GWADAR, Pakistan—British warships are acting as nervous escorts to British oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, even as Europe tries desperately to find a way out of the escalating crisis with Iran provoked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord last year.
But the Chinese role in the background of this escalating crisis has been largely overlooked, and could have enormous strategic consequences. Already, China is positioning itself to act as a policeman protecting its own strategic interests in the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean beyond.
The key is the port of Gwadar on Pakistan’s southwest coast about 625 nautical miles east of the Strait of Hormuz, the gateway for about a third of the world’s international oil traffic.
China is spending a huge amount—$60 billion—building what is called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to link western China with Gwadar Port through a network of highways, railways and gas pipelines. This, in turn, is part of its grand design known as the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, or OBOR.
The U.S. Defense Department, reporting to Congress in May, summed up U.S. concerns about Chinese strategy, which it sees as likely to make countries around the world potentially dependent on their ties to the China’s economy and uncritical of, if not indeed subservient to, its policies.
But the Defense Department noted that global presence also heightens China’s global exposure to “international and regional turmoil, terrorism, piracy, and serious natural disasters and epidemics,” which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is supposed to deal with.
Specifically, as the Defense Department noted, “Some OBOR investments could create potential military advantages for China, should China require access to selected foreign ports to pre-position the necessary logistics support to sustain naval deployments in waters as distant as the Indian Ocean, Mediterranean Sea, and Atlantic Ocean to protect its growing interests.”
Which brings us back to Gwadar, here in the often troubled province of Balochistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan. The Chinese already have discovered they’re targets for a shadowy separatist organization calling itself the Balochistan Liberation Organization, which attacked the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November. In May this year the group hit the luxury Pearl Hotel which looks out on Gwadar Harbor. All four attackers and at least one security guard were killed. “Our fighters have carried out this attack on Chinese and other foreign investors,” the group said.
Undeterred, China continues to push ahead as the builder, financier and operator of this strategic port, and Beijing may be much more concerned about Washington’s aggressive policies in the region than it is about the terrorists.
Iran's threat to shut the Strait of Hormuz has pushed the U.S. into proposing a maritime coalition to protect shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean Region. It would act as a kind of regional watchman with eyes on all shipping lanes. But that would also position the coalition as a potential threat to China’s development of strategic assets here.
On the other hand, a naval base in Gwadar enables Beijing to monitor American activities very closely, patrolling sea lanes to protect its own interests while monitoring U.S. activities in the Indian Ocean.
Pakistan would have a number of incentives to cooperate, including its icy relations with Washington. Defense cooperation is a major aspect of what Pakistan and China call their "all-weather friendship.”
For the record, Beijing has dismissed news reports that it will build a full-fledged naval base at Gwadar. But as the Pentagon pointed out, in the near term China is more likely to preposition logistical support for a growing Chinese naval presence.
An escalation of the U.S.-Iran conflict or volatility in the Gulf could give Beijing the pretext to build a more ambitious naval base at Gwadar for security reasons. It is dependent on imported oil for more than 70 percent of its needs, and much of that comes out of the Gulf.
If a base is to be built, some analysts believe China’s model for Gwadar might be its installation at Yulin along the southern coast of China’s Hainan Island, a strategic key in Beijing’s efforts to claim control over virtually all of the South China Sea. Yulin can accommodate aircraft carriers, and so-called “caverns” are believed capable of hiding up to 20 nuclear submarines from spy satellites. If a similar base were located at the crown of the Arabian Sea, China’s ability to expand the reach of its navy would increase exponentially.
None of that lies in the immediate future, but it’s clearly the kind of thing the Pentagon is worrying about. As the report to Congress stated bluntly, one of the “overriding strategic objectives” of the Chinese Communist Party is to “secure China’s status as a great power and, ultimately, emerge as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region.”
How ironic it would be if the Trump administration’s manufactured crisis with Iran opened the door wide for such a strategic breakthrough by China.
With additional reporting by Christopher Dickey