Gwadar port, which itself was built by China, sits just outside the Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Persian Gulf that separates Iran from the Arabian Peninsula. China is touting the Pakistani highway as an alternative to the narrow maritime passage of the Malacca Strait off Singapore and a reduction of the distance between China and the Middle East and Africa.
The road to Gwadar highlights China’s quest for strategic influence in the Indian Ocean. In the east, it is symbolized by construction of a road and oil pipeline from a port in Myanmar to the southwest Chinese province of Yunnan. China already operates a mid-Indian Ocean port in Sri Lanka. All form part of an evolving “String of Pearls” of Chinese-built, run or controlled harbors and land passages from Hong Kong to the African mainland.
China’s transport ambitions also stretch east across the pacific Ocean. It is constructing a wider Panama Canal so that supertankers and giant ships can pass into the Caribbean Sea and on to US Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic ports.
Construction of trade infrastructure is an old tradition of burgeoning powers. In the 15th Century, imperial Portugal built a string of fortresses down the east coast of Africa, in India and on to Macao for its Indies and China trade.
Havana was a major harbor for the Spanish empire in the Americas for the transport of gold, silver and crops from the New World. Britain’s involvement in the Middle East stemmed from its desire to keep trade routes open to and from India, it’s colonial “jewel in the crown.”
The United States made its splash as a world economic power by building the Panama Canal (and its protective Caribbean naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba) to secure a shortened sea route from the American east coast and the Mississippi River to the Pacific.
If past such activities by economic powerhouses are any guide, China will supplement its expanding trade infrastructure with naval power. Already, Chinese ships and planes are venturing beyond the traditional Pacific limits of Japan and Taiwan. Two Chinese submarines visited Sri Lanka last year for the first time.
Does this mean military rivalry? India has begun to view the String of Pearls as a possible noose if China’s commercial port ventures are in any way militarized. Last month, in a bid to bolster a mini-alliance of Indian Ocean Island states, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi visited Mauritius and the Seychelles islands, along with Sri Lanka, to improve long-frayed ties.
That China is further tightening its old alliance with Pakistan, with which India has an unresolved conflict over Kashmir, also worries Delhi. Besides announcing the $12 billion highway and pipeline deal, China agreed to sell Pakistan six new submarines.
In any event, China’s moves are part of a monumental “Silk Road Initiative” to link the Middle Kingdom with markets and resources to the west. The initiative includes road, railway and pipeline ties to natural-gas rich Central Asia. All are emblematic of China’s surge as a global geopolitical force.
Benefits of the China-Pakistan deal.
Don’t forget Myanmar.
China and India jostle in the Indian Ocean.