The Port of Singapore Authority has now indicated to withdraw from the contract to manage the operations and develop the Port of Gwadar on 40 years’ lease for what it calls the government’s failure to honour the agreement clauses that it had signed as a wholesome document.
With the prospective quitting of Gwadar Port operations by the Singapore Port Authority, whom should Pakistan invite to replace the departing company? As per the law, international tenders may once again be floated. Despite the political environment of Balochistan and its security concerns, China may be the front runner in bidding for the port operations. Their interest for the same can be accrued from the fact that it has offered the Balochistan government to construct yet another 20 berths at the port if it gets the rights to operate the port. This willingness is in line with the Chinese strategic interests that it harbours for the Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea.
The increased presence of the Chinese Navy in the region, especially at the gateway to the Persian Gulf, may not only check the US and Indian quest for domination of the North Arabian Sea area but also bring the Chinese Navy in the category of global naval powers. China also knows that without some significant naval presence in the Indian Ocean, especially the North Arabian Sea, it will not be able to exercise any influence in the Middle-East or control or monitor strategic shipping to and from the Persian Gulf. China’s own 60% energy requirements are shipped through Straits of Hormuz. Not only that US-Iran stand off, Indian overreach in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, Syrian crises are some of the impediments that mandates Chinese naval presence in this important area of geopolitical significance.
Nevertheless, whosoever wins the next contract for the Gwadar Port operations, the government of Pakistan has to contribute towards ensuring that they are afforded all cooperation in ratcheting up the full potentials of the port. It is all the more necessary since Iran, Oman and other Gulf countries have overtime constructed their own ports and are attracting foreign shipping making the Gwadar Port less relevant. Balochistan’s internal dynamics like the Sardari hegemony opposing the construction of port and external dynamics like international efforts to deny space to China in this strategic SLOC are some irritants that the government has to strategise. The priority must be given to educate the Baloch masses of the immense benefits that the port when completed will accrue for them. Security concerns is a major bone of discontent for foreign workers in the province and as such it has to be squelched with an iron hand to create normalcy. The violence, sectarianism and shades of localised separatist insurgencies must be addressed to give a chance to port development.
The government must on a priority basis link the port with rail and road network not only within the country but also to the borders of the neighbouring countries.
The port still lacks a big warehouse facility, an essential ingredient for any successful port to be viable for trans-shipping. When the government completes its part of the support network, the Chinese or whichever company is granted the rights for the Gwadar Port operations and its development must be bound to market and exploit the port to its full potential.
The Ministry of Ports and Shipping, under the leadership of the incumbent minister, before inking any agreement with the highest bidders must examine the agreement threadbare keeping the national interests supreme. The earlier agreement that the ministry signed with the Singapore Port Authority has had many loopholes.
While giving a push to port development through the next contract, the central government must strive to make the Baloch people as stakeholders too for development of the Gwadar Port for they are the ones that have sacrificed their traditional fishing areas and lands for the port to develop.