The New York Times recently reported that China apparently has agreed to take over the operations of a $200 million port it built for Pakistan in Gwadar, on the Indian Ocean close to the Iranian border and close to the entrance to the Persian Gulf. We'll see if this actually happens. If it does, it will be geopolitically significant. To a greater degree than other Indian Ocean ports that China has either built, helped finance or upgraded, Gwadar is plagued by considerable security problems, as I found out during a visit there in 2008. It is in a remote region of Pakistan affected by Baloch separatism. And Baloch leaders I interviewed specifically threatened the building of a Chinese pipeline from Gwadar. Some years ago, China sat back and let a Singaporean firm run the new Gwadar port. At roughly the same time, Beijing shelved plans to build a nearby refinery. In 2011, when Pakistan publicly asked China to take over the port from the Singaporeans, China said no. China already has the Pakistani port of Karachi effectively for use, notes Indian analyst C. Raja Mohan. China has clearly been hedging its bets on Gwadar.
China's ostensible willingness to suddenly take the next step in Gwadar comes while the United States is in the process of pulling out of Afghanistan. Were Afghanistan to even partially stabilize following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it would conceivably open up supply routes connecting Gwadar to Central Asia, and ultimately to China. This would ease China's so-called "Malacca dilemma," in which China is too dependent on the Strait of Malacca (and the nearby Lombok and Makassar straits) for the importation of hydrocarbons from the Middle East. China is already building roads and railways into Central Asia and has demonstrated, in its construction of parts of the Karakoram highway in southwestern China and northern Pakistan, its ability to surmount logistical obstacles. A spur road and pipeline from Gwadar would allow for the transfer of energy and other goods from the Middle East without having to rely on the Strait of Malacca. China would also be able to establish a listening post near the Persian Gulf were it to actually operate Gwadar.
China's Malacca dilemma will be further alleviated this summer when Beijing expects another port and pipeline complex it has built to be operational: one taking oil and natural gas from the Indian Ocean off the Myanmar coast and transporting it from Kyaukpyu in Rakhine state across north-central Myanmar into southern China's Yunnan province. Myanmar's ethnic unrest poses a security challenge to the Chinese pipeline, perhaps a reason why China is active in mediating disputes between the Myanmar regime and one of its disaffected ethnic armies.
Given all of these projects, it is a great age in history to be a Chinese civil engineer. I observed firsthand in 2009 the building of the massive Hambantota port complex by the Chinese in southern Sri Lanka, in the north-central Indian Ocean, which officially opened the following year. China, according to reports, is also involved in the building of a mooring container terminal and a nearby bridge in the Bangladeshi port city of Chittagong, while also reportedly aiding in the construction of a deep-water port on Bangladesh's Sonadia Island in the northeastern Indian Ocean. Furthermore, the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, among other sources, reports that China is a potential lead investor in a port and pipeline project to transport oil from southern Sudan to Lamu, on Kenya's northern coast, in the western Indian Ocean.
This array of Indian Ocean ports has been dubbed China's "string of pearls." Those skeptical of the concept have said that China has little desire or capacity to build naval bases in these places. But the string of pearls was never properly meant to imply naval bases per se. It is a far subtler concept, as I fully elaborated upon in my 2010 book, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power. In my reporting trips to Gwadar, Hambantota and other Indian Ocean ports where the Chinese have been active, I described a possible commercial, political, strategic and lastly military venture, the constituent elements of which cannot be disaggregated. To be sure, we live in a post-modern world of eroding distinctions: a world where coast guards sometimes act more aggressively than navies, where sea power is civilian as well as military, where access denial can be as relevant as the ability to engage in fleet-on-fleet battle and where the placement of warships is vital less for sea battles than for diplomatic ones.
China, moreover, has historic roots in the Indian Ocean going back to the Song and early Ming dynasties. In particular, the Chinese regime recently spent a considerable amount of money in a public relations campaign to resurrect the legacy of Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He, who plied the seas between China, the East Indies, Sri Lanka, the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa in the 15th century. Zheng He's route took him to all the places where China is now involved in port projects: It is the same route that ships must take to bring Middle Eastern hydrocarbons to China.