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China's plans for S Asia go beyond Pak port takeover

February 04, 2013 09:59 IST

The recent Chinese takeover of Pakistan’s Gwadar port, bringing Beijing right into the heart of the Indian Ocean and within hand-shaking distance of Delhi, can be explained by a still-evolving strategy called March West by the senior leadership of the Communist Party of China.

The strategy essentially rests on a phrase used by Mao Zedong in 1930 in a letter to his fellow long-marchers that famously iterates the need for guerrilla tactics “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” 

Branded by Wang Jisi, an influential scholar of international relations in Peking University, the March West strategy aims to free China from sinking deeper into the strategic quagmire on its eastern seaboard that is led by the United States, Australia and Japan and advance into the relatively virgin territory of South Asia, Central Asia and the West Asia.

According to this strategy, the Chinese should refuse to directly challenge or respond to the challenge of the world’s top economic power and its coalition of allies on its home turf in East Asia. However, the need of the hour is to circumvent them and marshall their resources from elsewhere.

For example, after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US is retreating like a wounded animal, so what better time for China to advance, to fill in the vacuum? That is why, with the mid-2014 deadline for US forces to get out of Afghanistan coming closer everyday, the CPC sent senior member of the politburo standing committee Zhou Youkang in September 2012 to Kabul, where he offered to “train and equip” Afghanistan’s police as well as participate in the development of its natural resources, like copper, oil and gold.

With Pakistan, the takeover of its Gwadar port from the Port of Singapore Authority to the China Overseas Port Holdings has been two years in the making. Several analysts say it is a manifestation of the “all-weather relationship” between Islamabad and Beijing, but the fact remains that Beijing has been unsure how far it should risk expanding the alliance with its most favoured strategic partner, in the wake of Islamist insurgents moving from Pakistan into neighbouring Xinjiang.

The fact that China finally bit the bullet with Gwadar was also a result of several factors, not least the US-Pakistan relationship which has been deteriorating rapidly for several months. In fact, America seems to have antagonised several countries in the West Asia as well as Iran in varying measure in recent years, with the result that Chinese strategists are smelling the victory of alternatives.

The Gwadar port was commissioned by Pervez Musharraf who had promised that it would be Pakistan’s answer to Dubai. But even though the quiet fishing village in Balochistan was soon transformed into a flashy port, with China paying 75 per cent of the $248 million it cost to build by 2006, infrastructure problems plagued the project from the start.

The Singaporean company had signed a 40-year-lease to manage the facility beginning 2007 but soon ran into several problems, including Pakistani reluctance to transfer land as well as build infrastructure like roads, railway lines and storage depots. The last ship to dock at the port was in November 2012. But Pakistan’s Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira told Reuters that he now hopes the Chinese will invest more money to make the port operational.

In other parts of South Asia, the Chinese are expanding their footprint in a big way. In Nepal, Chinese goods are a distinct presence and China is now building a dry port in the border town of Kodiyari.

In Bhutan, India’s closest partner, China is hoping to sweeten the relationship by demarcating the boundary with the Himalayan kingdom that has been hanging fire for many decades because of its linkages with the Sino-Indian boundary dispute.

In Bangladesh, the Chinese have been angling to rebuild the Chittagong port for some time. In Sri Lanka, the Chinese are already building a port in Hambantota, the constituency of Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has approved an Iranian offer of $500 million to partly finance the 490-km-long gas pipeline between Iran and Pakistan, with Pakistan expected to put the remaining money in the $1.6-billion project. If Pakistan goes ahead, it is sure to attract US sanctions against Iran, even as analysts point out that China and India are Iran’s biggest partners in its oil trade.

Jyoti Malhotra