underdeveloped and beset by a low-level insurgency led by Baluchi nationalists, the situation on the ground has worsened considerably in recent years. Baluchis complain bitterly of Islamabad's naked exploitation of their province's natural resources and its seeming disregard of local interests.

Although much of this opposition is aimed at the energy industry, Gwadar has also become a focal point of protest. Hopes that the construction of the port would generate development and employment opportunities for locals have been dashed. Instead, most of the jobs created were handed out to members of other ethnic groups. Moreover, during the port's construction phase, members of Pakistan's military and civilian bureaucracies appropriated vast tracts of prime coastal land around Gwadar, according to an International Crisis Group report.

Widespread anger has regularly flared into violence. In 2004, for example, three Chinese engineers were murdered in Gwadar, and in 2007, a bus carrying Chinese engineers was bombed in the southern town of Hub. An already tense security situation in Baluchistan has deteriorated over recent years as the insurgency has spread into non-tribal areas such as the southern Makran belt, where Gwadar is located. As a result, all foreign visitors require permission from Islamabad to visit the region. This is often tricky, though not impossible.

Baluchistan's lack of modern infrastructure poses another obstacle. Regardless of how sophisticated or efficient its new port might one day become, its usefulness to Beijing will ultimately hinge on how smoothly goods can be transported the 2,000 or so kilometers to and from the Chinese border. Already, the absence of road links between Gwadar and the rest of Baluchistan has hampered commercial activity. A local media report in January 2010 noted that the central government has been forced to subsidize the high cost of transporting goods from the port to other parts of the country. For an economy dependent on external funding, this state of affairs bodes ill for Gwadar's future.

Even if China takes matters into its own hands by financing the construction of a road from Gwadar to the provincial capital of Quetta, as a Forbes article last year observed, security will remain a key challenge.

It comes as no surprise therefore that business activity in and around Gwadar has been slow. The ambitious vision articulated by former President Pervez Musharraf -- to turn the port into a Dubai- or Singapore-style trade hub -- seems to have fizzled out. Gwadar is open for commerce, but only up to a point.

Having become operational shortly after the Chinese completed the first phase of development in 2007, the port only received its first commercial cargo ship almost two years later, in July 2009. It has not seen much use since; a local newspaper noted last year that some port equipment had already started to rust. A planned second phase of (again Chinese-led) development has yet to begin, suggesting that Beijing may have other priorities.

Indeed, both financial and diplomatic considerations are likely to discourage China from deepening its involvement in Gwadar. These same factors make it doubly unlikely that Beijing would seek a military presence there.

The undefined but presumably substantial cost of establishing a naval base in an unstable part of a volatile country is one obvious deterrent. Such a financial commitment would in turn necessitate an open-ended political commitment, one that China's traditionally circumspect strategists would not undertake lightly.

Motivating their caution is Beijing's wariness of adding new sources of tension in Sino-U.S. relations. The Pentagon, already unnerved by China's rising military expenditures and its emerging naval dominance of the South China Sea, would not look on benignly were the People's Liberation Army Navy to drop anchor in Gwadar.

Might China someday seek a naval presence in Gwadar to protect its vital energy supply lines and possibly challenge Indian naval domination? It is perhaps with this eventuality in mind that China built the port in the first place. All indications, however, are that the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea will remain the focal points of Chinese maritime strategy for the foreseeable future.

For now, Pakistan's bold claims about China's commitment to develop Gwadar have less to do with Beijing's foreign-policy ambitions and more to do with Islamabad's desire to show Washington that it has other powerful friends. After the humiliation and hurt feelings caused by the United States' unilateral action against Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in early May, Islamabad's clumsy effort to play the "China card" was a blatant face-saving maneuver -- as Beijing's immediate rebuff made clear.

In public, Chinese officials expressed sympathy and solidarity with their South Asian ally, but the Economist reports that in private, they urged the Pakistani government to cooperate with the United States. At a time when Beijing is jousting with Washington over a variety of issues -- from exchange rate issues to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea -- it has no interest in adding another point of friction.

Pakistan remains a very important ally, but China has too much at stake to be dragged unwittingly into Islamabad's soap opera with Washington.

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To Save Yemen

With the right diplomatic approach, the situation in Yemen can be salvaged.

See a slide show on the turmoil in Yemen

On June 1, the White House dispatched John Brennan, President Barack Obama's counterterrorism aide, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to discuss options to address the worsening situation in Yemen.

Brennan's mission is welcome: U.S. diplomacy is essential for effective counterterrorism, as was also the case in the aftermath of 9/11, when I was sent as ambassador to Yemen. His challenge will be to bring together forces inside Yemen, regional pressure, and more robust U.S. and international efforts to nudge out President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled the country in various forms since 1978.

U.S. counterterrorism officials, including Brennan, have rightly described al Qaeda's regional affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as the most dangerous node in the group's global network. Since its formation in January 2009, AQAP has sought to find chinks in U.S. defenses through the use of "stealth" terrorists like Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and innovative tactics like last fall's printer bombs on cargo planes.

