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Will China extend its influence in the Indian Ocean by building a naval base in Gwadar, Pakistan?

Question submitted by Hassan, from National University Of Sciences and Technology, May 1, 2013

Answered by: Captain Peter A. Garvin, USN, Military Fellow, U.S. Navy

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It is possible that China will eventually build a naval base in Pakistan, but it will not be for some time. Chinese influence in the Balochistan province of Pakistan and adjacent waters will certainly increase, if China's Overseas Port Holding Company's recent acquisition of management of the commercial port in Gwadar is followed by the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's use of the facility. Gwadar would join several important locations along China's sea lines, the so-called "string of pearls," that extend from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan and include facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Ethnic tensions in Balochistan add an extra dimension to this puzzle. There is a strong Baluch feeling that developing the port for Chinese and Pakistani use is just another effort by the "Punjabis" to undermine Balochistan's call for independence from Islamabad. As one Baluch tribal leader put it in reference to the Chinese, "we have not invited them." Such sentiment cannot be discounted out of hand. Another dimension is the current lack of infrastructure necessary to support PLA Navy use beyond simple refueling. Roads for resupply do not exist from Gwadar to Xinjiang, the autonomous region in northwest China.

China has already invested over $200 million in developing the port and understandably views it as a partial solution to its reliance on the Malacca Strait— its "Malacca dilemma"—for petroleum imports. To date, Chinese officials have asserted that their interest in Gwadar is strictly a commercial effort to provide another energy corridor for Middle East oil, and Pakistani government officials stridently affirm this position. New Delhi, on the other hand, has expressed "concern" about the true motivations in developing Gwadar, suspecting that it is a Sino-Pak effort at encirclement.