By Rear Admiral Dr. S Kulshrestha
Two important declarations in the past few days have brought into focus the importance of the Makaran Coast to Middle East as well as the Central Asian Region.
Firstly, the Chinese president Xi Jinping launched $46bn worth of infrastructure and energy projects in Pakistan during his recent visit.
The emphasis was to strengthen the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC between the Pakistani port of Gwadar and the Chinese Xinjiang region which forms part of the Chinese one belt one road and maritime silk route programmes. The Chinese government and banks like Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd and China Development Bank will provide funds to Chinese companies investing in the projects. The likely Chinese companies are China Power International Development Ltd, Three Gorges Corp, ICBC Corporation, Zonergy Corporation, and Huaneng Group. The Chinese president has linked the investments to the safety and security of Chinese assets and workers since the projects involving railways, pipelines, and roads will cross through the insurgency infested areas of Balochistan.
Another significant event was the signing of MOU between the Governments of Iran and India to develop the port of Chahbahar. The project will increase trade links between both countries. The Indian side has pledged to commit about $85 million to construct container and multi-purpose terminals.
Gwadar Port- a deep sea port in Balochistan province of Pakistan. It is located on the shores of the Arabian Sea about 533 km from Karachi and 120 km from the Iranian border
By virtue of their geographical locations — Pakistan and Iran in the Caspian region provide the shortest routes to Arabian Sea ports. It is enough reason for both the countries to develop ports and infrastructure connecting them to the Central Asian Region (CAR).
Apart from oil and gas, the ports harvest trade in commodities like cotton, routed through Russia, Middle East, East Asia and South Asia.
Just over 100 km apart, Gwadar the Pakistani port and Chabahar the Iranian port are competitors for accessing the CAR markets. Both Iran and Pakistan are wooing Afghanistan to give trade and fees incentives to favour their respective port. Pakistan, however, fears “Chabahar port would inflict an enormous financial setback for Pakistan”.
As far as Afghanistan is concerned, its natural resources include, 2.2 billion tons of iron ore, 60 million tons of copper, and 1.4 million tons of rare earth elements such as cerium, neodymium, and lanthanum. It also has lodes of gold, silver, aluminium, zinc, lithium and mercury. The carbonite deposits in Helmand province itself are valued at $89 billion. The US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and Central Asian Republics have shown interest in these deposits. Afghanistan being a land locked country is currently dependent upon Pakistani ports for its international trade. The Chahbahar port would provide it an alternate port without the encumbrance of the insurgency.
The Chahbahar port in the south of Sistan and Baluchistan Province of Iran. It is the only Iranian port with direct access to the ocean.
Gwadar is in the Baluchistan province of Pakistan rich in natural resources like oil and gas. Out of Pakistan’s ~28tcf gas reserves, ~19tcf are in Baluchistan. The Baloch claim that, despite being the largest gas producer in Pakistan, they get only 20% royalty payments unlike the other two gas producing provinces. They subsidise the rich areas, even though they are the poorest region in the country. Nothing much has been done by the Pakistan government for their development despite the vast revenue generated from Baluchistan.
The Sui gas fields in Bugti tribe controlled region are the most affected by militancy. The Sui Southern Gas Company has a network of over 27,500 km covering Baluchistan and Sindh. It is not possible to police or monitor such a vast area. Baloch militants pose a threat to the vast span of gas pipelines.
The Gwadar port development project commenced in 2002. Millions of dollars from Chinese and Pakistani investors (~$200mn was the Chinese investment for the first phase of the project completed in 2005) poured into the quiet Gwadar village. The presumption was that Gwadar would transform into a dominant port on the lines of Dubai, benefitting the locals. But the Baloch soon realised that this was not to be, and their natural resources were being siphoned out by the Pakistan federal government.
In 2006, Pakistani Cobra helicopter gunships and F-16 fighter jets attacked Baloch areas suspected of insurgency; state organised disappearances and kidnappings culminated in killing of the Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. The Then President Musharraf told his core commanders “the writ of the Pakistani government will never be challenged. Let that be a warning… if anyone challenges the writ of the government, I will crush it.”
‘Great Land Robbery’ a story published in The Herald in Jun 2008, alleged that hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Gwadar was allotted illegally to non-resident military and civilian personnel. They would in turn resell it to builders for residential and industrial purposes.
The Baloch soon realised that they were being deprived of their rightful share in Gwadar’s growth. The result was some 33 insurgent attacks per month in 2009 which continue to this day.
Gwadar thus became the lynchpin for the Baloch hatred of Punjabi elite. Towards the end of Xi’s, visit this April 2015, separatist Baluch rebels launched attacks on a coastal radar station near Gwadar, and on a security force convoy in the Awaran district of the province.