Those plots were foiled, but largely due to efforts outside Yemen. The unfortunate truth is that, even before the current turmoil, counterterrorism efforts inside Yemen have been largely ineffective. It's not because we don't know how to do the job: From 2001-2004, a broad U.S.-Yemeni strategy linking security to development eliminated al Qaeda's leadership and most of its cadres. Neglect at the end of George W. Bush's administration and poor execution of the Obama administration's reinvigorated strategy allowed AQAP's leadership to reconstitute the organization and operate with relative impunity.

Since the onset of the Yemeni revolution in February, a bad situation has deteriorated rapidly. Focused above all on preserving his power, Saleh has pulled government forces back from the periphery, ceding vast operating space to AQAP in Yemen's remote areas, including Marib, al-Jawf, Shabwa, and Abyan. Yemen's premier counterterrorism unit, the Interior Ministry's Central Security Force, commanded by the president's nephew Yahya, has been dedicated, at least on occasions, to protecting the regime, as has long been the case for the special operation forces under his son Ahmed Saleh.

Whether Saleh has sought to exploit the very real threat of al Qaeda is subject to debate. Some reports suggest that security forces in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, recently acquiesced in the town's takeover by Islamist militants. Saleh may have intended the single public incident of Yemeni-U.S. cooperation since the protests began -- the Predator drone strike that eliminated two midlevel al Qaeda operatives on May 5 -- as evidence of his continued relevance to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. If so, it's not working: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's thinly veiled rebuke to Saleh on May 22 after he reneged on signing a deal orchestrated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Yemeni president's subsequent bitter rejection of outside pressure indicate the old partnership has run its course.

So what now? Is Yemen doomed to chaos and civil war? Although the risks are real and the trends negative, Yemen's current problems do not defy solution. However, a diplomatic strategy to move beyond the current impasse should be broader than the GCC efforts to date. It should focus on both sticks and carrots and coordinate Yemeni, regional, and international efforts.

Yemeni politics are the bedrock of any solution. The protesters camped out in town squares across the country have already frustrated Saleh's ambition to be accepted as "president for life" and made succession by his son Ahmed inconceivable. The defection in March of Gen. Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the powerful commander of the 1st Armored Division, denied the regime overwhelming force to put down demonstrations and offered a modicum of protection to the protesters. Yemeni ambassadors throughout the world have resigned, undermining the regime's legitimacy. Senior Yemeni leaders -- Vice President Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, Abdulkarim al-Iryani, Shura Council speaker Abdul Ghani -- have reportedly urged Saleh to step aside, and the president appears to be increasingly reliant on limited, but still substantial forces led by his family members. Saleh has also alienated the leadership of his own Hashid tribal grouping and possibly the even larger Bakil federation.

Yemen's neighbors have also played a positive role. In the past, the GCC has rarely taken political initiative and often succumbed to Gulf rivalries. With Yemen, the GCC conceived and credibly promoted a plan -- albeit a far from perfect one -- to move Yemen into the post-Saleh era. Saudi Arabia has reportedly backed this Gulf diplomacy with a cutoff of economic assistance to the president, which puts Gulf money where its mouth is. Such pressure, if sustained over time, is likely to have a cumulative effect.

The United States and the international community have generally been supportive of Gulf diplomacy and Yemen's revolution. Although the protesters themselves say the United States has moved too slowly, the U.S. government has steadily moved away from its sometime partner and toward a more principled position of support for democratic change.

More can and should be done. Time is an adversary, not an ally. Allowed to drift, Yemen may well move to civil war, which could engulf in violence the protests and the peaceful efforts of official and nonofficial reformers. Allowed to drift, Yemen will provide more of a safe haven to AQAP, with mounting risks to Yemeni interests, its neighbors, and the American homeland.

It is time to bring the U.N. Security Council into the picture, building on and supporting the efforts of the GCC and the Yemenis themselves. It should not lay a foundation for outside armed intervention as in Libya -- that would be a disaster in mountainous, heavily armed Yemen -- but rather chart a clearly nonviolent approach.

The pillars of that approach could be: a demand for Saleh to hand over power immediately to a caretaker government; targeted sanctions aimed at promoting further defections from the president's power base and denying the president economic resources to sustain his rule; endorsement of early elections -- Sept. 20, 2011, will mark five years since the last one -- with international assistance in the significant effort required to prepare and monitor such elections; and early attention to Yemen's burgeoning humanitarian needs, not as a substitute for a political settlement, but as a necessary support for one. The United Nations could also show its commitment to resolving the Yemeni crisis by appointing a special representative of the caliber of Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi or possibly Egyptian diplomat Nabil Fahmy.

Some may question whether all this diplomacy is necessary or productive. Can we not simply use Predators or SEAL teams? From my personal experience in Yemen and with al Qaeda there, I do not believe that episodic kinetic operations are the solution, though they are a necessary tool in our kit. Al Qaeda has been stifled before in Yemen by a broad and concerted strategy based on U.S. diplomacy. Left to its own devices, Yemen is unlikely to muddle through, with consequences that range far beyond the Arabian Peninsula. A concerted, multilayered diplomatic effort can succeed. Even a skilled political dancer like Ali Abdullah Saleh can't defy gravity forever.