The Oil and the Glory

The prudence of a Chinese-funded security strategy for Af-Pak

Already China has saved the day in Central Asia, building large pipelines that have helped to snap a Russian monopoly on oil and natural gas shipments from the self-hobbling Turkmen and Kazakhs, an aim of western strategists since the mid-1990s. Now Pakistan has asked China to build it an Arabian Sea naval base. Should the ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Already China has saved the day in Central Asia, building large pipelines that have helped to snap a Russian monopoly on oil and natural gas shipments from the self-hobbling Turkmen and Kazakhs, an aim of western strategists since the mid-1990s. Now Pakistan has asked China to build it an Arabian Sea naval base. Should the world be alarmed? No it shouldn’t — we ought to appreciate more Chinese-funded execution of western-backed strategic aims both there and in neighboring Afghanistan.

What has happened is that Pakistan’s defense minister, Ahmad Mukhtar, on a trip to Beijing, asked the Chinese to assume control of the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar (pictured above), which partly because of trouble with the local Baluch leadership has not had a single commercial vessel come to call in three years. In addition, Mukhtar added, Pakistan would be really pleased if China built it a naval base at Gwadar, in addition to training the Pakistanis in the use of submarines.

The port is currently managed by Singapore, which is no slouch when it comes to such work, but some analysts say Pakistan is less interested in its relationship with the Singaporeans than in poking a finger in the eye of Washington, with which it has been feuding since Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad.  

This eye-poking earned a place on page one of the Financial Times and elsewhere. Judging by some of the reports, one might be tempted to conclude that the Pakistanis asked the Chinese to build themselves a port, rather than a base for the Pakistani Navy. Some writers and analysts say this is part of a “string of pearls” strategy in which China wishes to control the Indian Ocean through military bases in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and now Pakistan. Robert Kaplan discusses the string of pearls theory in his very good recent book Monsoon. As for Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official today said he had not heard of the naval proposal at all.

What isn’t said much as far as I’ve seen is that the Chinese actually built the existing port at Gwadar, and already have much commercial infrastructure both connected to and planned for it. The planned infrastructure includes the delivery of oil, and a possible oil pipeline into China. Is that alarming? Not really.

Instead, the commentary is part of the general narrative of distress over China’s rise, which is what gets the issues confused. In Central and South Asia, as we’ve discussed previously, it is both prudent and shrewd to draw China into the security framework. A couple of years ago, President Barack Obama suggested in an appearance with Chinese President Hu Jintao that Beijing have mutual interest in a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is precisely the point — China has a huge stake in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. A larger Chinese role there does not detract from U.S. strategic aims there, but the contrary.

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