Gwadar Port needs attention
Sajjad Shaukat


When during the Musharraf regime, Pakistan government initiated the construction of Gwadar deep-seaport in the Balochistan province with Chinese assistance, a siren went off in the capitals of the US, India and Israel. The US took it as a threat to its global plans, and India felt that it threatened its integrity. Israel also took it as a greater threat from an Islamic country. Some defence analysts had opined that development of Gwadar port would shift the great game of Central Asia to Pakistan, though Afghanistan would remain its gateway.

As regards its strategic importance, due to its proximity to the vital sea lanes, Gwadar is the major important seaport in the world. Located on Pakistanís southwestern coast, it is close to the Strait of Hormuz from where more than 17 million barrels of oil passes every day. Its ideal location between three key regions, South Asia, the oil-rich Middle East, and oil and gas-resourced Central Asia have further increased its significance.

If fully operationalised, Gwadar Seaport could connect the landlocked Central Asian states with rest of the world. Being the commercial hub, the port is likely to increase volume of trade, bringing multiple economic and financial benefits to Pakistan like the Suez Canal which changed the destiny of Egypt when Israel returned it to the former. It will enable high-volume cargo vessels to move in the major oceans. Otherwise, big vessels cannot move from and to Karachi Seaport owing to dearth of depth. Therefore, small cargo ships with low weight are sent to Dubai from where containers are re-loaded on big vessels. This practice discourages countryís imports and exports. In case of completion, Gwadar project will not only uplift the impoverished people of Balochistan by providing thousands of employment opportunities and is likely to develop whole the province by redressing their grievances. Besides, it is situated 470 km away from Karachi making it less vulnerable to the Indian naval blockade which Pakistan faced in 1971.

As Pakistan has close friendship with China, so in the long term, the Gwadar Seaport could serve as a port of entry for oil and gas to be transported by land to the western region of China. If Beijing wants to emancipate itself from transportation or military problems along Asiaís southern coastline, direct access to the Indian Ocean may be the solution.

In this respect, Balochistanís Gwader project where China has invested billions of dollars irks the eyes of US-led India and Israel; hence, they have been supporting Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) and other separatist elements which are arranging subversive activities in the province as part of their covert designs. In this regard, Pakistanís civil and military leadership has repeatedly said that training camps are presence in Afghanistan from where arms and ammunition are being sent to the militants in Balochistan to dismember Pakistan. In the past few years, a number of Chinese engineers, working at Gwadar were kidnapped and killed by the foreign-affiliated insurgent groups. The main aim behind is to discourage Beijing for the development of Gwadar port.

However, it is our misfortune that Pakistanís political leadership has caused delay in the completion of Gwadar Seaport owing to lack of interest and willingness, instead of vigorously pursuing the project. Unfortunately, short term vested interests of these politicians have prevailed over the long term national interests, creating differences between the state institutions which further blocked the rapid development of the project.

In this context, Pakistanís Minister of Port and Shipping, Senator Baber Khan Ghauri has often found involved in blame game so as to shift his responsibilities in relation to the Gwadar project. On August 28, 2012, in a meeting of the Senate Committee on Ports and Shipping, he pretended that governmentís failure to transfer 584 acres of land in possession of Pakistan Navy at the mouth of the port was a major obstacle with Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) and resolution of the related issues.

Notably, in 2006 after completion of the Phase-1 construction work, Gwadar Port Authority (GPA) invited offers from experienced port operators for the management of the project, and in February 2007 signed an agreement with Concession Holding Company (CHC), a subsidiary of PSA for operational control of the seaport. PSA was to invest $ 550 million during the next five year for development of the port, but since than, no substantial progress was achieved. In fact, GPAís lack of thinking in strategic terms in maritime sector and its inability to persuade PSA in marketing and operationalisation of the current terminal area has failed to capitalise on the immense potential which resides on this project.

Nevertheless, actual facts which have delayed the completion of strategically important Gwadar project have not made public. In this regard, the agreement between GPA and PSA was flawed, and the Minister of Port and Shipping, Senator Baber Khan Ghauri is largely to be blamed. It was because of him that contract rules were violated and laws were bent wherever these were needed to ensure the interests of the concession holders rather than to safeguard the business interests of both the parties.

While Senator Baber Khan Ghauri who is from Karachi-based MQM political party, is not interested in the operationalisation of the Gwadar port because it will reduce national dependence on Karachi Port Complex. As a result, his party will lose political leverage and in turn control of Karachi city. So the minister who has deliberately neglected development of Gwadar project, himself is involved in land grabbing in Gwader city. It is owing to these reasons that even after the lapse of several years, Gwadar city still lacks road and rail track connectivity due to which, its usage is severely limited. Moreover, no commercial vessel has arrived at Gwadar port.

Now, Pakistan has decided to give the operations at Gwadar port to China as soon as the terms of agreement with the SPA expire. Nonetheless, this port needs special attention of the government for its operationalisation.