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Gwadar – outpost of accidental empire?

June 19, 2011

Since the popularization of the “string of pearls” concept in the Western world, there has been no end of geoolitical speculation surrounding the meaning of Gwadar. Analysts the world over have dissected each turn in the long saga of the port’s construction, from its handover to a Singaporean company and now back to China, attempting to divine a meaning for China’s grand strategy.

Pakistan’s defense minister recently caused a stir by requesting a Chinese naval presence at Gwadar. China, on the other hand, has vociferously denied any decision to militarize Gwadar, or, for that matter, other major ports such as Sri Lanka’s Hambantoa. An important lesson of this incident should be that while analysts often prefer to think in grand plans, actual policy is the result of bargaining, mistakes, and compromises that obfuscate attempts to esoterically read government statements for evidence of new grand strategy.

For example, it was Pakistan which admitted to requesting China build a naval base. This is extremely telling, because it underscores that Pakistan’s strategic logic is quite different than China’s. Pakistan would like to have a naval-capable base in Gwadar to provide additional strategic depth and flexibility against India, since the Pakistani Navy’s overwhelming reliance on Karachi is a potential military liability. Additionally, a Chinese naval presence in Gwadar would dampen India’s potential ambition during wartime. The same thinking is readily apparent in a previous Polish request for more local NATO presence. A physical military commitment would make it more difficult for China to walk away from Pakistan in the event of renewed warfare, and hopefully complicate India’s strategic planning by threatening the prospect of a multi-front war, undercutting the desire for a swift limited war which might encourage an Indian offensive. At a grand strategic level, deepening military ties with China will help Pakistan wean itself off of its unhealthy relationship with the United States, which is beginning to seriously threaten the regime’s credibility. A request for a Chinese military presence in Gwadar helps stabilize Pakistan’s diplomatic outlook and hedge against a catastrophic break with the US.

Yes, China equivocates and conceals its intentions. That does not mean that it will not equivocate for other reasons, too. In this case, China is attempting to conceal the messy and sometimes contentious process of negotiations with another state. Just as the Wikileaks cables mainly revealed the ugly, sausage-making process that is mundane politics, rather than any grand schemes for world domination, laconic Chinese bureaucrats would prefer not to have these sorts of discussions with Pakistan made public.

Although China will soon have a carrier capability, its primary naval interests are not – or, at least, should not be – in the Indian Ocean. There are very strong incentives for Pakistan to make China believe this, as well as for Indian strategic analysts to contemplate this, but it simply will not be the case for several decades. A return to Mahan is instructive. China’s expansion of ports, even if they are not military, still represents an investment in Chinese sea power – since sea power, in Mahan’s formulation, consists of maritime trade and overseas ports, as well as military capabilities. It also requires stabilizing a country’s immediate geopolitical environment. To Mahan, the US could not become a serious sea power until it achieved control over the Caribbean and developed a canal through the Central American isthmus to link its Pacific and Atlantic coasts. For China, while new ports do increase Chinese sea power, the interests of Chinese naval power require control closer to home.

After all, Chinese naval presence in Gwadar may be very useful to Pakistan, but it is useless to China if its sea lines of communication are cut off in Southeast Asia or the South China Sea. It should be no surprise that it is here where China directs its primary naval efforts. While the war in Afghanistan and the cottage industry of neo-Mackinderite speculation and “new Great Game” prophecy it invigorated might attach extreme importance to Gwadar, the truly critical developments in Chinese naval geopolitics are occurring around the South China Sea. There, at Malacca, Lombok, and other chokepoints, are China’s sea communications most vulnerable, and there are the countries with which China is most likely to confront militarily. All discussion of the Indian Ocean as a theater of competition between China, India, and the US are dependent on the Chinese Caribbean that is the South China Sea.

However, because the Indian Ocean and its resources are an object of competition regardless of the status of the South China Sea, actors there maintain a degree of leverage over Chinese strategy and commitments. Analysts of US policy are familiar with the dilemma between entanglement and abandonment that afflict US security relationships. Sometimes, maintaining the interests the US seeks to pursue in a country require taking on some of the burdens of its other security concerns, which may lead to commitments which do not directly serve US interests but may be necessary to maintaining a broader relationship. Such is possibly the case in Pakistan, where China may end up investing in a naval base far more immediately useful to Pakistan’s leadership than to China’s. Since Islamabad is not a mere Chinese vassal, and has some degree of independence from Beijing’s interests, it will likely attempt to extract some concessions from China, which may include a greater Chinese military presence.

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