China's Hegemony in South Asia
Chinese influence in South Asia is set to expand again with the recent investment announcement in Pakistan’s strategic Gwadar Port and development of a China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Because both the U.S. and China are keenly interested in the shifting power alignments in South Asia for economic and security reasons, the development of this port and CPEC by China via Pakistan has significant implications on U.S. interests and strategy in South Asia. This announcement is of particular importance as it comes at a time when the U.S. is tilting towards India and is drawing down its presence in Afghanistan.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi proclamation that China’s relationship with Pakistan will “never go rusty” is not a surprise since the two countries have had strong ties since 1951 but historically their relationship security centric. Yet in recent months the two governments made strategic decisions to grow economic ties. As mentioned the most concrete sign of this was the announcement by Chinese President Xi Jinping in April 2015 launching the 2,900 km China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. The government of China promised to invest $46 billion in the CPEC that will eventually connect Gwadar Port in Pakistan to China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. The highlight the new investment is Gwadar Port that China took operational control over in April 2015. Beijing is expected to invest $1.62 billion in the Gwadar Port.
This investment can be seen as a feature of China’s new and expansive foreign policy that stretches from the South China Sea with growing influence in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. Though Pakistan is not the only country that China is pursuing multi-dimensional relations with in South Asia, it is central.
The Gwadar Port is strategically located at the foot on the Arabian Sea at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and only 200 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, which handles over 80 percent of the global oil trade. China surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest energy consumer in 2010 and is ever more dependent on foreign oil and gas. Once the CPEC and construction at Gwadar is completed it will significantly shorten China’s energy supply chain. China’s energy resources could avoid the thousands of miles of sea lanes that are dominated by the U.S. Navy, which this “naked vulnerability of these imports (particularly in war time) is intolerable to Chinese strategists.” And although this investment is targeted to benefit China’s economy it will also strengthen Pakistan’s unstable economy with new infrastructure and jobs, and grow Pakistan’s ability to balance against India.
Along with the economic benefits, Gwadar Port is of significant security importance. A major obstacle for China is limited logistical support for its Navy. The port gives China the ability to monitor the sea-lanes of the Persian Gulf, observe Indian and U.S. naval activities, and guarantee its ‘blue water navy’ in the Indian Ocean maintenance and supply. Because logistical support is critical to China’s growing naval presence, Gwadar as a supply location for the PLA Navy is key to China’s expanding foreign policy goals. Although it must be noted there is no indication that China plans to permanently support a naval base facility at Gwadar.
This port and overall project to connect western China to Pakistan has important geostrategic implications for the United States economic and military interests and the balance of power in South Asia. Although the U.S. and India maintain a favorable balance in the region, this renewal of the Sino-Pak axis comes in light of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and rebalance to Asia. Ultimately, Gwadar Port and CPEC investment provide China with greater leverage in the region.
As the U.S. moves closer to India, as seen in President Obama’s attendance at India’s Republic Day and the signing of a U.S.-Indo 10-Year Defense Framework Agreement, China’s strategic partnership is a way to offset U.S. and Indian influence in the region. The U.S. has interest in maintaining its preeminent position in the region. A growing Chinese influence in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean via Gwadar could threaten Washington’s unimpeded ability to secure and transport energy out of the Persian Gulf, project power in the Middle East, conduct counterterrorism operations, and promote political and economic stability; all strategic facets toWashington’s strategy.
At the same time, bolstering Pakistan is a way for China to counter India’s growing influence. A stronger Pakistan, that is able to challenge India, acts as a drain on resources for New Delhi that could otherwise be allocated for economic growth and development on an international level.
Though the development of CPEC and Gwadar Port are not solely aimed at limiting U.S. and Indian influence, it is tactical feature of China’s expanding foreign policy goals and symbolic of China’s more assertive role in the region.