Gwadar had a population of about 5000 mainly comprising of poor fishermen in 2001 when the Chinese assisted deep-water port development began. Today it has crossed a population of 125000.
Apart from a network of roads, rail, and air Pakistan plans to build a liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal, an international airport, a cement plant, an oil refinery, and steel mill.
China’s interests at Gwadar are very clear; China is looking for monitoring of its Gulf oil supply route as well as an opening for import/ export trade from its Muslim-majority Xinjiang Autonomous Region.
The Chinese completed the first phase of the Gwadar port on schedule in 2005. The Pakistani government leased the port operations to PSA International of Singapore for 40 years in 2007. The agreement, however, ran into a problem with Pakistan blaming PSA for not keeping their end of the contract with respect to the investments promised by them. The running of the port has now been handed over to the Chinese.
The commencement of Gwadar port’s operations has given a strategic depth to Pakistan Navy, an opening into the Arabian Sea to the Chinese and some cause for worry for India. As the then Chief of Naval Staff, Indian Navy Admiral Sureesh Mehta said in 2008, Gwadar could be used by Pakistan to “take control over the world energy jugular.”
Oil tankers from Gulf transit about 6000 nm and those from the African coast transportation about 10,000 nm before they discharge their energy cargo at Chinese ports. Both the tankers routes have to pass through Malacca Straits. If the ships can unload at Gwadar, they would have to travel only about 680 nm from the Gulf and about 3000 nm from the African coast (Angola).
Pak-China pipeline from Gwadar to Kashgar in Xinjiang is likely to run parallel to the Karakorum highway and cover a distance of about 1500 miles over the tough mountainous terrain. It would also provide berthing facilities to PLA Navy. Indicators that China is seriously contemplating Pak-China energy corridor are evident from the following development projects:-
-Phase II of Gwadar Port and International Airport at Gwadar by China Harbour Engineering Company.
-Petrochemical city (including oil refining capacity of 421,000 BPD) by Great United Petroleum Holdings Company Limited.
-Rail link up to Xingjian by Dong Fang Electric Supply Corp.
-Upgrading of Karakoram high way.
-Construction of Kazakhstan-China and Turkmenistan – China pipelines and their eventual augmentation by a feed from Gwadar-Kashghar pipeline.
– Most important of all the recent pledge of nearly $38 bn (of a total of $46 bn) infrastructure and energy projects in the region by the Chinese President.
The Chabahar port project is crucial for Afghanistan since it would enable shipping goods to Middle East and Europe as well as allow inflow of vital goods to Afghanistan. Economically it would imply a significant boost to its trade and investment in much-needed infrastructure. This has now become a distinct possibility with the US and Iran about to reach an understanding on Iran’s Nuclear program.
The port of Chabahar is located in the southof Baluchistan and Sistan Province, and it is the only Iranian port with direct access to the Indian Ocean. It has historically been a trade centre because of its access Oman Sea and Persian Gulf. Chabahar port has an area of 11 Sq km and is interestingly located at the same latitude as the Miami port in the Florida. The weather at Chabahar port is quite similar to Miami port in that it is very pleasant in summer. It is also one of the coolest ports of the Middle East. The port has been under construction since 1973, but the lack of resources has resulted in delays in its completion. Shahid-Kalantary and Shahid-Beheshti are two valuable ports in Chahbahar. Its location outside of the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz has been very beneficial to Iran’s trade since the Iran – Iraq war. The port will be connected to the Trans-Iranian railway with the completion of the Kerman-Zahedan railway.
A trilateral agreement was signed between Iran, India, and Afghanistan In 2003. India was to build a road, known as Route 606, connecting Delaram, the border city of Afghanistan to Zaranj the Capital of Nimruz province in Afghanistan. Iran was to build a highway from Chabahar up to Delaram. Border Roads Organization of India constructed the Delaram – Zaranj highway, and it was completed in 2009.
With the likelihood of West easing sanctions on Iran, India has once again stepped in with a modest investment to construct container and multipurpose terminals; this would make Chabahar operational in future. It would also provide India with ease of trade with Central Asian Republics, Afghanistan and Iran. Chahbahar does not lie in an insurgency-ridden area like Gwadar; therefore, it is clear that nations would prefer Chahbahar.
India needs to keep promoting Chahbahar as a strategic port on the Makaran coast as it addresses both the ease of trading as well as India’s security needs in the region.
Rear Admiral Dr. S Kulshrestha is Senior Fellow New Westminster College, Canada