Mideast and Africa's road to China goes through Gwadar

By Daniel Hyatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, August 29, 2018
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Photo taken on Jan. 29, 2018 shows a view of Gwadar port in southwest Pakistan's Gwadar. [Photo/Xinhua]

At the center of three civilizations lies a city that came to prominence after China announced the revival of its ancient silk route under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Gwadar, a deep-sea port in southern Pakistan is offering an opportunity for the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia to re-establish their trading routes through the new global overture.

As the Persian Gulf produces its abounding oil and Africa its raw materials, they transport ample consignments to China through a long and arduous route. Gwadar presents an alternative. The distance from Dubai, a major waypoint for shipping lines of the Persian Gulf, to China's Urumqi is around 8,100 miles if taken through the Strait of Malacca. Whereas the route through Gwadar is cut by more than half to 3,400 miles.

Since the beginning of time, the Strait of Malacca has been used by Middle Eastern and African traders to reach China. Today, this highly politicized choke point of Southeast Asia is far from being the most feasible Sea Line of Communication (SLOC). Malacca not only offers longer distances, translating into longer cargo delivery times, but also a significant level of uncertainty during crisis.

With several extra-regional forces positioned around the Strait and with three countries disputing the claims of its territorial waters, who will be calling the shots on global trade during a future conflict is a matter of anybody's guess. Any level of conflict in Malacca could jeopardize energy and material supplies from the Middle East and Africa. For economies in the region, which primarily rely on the export of these resources, any sort of economic strain will be evident.

The security forces in Gwadar's are ensured by Task Force 88, a specially raised contingent of the Pakistani Navy. Equipped with fast attack boats, aircraft, drones, and surveillance means, the maritime force is securing sea lanes against any possible traditional and asymmetric challenges.

It's important to note that China has become a major trading partner of the Middle East. The recent ministerial meeting of China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) highlighted how Middle Eastern nations have started leaning towards China, a country that has all the practical facilitation to offer.

Gwadar is the nodal point of the BRI's flagship project: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Several countries from the Middle East and Africa have expressed their intentions of joining CPEC, demonstrating their confidence in the potential of Gwadar.

Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Pakistan last year clearly vocalized his country's interest in CPEC and in investing in Gwadar. Considered a leading voice of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia can marshal the region to connect with Gwadar and access China's markets.

The UAE has also been playing an encouraging role. Against the speculations of certain circles which intend to pitch Dubai and Gwadar as rivals, the UAE started commercial shipping under CPEC through Gwadar in March this year. The container service, named Karachi-Gulf Express, connects Gwadar port with Jebel Ali, Abu Dhabi, and Sharjah. The UAE has also been assisting in providing amenities for the city's community.

As a viable incentive to the oil-rich Middle East, a pipeline to transport crude oil from Gwadar to China's Xinjiang is on the cards. The pipeline is estimated to transmit a million barrels per day with its provisional capacity. As China fulfills almost 50 percent of its oil requirements from the Middle East, the pipeline will diversify its oil import routes. On the other hand, oil exporters of the Middle East will benefit from a cheaper and faster alternative to the existing route.

Xinjiang is the first Chinese region Middle Eastern and African traders will encounter while trading through the Gwadar route. It has now become one of the BRI's largest trading hubs. The train station in Urumqi, the autonomous region's capital, runs on 19 lines and reaches out to 17 countries in Asia and Europe. Handling up to 3,600 tons of cargo each day, it acts as a vital junction for the routing of goods. 

It's important to mention that Western interest in Africa has long faded. Today, China is not only the continent's largest trading partner but also one of its largest investors. Furthermore, President Xi Jinping's visit to Africa this year accentuated the importance China attaches to Africa. From Senegal on the Atlantic coast to Kenya on the Indian Ocean, Africa can further connect with China through Gwadar.

In essence, Gwadar has the backing of the world's economic leader. The city's strategically located deep-sea port is ready to offer riches of the Silk Route to those who wish to align with the Middle Kingdom. For global trade's front-runners who are on the lookout for the next big thing, Gwadar is it.

Daniel Hyatt is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Pakistan.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.

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