“AND China now has a pearl in Pakistani waters - the warm water port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, in the province of Balochistan.” This was the last sentence of my column last week on the adventures of Admiral of the Chinese Fleet ‘Zheng He.’ It prompted many readers to send in messages regarding the connection of China of the 15th century with Gwadur of today.

“I don’t get it,” wrote in one e-mailer, “Gwadar is China’s pearl in warm waters? Is it going to become a Chinese port, or will they have rights over it.” And another, “You very innocently say that China now has a pearl in Pakistan in the form of the Gwadar port. I will wager that if Pakistan slumbers as it now slumbers, then China will just come and stay there as the British did 200 plus years ago.”

A third message asked, with regard to the comment that Napoleon had suggested that the sleeping giant, China, not be awoken, “Don’t you think that Muslims too are a sleeping giant?” (The Muslims of Pakistan are certainly not sleeping. They are still busy debating and discussing Founder Maker Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s concept of Pakistan.)

And a fourth mentioned a letter to the editor which had been printed the same day as my column, under the title ‘Ayub’s gift’: “Sir, I only wish to highlight the contribution of an army general and a dictator. I just wonder why nobody ever mentions the name of Field Marshal Ayub Khan for his farsightedness in buying the land called Gwadar from the Sultanate of Muscat.” My e-mailer rightly stated that the acquisition of Gwadar happened before Ayub took over, and asked me to write and clarify.

On September 9, two clarifications were printed in the letters to the editor columns. They very rightly stated that Gwadar came to Pakistan in September 1968, whilst Iskander Mirza was president (and Ayub Khan defence minister). It was Prime Minister Feroze Khan Noon who negotiated the sale to Pakistan — unique in our history as it is the sole addition to this country’s “geographical boundaries in its six decades of existence.” (Let us never forget that in 1971 we did manage to lose half the country — 55,598 square miles of it.)

It was on September 8, 1968, that Gwadar (2,400 square miles) officially became Pakistani territory. The man responsible was indeed Sir Feroze Khan Noon who was British India’s High Commissioner in London before partition. He had learned and he knew the ways of the British. He opened the Gwadar file in 1956 when he became our foreign minister and when he became prime minister in 1957 the moment was opportune.

We were a member of the British Commonwealth, and Sultan Said Bin Taimur, who then ruled, could be dealt with. The British were asked to help. Astute bridge-builder, the unflappable Harold Macmillan, was prime minister, Selwyn Lloyd headed the foreign office. We paid $8,400,000 and the territory was ceremoniously restored under the supervision of the British.

In the 18th century, Gwadar fell under the sovereignty of the ruler of Kalat. In 1783, when Saiad Said succeeded to the ‘masnad’ of Muscat and Oman (an independent state founded in 1749), he fell out with his brother Saiad Sultan, who fled to safety in Makran and entered into communication with Nasir Khan of Kalat. Saiad was granted the Kalat share of the revenues of Gwadar and lived there until 1797 when he succeeded in usurping the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman. He died in 1804 and during his son’s minority the Buledai chief of Sarbaz gained temporary possession of Gwadar until a force sent from Muscat regained it.

There is some historical dispute as to whether the right of sovereignty on Gwadar was made over by the Khans of Kalat to Muscat and Oman in perpetuity as a free gift to the Sultans, or whether it was only lent by Nasir Khan to Saiad Sultan on Trust to be returned when he managed to take over the Sultanate. (In 1970, when the present Sultan, Qaboos Bin Said, took over the state, it became the Sultanate of Oman.) Whatever, it is now very much a part of Pakistan.

There was much ado about Gwadar on January 18, 1995, when the then government of Benazir Bhutto was accused by the opposition of having gifted some land in Gwadar to Sultan Qaboos of Oman. Member of the national assembly Nusrat Bhutto clarified : “We have sold 300 acres of land to the Omanis and not given it away.” She immediately corrected herself and stated that the land had not been sold, but leased. That same day in Sibi, the then president, Farooq Leghari put in his bit : “If the government of Pakistan has gifted 100 acres of land to the ruler of Oman, it does not mean that part of the country was sold to Oman.” This trivial matter was soon dropped and forgotten.

In 2001 steps were taken by Pakistan to develop a deep-sea port at Gwadar and China agreed to participate in its construction and development. The Chinese were nudged into action and involvement by the arrival, post 9/11, of United States forces in Afghanistan. and in March 2002, Chinese vice-premier Wu Bangguo arrived to lay the foundations of Gwadar deep-sea port.

The first phase of the port (which includes three multi-purpose ship berths) was completed in January this year, ahead of schedule, and the plan was that Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, would inaugurate it on his visit to Pakistan during the first week of April. However, the formal inauguration had to be cancelled at the last minute for to ‘security’ reasons. As is usual, Balochistan was in turmoil, with widespread rocket and bomb attacks on government installations. A further put-off was last year’s killing of three Chinese technicians and the wounding of nine others by Baloch nationalists opposed to the building of the port. An additional reason was the rain and flood damage to the highway linking Gwadur and Karachi. Not at all a felicitous situation.

The port, completed, remains uninaugurated until things settle and fool-proof safety is ensured for either President General Pervez Musharraf or our prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, to travel to wild and woolly Gwadur and perform the inauguration.

Our great friend China’s participation in this port is huge. For the first phase, it has sent some 450 engineers, provided technical expertise, and it has contributed some $ 198 million, to Pakistan’s $ 50 million, making a grand total of $ 248 million. The total cost is estimated at $ 1.16 billion. A further $ 200 million has been invested by China in building a highway connecting the port of Gwadur to Karachi.

China will also finance the second phase — nine more berths, an approach channel and storage terminals.

The reference to China’s pearl in Pakistani waters is taken from a “report sponsored by the director, Net Assessment, who heads Defence Secretary Donald H Rumsfeld’s office on future-oriented strategies” (Washington Times, January 18, 2005), which describes China’s ‘string of pearls’ strategy : “China is building strategic relationships along the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea in ways that suggest defensive and offensive positioning to protect China’s energy interests, but also to serve broad security objectives...”. The ‘string of pearls’ “strategy of bases and diplomatic ties stretching from the Middle East to southern China that includes a new naval base under construction at the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Beijing has already set up electronic eavesdropping posts at Gwadar [which] is monitoring ship traffic through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea.”

Apart from Gwadar, other pearls in China’s sea-lane strategy are facilities in Bangladesh, Myanmar (from which it has leased an island in the Andaman Sea), Thailand, Cambodia and the South China Sea. The Pentagon has made public its jitters about China’s ominous looking long-term development.

E-mail: arfc@cyber.net.pk


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