There have been speculations in the news that China may be seeking port facilities for its naval ships in the developing Gwadar Port of Pakistan. Even more so, that the port will be made upon the Djibouti model, where China has acquired a 200-acre facility, leased for 50years, able to host a full brigade, with 10 storage barracks, an ammunition point, an office complex and a heliport. Rumor has it that China may have asked for a completely independent base in adjacent town Jiwani, another peninsula protruding into the Indian Ocean.
Fears of China potentially becoming the next sole-superpower and a hegemon over its client states has bred much apprehensions in the people of states that have at the same time signed pacts with China in a bid to secure a progressive future for their people. China’s acquisition of the Hambantota Port of Sri Lanka has been another cause of alarm. Pres. Rajapaksa had to succumb to China’s rising debt on it and the Sri Lankan government handed over the port and 15,000 acres of land around it for 99 years to China in December, 2017 – because of such a case the Djibouti-Gwadar comparison is being taken seriously by many, especially in Pakistan, where the people are already wary of growing anti-China propaganda specially for the Gwadar the project.
A closer inspection however reveals how Gwadar and Djibouti are diametrically apart in geopolitical and geo-economic terms.
Djibouti got it independence from France in 1977. Traditionally Djibouti was a part of Somalia, but France carved it off as a separate state at the Red Sea choke point, severed from a potentially bigger, stronger Somalia. The French military base has thus been part of Djibouti since its colonial times. America’s Camp Lemonier was made operational in 2001 and was extensively used for its anti-terror missions in Somalia and Yemen. France also hosts forces of Germany, Spain at its base, while Japan has acquired a base for too. The Chinese base was acquired in 2015, Saudi Arabia has announced the acquisition of a base here in Jan 2018, while UAE has also shown interest for one.
Being resource-scarce, tiny and barren Djibouti (population less than one million) is totally reliant on rents acquired by leasing out bases to foreigners; the US pays $63 million annually of lease payment for the base, while the Chinese are paying $20 million a year in addition to the billions they are investing in construction of a railway, a port, an industrial park, and banks – this also puts Djibouti in a dangerous balancing act between powers with conflicting interests. Though in the present scenario it may be in the interest of players to keep Djibouti stable and conflict-free but in case the region goes into a larger turmoil there might be pressure on Djibouti to choose between friends or even face battles between opposing camps.
A recent such case was face by Djibouti in the pretext of the Yemen War, when Saudi Arabia forced Djibouti to cut ties with Iran, who had been using its soil as a conduit to the Houthis. Because of the same reason Djibouti announced that it was ending its port contract of the Doraleh Container Terminal with DP World of UAE, a case which is being pursued by the London Court of International Arbitration.
Now, when comparing China’s venture in Djibouti with that in Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, it needs to be noted that Pakistan being a self-sustaining agrarian economy, a strong military power and 193million strong and vibrant nation, is neither up for renting its soil to foreign navies for mere dollars, nor is viable to fall in a debt trap with China. CPEC prospects are that 4% of global trade will be passing through the CPEC corridor by 2020. It is being projected that ‘Pakistan’s debt and other repayments on China’s “Belt and Road” initiative will peak at around $5 billion in 2022, but will be more than offset by transit fees charged on the new transport corridor… the kind of toll tax, rental fees that the Pakistani system will gain is roughly $6-$8 billion a year”.
So, if Pakistan allows China to use its port in Gwadar for naval purposes, the reasons for that would totally be different from those of Djibouti’s, that is simply juggling between the highest bidders. China is Pakistan’s strategic partner in the region, strengthening China is Pakistan’s strategy of balancing out India’s foul designs against us and of adding frustration to the already failing US forces in Afghanistan. The fear of perhaps having an Indian naval presence in adjacent port of Chabahar may also give Pakistan to have a stronger ally at its very side in Gwadar.
In this backdrop, India’s newly elected president, Ram Nath Kovind, visited Djibouti and Ethiopia in his first foreign trip in November, since taking office in July 2017, with the goal of paving space for the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), an economic co-operation agreement between India and Japan that aims to connect African and Asian economies through new and ancient maritime networks. Kovind offered the possibility of Delhi contributing to capacity building in niche areas, such as renewable energy, providing skills, constructing educational and medical facilities, as well as by promoting technology transfers. In January 2018, India also announced the finalization of a logistics exchange agreement with France that will allow Indian access to French military facilities, including the key base at Djibouti.
If India gains effective access in Djibouti, while bearing similar ambitions in Chabahar, that would be a further alarm for Pakistan. India’s global reach, with however small a footprint, is nevertheless bringing it out as a global player who will get more say in matters around the world. The more powerful India becomes, the more it will impose on Pakistan – the strategy however, cannot be to try to block India’s way into the world, but to try to be out there more and before the enemy.
The question then is, does Pakistan face the danger of becoming a suppressed client state of China in the near future by entering the CPEC deal and further by allowing China to harbor its navy at Gwadar? Or does the country, in a world increasingly seeking mergers and sub-regionalization, need to solidify alliances with trusted friends. Can Pakistan grow in todays competitive world, in an isolationism, or will growth be achieved only in inclusiveness and expansion of relationships, not only with China, but all around the world.
The way forward, therefore, is to deal with China from a position of strength and ensure the interest of the Pakistan state and people – there has to be no compromise on the short-term or long-term welfare of the state and its people, in any dealing with the external.