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Gwadar and the India-Iran nexus

A study put out by a think-tank in Washington says India and Iran view Pakistan’s Gwadar Port Project (GPP) with disfavour because it will one day come to rival Iran’s Chahbahar Port. Iran built the Chahbahar Port with Indian assistance and considers it Central Asia’s conduit to the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

The additional factor — and this is more relevant to India and its ambitions to build a blue water navy — is the China factor. Beijing is deeply involved in the construction of the GPP and it is natural for India to look at the Chinese presence as an obstacle to its own naval outreach in the Indian Ocean. From the Pakistani side it makes sense to involve China not only because the two countries have already undertaken many development projects together but also because Chinese stakes in the project automatically create a Chinese naval cushion for Pakistan against a stronger Indian navy.

An interesting aspect of the study relates to local Baloch sentiment about GPP. The Baloch nationalists are nearly up in arms against the Project and last May some elements mounted a car bomb attack in the area killing three Chinese engineers. The federal government has not done much to address the grievances of the Baloch vis-à-vis GPP and the study’s emphasis on involving the Baloch to make the project acceptable to them is eminently sensible and cannot be faulted.

However, the author of the think-tank report has configured the situation in such a manner that there appear to be at least four groups that are not only opposed to the project but for various reasons would like to see it sink. The India-Iran factor is the most obvious, as is the local Baloch factor. But the study also points to Al Qaeda and says that since the project underpins Pakistan’s future economic development, it presents itself as a great target to Al Qaeda.

Some intelligence estimates within Pakistan indicate the presence of foreign funding for local Baloch elements. This is possible. However, it is also important to note that foreign elements cannot fish unless the waters are already troubled. This is why it becomes necessary for Islamabad to sell the development projects to the Baloch. Balochistan has never really been under municipal law and the success or otherwise of these projects and their sustenance over a long period of time is only possible if the Baloch give them legitimacy and own them. The study by the US think-tank correctly points to this aspect. If Islamabad can win Baloch approval for these projects, the space for any foreign elements to create trouble in Balochistan will automatically be reduced.

However, the most interesting aspect of the study is its emphasis on the presence of Beijing. The study recommends that Pakistan should involve Beijing as much as it can because anchoring Beijing in Gwadar would enhance the prospects of its success. That may be true and we think that Islamabad does look at the Chinese presence both in terms of Chinese help in developing the area as well as the impact of such presence in terms of Chinese naval presence. To a certain degree this is how it should be. Nonetheless, too much reliance on China — or for that matter any other country — may not be in Pakistan’s interest. While involving the Chinese navy into the area may be sensible in the short-term, there is obvious need for Pakistan to develop its own naval strength. Similarly, in terms of the upkeep of the Port and trade facilities and the rest of the operation, there is need to bring in more than one country onboard.

As for how the two ports — Chahbahar and Gwadar — would fare together, the view expressed in the study that competition could actually work to the advantage of both may be correct. In terms of the geography and the continental shelf, Gwadar does have a natural advantage over Chahbahar and if Pakistan could work the project as planned, Gwador is likely to get more business than Chahbahar. *

EDITORIAL #2: Basant: down with the spoilsports

Basant is again upon us and so is the controversy about whether it is Islamic or un-Islamic to celebrate basant. But the fact is that basant is nothing more than a spring festival, it is traditionally celebrated in this part of the world and people enjoy flying kites and getting together and generally having a good time. What’s wrong with that?

It’s good to see Lahore gearing up for the festival and enticing people from other parts of the country to join them in the celebrations. The festival is also good for the local economy. Everyone has actually begun to look forward to it as a special Lahore offering and we see no reason why we should allow some spoilsports to throw a spanner in the works. The only cognisable offence is people acting irresponsibly and doing things that can endanger other people and their lives. Any other form of entertainment must be kosher and we are happy that the government has taken an enlightened view of this activity and has actually encouraged it. More power to the basant wallahs, we say, and down with the spoilsports!

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