The US strategic shift in Gwadar

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By Dr.Dost Barech

Tim Marshall in his book Prisoners of Geography argues that “there is no Pakistan without Balochistan”. Likewise, the former chief of the army staff of Pakistan Qamar Javed Bajwa maintains that “Pakistan is incomplete without Balochistan”.  The significance of Balochistan will further augment in the 21st century on account of its proximity to the Indian Ocean. WWI and WWII were Atlantic and Pacific Oceans originated. The 21st century is the Indian Ocean century, whoever dominates the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia. Great powers like China and the US are ostensibly obsessed with Balochistan.

Against this backdrop, US Ambassador Donald Blome visited Gwadar on September 12, 2023. Blome visited the Gwadar port “to learn about port operations and development plans, Gwadar’s potential as a regional trans-shipment hub, and ways to connect with Pakistan’s largest export market: the US. In a meeting with Pakistan Naval West Command, Ambassador Blome discussed regional issues and emphasized a continued partnership in the years ahead.”

His visit started an intriguing debate. Some experts assert the visit is a positive move for Pakistan in maintaining the evolving geopolitical landscape of the region. While others believe it will irrigate China due to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC. The visit seemingly has both advantages and shortcomings. Gwadar no doubt is an economic venture. The more Pakistan invites developed countries for investment, the more the country will reap maximum benefits. Colonel Maqbool Afridi an expert on CPEC and Gwadar states that the US should invest in Gwadar. The US and China annual bilateral trade has surpassed 710 billion dollars. If both Beijing and Washington are involved in business activities, there is no harm in extending an invitation to the US to invest in Gwadar.

Having declared Gwadar International City, Pakistan needs to invite developed countries for investment. Limiting business opportunities for the US will create an opportunity for the latter to harm Pakistan. Islamabad should not suffer by virtue of the US and China rivalry. It is in the national interest of the country to benefit from both parties. The investment of the US in Gwadar will pave the way for the investment of the European Union EU, Japan, South Korea, Canada, and Australia. Afridi added. Pakistan is blessed with four crucial potentials encompassing geographical location, Gwadar’s potentials, human resources and natural resources. The previously mentioned factors impel Washington and Beijing to forge cordial ties with Islamabad.

Meanwhile, the US seeks to accelerate its influence in Gwadar, monitoring the Chinese development. Presumably, Saudi Arabia at the behest of the US sought to install an oil refinery in Gwadar. Washington with the help of NGOs started work in the educational and social sector in the city. At the University of Gwadar, the US embassy launched research projects. Associated with NGOs, the US has been conducting social and educational activities which is a new phenomenon first time taking place in Gwadar.

The US tries to invest in cultural and educational initiatives, fostering literacy, and educational materials in Balochi and various local languages and also is playing with Beijing’s Achilles heel by intervening to enhance its image when China is confronted with security challenges and unfavourable perceptions in Balochistan. The US has needlessly started an ideational war against China calling it an authoritarian regime, promoting a debt trap policy under BRI, and causing human rights violation in Xinjiang. The US is fully cognizant of the fact that Baloch do not have a good reputation for China amplifying the efforts to promote a negative public perception of the Chinese. Local people are now confused seeing the US presence with suspensions. After Blome’s visits indigenous masses perceive that the city might become a new battlefield between the US and China.

The US remains sceptical of the CPEC, having a great deal of reservation over the Gwadar port believing the city might be used by China for military purposes by making the naval base. According to many experts, the US, thus, wants its presence in Gwadar port resulting in marinating its sway in the Strait of Hurmuz and checking Iran’s assertiveness in the region. At the current juncture, in international politics, the middle powers such as India, Saudi Arabia and  Brazil obtain maximum benefits from the US-China great power rivalry. These parties exploit the great power competition and are unwilling to keep all eggs either in the US or in the Chinese basket. Pakistan is extremely likely to be espousing the path of the middle powers in gaining maximum leverage from US-China tug of war by inviting the US ambassador to Gwadar.

Throughout Pakistan’s history, the country failed to work on internal economic development. It remained in a state of war economy. Whenever there was great power rivalry it became a part of the bloc politics in a bid to receive economic and security dividends. The country, currently, is supposed to move in two parallel lines cementing security and economy apparently is a daunting task to encounter the foreseeable challenges. Pakistan should not adopt the traditional approach. The era has changed it is an era of the knowledge economy, industrialization, and regional connectivity. The government plans should be to invite both the US and China to invest in the country, including Gwadar, to help develop these projects. Paradoxically, when Islamabad jumps on the bandwagon of China, the US will pressure the country through the International Monetary Fund IMF. Washington uses the IMF as a political tool. As a result, Islamabad cannot underestimate the significance of the US.

Realistically speaking, the world is being transformed, it is the Asian century the balance of power ideationally and materially is shifting from the West to the East. China’s rise is a remarkable phenomenon it is the only emerging power that achieved great power status without firing a signal bullet. Beijing offers investment instead of aid and promotes peace rather than confrontation. In the final analysis, South Asia witnessed unprecedented devastation caused during the Cold War and War on Terror WOT underpinned by the US. Shunning the Cold War mentality in the era of globalization is a prerequisite for global peace. Remaining neutral in the current great power rivalry is the only and optimal choice for Pakistan, preferring the US over China would be counterproductive.

Author Dr Dost Barrech is teaching International Relations IR at the University of  Balochistan UOB Quetta. Pakistan.