The tip of the noodle

August 29, 2013

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SO, the once sleepy fishing village of Gwadar in south Balochistan is to become the 21st-century Hong Kong. It may take longer than the term of the present government (or even the next 20 governments) to fulfil that dream. With Hong Kong, it took the British 99 years.

Imperial Britain, as landlords with an unfettered lease on a toe-hold on China’s mainland, had a century in which to create a colony that became the envy of the commercial world. When the British handed Hong Kong over to the mainland PRC government in 1997, it surrendered an affluent, densely populated, urban sprawl with a vertical horizon of modern high-rises.

The British were convinced that after they left, the People’s Republic of China would destroy Hong Kong’s unique, gilded identity and reduce it to a drab and dull socialist uniformity.

Instead, the PRC, with a mandarin’s subtlety, evolved the ‘one nation, two systems’ solution. Hong Kong’s capitalism would be allowed to coexist with the Communist Party’s brand of socialism. And it has. Its population has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, the highest IQ amongst 81 countries, and citizens with among the longest life expectancy in the world.

Ironically, the Chinese by developing Gwadar are reprising the role that the British played in establishing Hong Kong. Over the past decade, the Chinese government has invested heavily in Gwadar. It has provided substantial financing towards the $250 million cost of a deep-sea port. Earlier this year, its state-owned China Overseas Port Holdings Limited assumed responsibility for operating that port.

More recently, in July, a number of memoranda were signed between our new government and its Chinese counterpart, under which both have committed themselves to invest up to $750m to make Gwadar a fully fledged commercial entrepôt.

Gwadar is to become the southern tip of a long noodle, an ‘economic corridor’ that will extend 1300 kilometres, connecting Gwadar with the Karakoram Highway at Khunjerab in northern Pakistan, and then on to Kashgar in north-western China.

The kinship between Hong Kong and Gwadar is more than cosmetic. Hong Kong roughly translated stands for ‘fragrant harbour’; Gwadar is a prosaic composite of two Balochi words — gwat meaning air and dar a door.

For almost a century, possession of Gwadar oscillated between the local Baloch and foreign Omanis living on the other side of the Arabian Sea. In September 1958, the Pakistan government purchased Gwadar from the Sultan of Oman, applying a gift of $3m provided by Prince Karim (the present Aga Khan).

In September 1973, 40 years ago, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (then prime minister) offered Gwadar to US President Richard Nixon as a facility for the US navy. In a briefing paper prepared for Nixon before his talks with Bhutto, Dr Henry Kissinger (then still Nixon’s national security advisor) defined the US position:

“We do not have a great interest in having a naval facility in Balochistan [;] this would probably cost some hundreds of millions of dollars, and the political impact of the project will depend in part on its not being a white elephant.”

Kissinger argued that if a port had to be constructed to alleviate the pressure on Karachi, it would be more feasible for it to be located on the eastern Sindhi side of Karachi than on its western Baloch flank. Kissinger advised Nixon that Bhutto’s “main reason for seeking this port probably is to create a major new and a highly visible economic asset for the people of Balochistan province”.

Kissinger continued: “Balochistan is Pakistan’s poorest region, and it is dominated by tribal groups which generally oppose the Bhutto government and want provincial autonomy. These groups engage sporadically in clashes with government forces and pose a perennial headache for Pakistani governments.”

At that time, Hong Kong’s solution of ‘one nation, two systems’ was still two decades away, while Gwadar was already beset by its own predicament of ‘one state, two nations’.

Interestingly, Gwadar remained in the forefront of Kissinger’s mind. A few months later, in November 1973, he met Mao Zedong in Beijing where he told him: “Our difficulty of operating in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea has been that we do not have a base in that area. But we have now developed an island called Diego Garcia as a base, and we have also discussed with Pakistan the possibility of building a port.” Chairman Mao suspected that the word ‘possibility’ was a foreign euphemism for ‘improbability’.

Chairman Mao’s successors are not as easily daunted as Kissinger was. They have decided to have a presence in the Indian Ocean — whatever the cost. Rather like the Soviets in the 1950s who supported Castro’s Cuba (‘It was not an economic decision; it was a military one,’ the Soviets told whoever asked), the Chinese government has taken its decision on grounds which fall outside the box of conventional politico-economics.

They have without blinking made unimaginable commitments to provide all the resources necessary — monetary, materiel and manpower — to make Gwadar a functioning reality.

They have calculated the risks. They have quantified the costs. They are clear what dividends to expect. One wonders whether anyone in Pakistan had done a parallel analysis. In fact, one wonders whether anyone here had considered leasing Gwadar to the Chinese government and then, after 99 years of its development, asking for its return.

The writer is an internationally recognised art historian and author.

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