But more than a shipping hub for transshipment in the region, it has emerged as the most strategic port.

SHAMIM AHMED RIZVI, Bureau Chief, Islamabad
Apr 02 - 08, 2007

Last week a cherished national dream came true when a small fishing village of Gwadar located on the south western coast of Pakistan was inaugurated as one of the most strategic deep-sea port of the world. While declaring the port open, President General Musharraf rightly claimed that Gwadar Port would usher in a new era of prosperity and change the destiny of the region, especially of Balochistan province.

Gwadar Port is the third port of Pakistan - Karachi and Port Qasim being the other two. Gwadar borders on Arabian Sea and lies in the Balochistan province. It is about 433 km from Karachi and 120 km from the Iranian border. Gwadar Port is located at the mouth of the Persian Gulf and outside the Strait of Hormuz. It is near the key shipping routes used by the mainline vessels in the region with connections to Africa, Asia and Europe and it enjoys high commercial and strategic significance. Various professional studies manifest that Gwadar Port's location is the most advantageous one as an alternative port, which could handle mother ships and large oil tankers in due course.

China has extended technical know-how and financial assistance to Pakistan. It has once again helped Pakistan in the shape of development of the Gwadar Port, and provided 80 percent of the port's $ 248 million initial development cost. It would make Balochistan the hub of economic activity.

The present government had made concerted efforts to develop Balochistan. The completion of the Gwadar Port and other projects will indeed help generate employment opportunities and improve the living standards of the people of Balochistan. By developing the less developed regions, the people of all the provinces would find the true participation and expression of "unity in diversity".

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony, the President said: "The port would prove to be the trade corridor for Central Asian states, China and the Gulf, as 60 percent trade of gas and oil is done through this route". Pakistan would now be in a position to offer Central Asian countries the much-needed access to sea through Gwadar Port, as communications network linking Pakistan to Central Asia is in progress.

Announcing uplift projects for Balochistan, he said 950 kilometer Gwadar, Turbat, Khuzdar and Ratto Dero road would be completed within two-and-a-half years. Road will be built from Quetta zone Loralai to DG Khan. Among other roads, a highway would be constructed from Sibi to Kolhu within one-and-a-half years. Pakistan had espoused a lot of expectations for establishing an ideal relationship with central Asian states that became independent countries after the collapse of Soviet Union. It was rightly so because Pakistan had played a crucial role as a frontline state against communism. It is also due to Pakistan's strategic position, which is a confluence and meeting point between Sinkiang in China, Iran and Central Asian republics. The fact remains that Pakistan's principal port city of Karachi is also the closest trading port for this region and a convenient route for trade with the western and other countries.

But internal conflicts and civil war-like conditions in Afghanistan had stymied the progress and did not allow the idea of having ideal relationship with CARs to materialize. However, due to the persistent efforts by Pakistan, those countries have now cordial relations with Pakistan. And today Pakistan and Central Asian republics are the members of Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO). There is no doubt to the fact that the most logical and viable route for trade with Central Asian countries is Afghanistan; therefore, the sovereign, independent and stale Afghanistan is not only in the interest of Pakistan but also in the interest of the entire region. The fact remains that Pakistan and Afghanistan are neighbors and as it is often said in the context of geographical situation and in the realm of international relations that you can change friends but not the neighbours. Bound with historic, cultural and fraternal ties, and given the mutual trust, respect and cooperation, both the countries could march forward to achieve progress and prosperity of their peoples. Apart from other avenues, the region could benefit tremendously from the proposed gas pipeline project from Central Asia to India, which envisages linking Turkmenistan with India via Afghanistan and Pakistan. If Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline does not materialize due to some imperialistic designs, Pakistan would have to expedite Turkmenistan-Pakistan gas pipeline in order to meet its growing energy needs.

Because of war and law and order situation in Afghanistan, Pakistan's trade with all the Central Asian countries is merely $ 26 million. On the other hand, its trade with Shinghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is around $ 2 billion. Pakistan and Kazakhstan had set up a joint Ministerial Economic Commission, which first met in 1993, but no progress could be made due to chaotic conditions in Afghanistan. It is important to strengthen bilateral relations with the brotherly countries, as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan has played an important role in supporting Pakistan's membership of SCO, of course China had also persuaded Russia to accept Pakistan with observer status.

But more than a shipping hub for transshipment in the region, it has emerged as the most strategic port. Present and future powers are analyzing the advantages and disadvantages of the newly built deep-sea port.

Gwadar, which is close to the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which more than 13 million barrels of oil passes every day, is now emerging on the world map as the most important coastal town located at the intersection of three most strategically and economically important regions of the world, which are oil rich Middle East and South Asia where one-fifth of the world's population lives and Central Asian republics having vast reserves of oil and minerals.

Originally, it was the brainchild of the former USSR which sought a port in hot waters and to meet that target, it invaded Afghanistan. But Russia was forced to withdraw from the country. The new emerging economic superpower of China is also facing the same problem. It doesn't have any port in hot waters, which can be used the whole year. The Shanghai port is approximately 16,000 km away from Chinese industrial areas and sea travel takes an additional two to three months. This costs them a lot in the form of taxes and duties as well. Compared to this, Gwadar port is only at a distance of 2500 km from China and the port will be working the whole year.

China's decision to finance the construction of Gwadar port and coastal highway linking the port to Karachi will help its plans to develop western China. The distance from Kashgar to Chinese east coast ports is 3500 km. The cost benefits to China of using Gwadar as the port of western China's imports and exports are as evident as the long-term economic benefits to Pakistan of Gwadar becoming a port for Chinese goods.

Last year, President Pervez Musharraf had attended Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit for the first time at the special invitation of his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, and addressed the SCO's preliminary session. Established in 2001, the SCO comprises China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, while Pakistan, Iran, India and Mongolia have the observers' status. Initially, Russia was averse to the idea of giving Pakistan even an observer status on its suspicions that Pakistan was aiding and abetting terrorists. Pakistan has now improved its image by playing active role in fighting the war on terror. Secondly, Pakistan has excellent relations with majority of the member countries of SCO, especially China; and also with Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan with whom Pakistan has religious, historical and cultural relations. Anyhow, Pakistan joined SCO with observer status and sought to work with the member countries of SCO for the development and peace and security of the region. With the inauguration of the Gwadar Port, a new era of economic cooperation and relations would usher in and it would not only become an energy corridor for China but also a link between the Central Asia and the rest of the world.