On September 12, U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Donald Blome visited the coastal city of Gwadar, located in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province.
The visit raised eyebrows given that Gwadar is home to a Chinese-operated port and has long been speculated as the future home to a People’s Liberation Army Navy base.
Blome’s trip, organized by the Pakistani military, was meant to assuage U.S. concerns about the prospects for the establishment of a PLA Navy base. It’s also part of the Pakistan Army’s attempts to tilt back to the West.
This rebalancing, which also involves Pakistan’s supplying Ukraine with arms — confirmed once again in a bombshell report by The Intercept — could, however, anger China and Russia. And it comes at a time in which Islamabad desperately needs Beijing’s support for its fledgling economy.
Gwadar and the Old Cold War
Visits to Gwadar by U.S. officials are rare. Prior to Blome, U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Angela Aggeler visited Gwadar in 2021, making her the first U.S. official to do so in fifteen years.
During the Afghanistan war, Western diplomats had very little access to the Balochistan province because of the presence of the Afghan Taliban. Gwadar is particularly sensitive given the Chinese presence.
But Gwadar wasn’t always off limits to Americans. In 1973, during a state visit to Washington, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto not only asked the Nixon administration for help in developing the Gwadar port, he even offered the United States the right to construct a naval facility there as well.
It may seem odd or ironic now, but Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai also encouraged the U.S. use of Gwadar when National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger visited Beijing in 1973.
Pakistan’s aims were largely security-related. Gwadar is located at a great distance from Pakistan’s industrial and population centers. It’s actually closer to Iran than to any major Pakistani city. But when Bhutto made his offer, Pakistan was recovering from a bloody civil war in which it lost its eastern half. And during that war, which resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, India blockaded Karachi — then Pakistan’s only port.
The U.S., however, did not take Bhutto’s offer. An assessment by the National Security Council under Kissinger argued that the risks of a U.S. base in Gwadar outweighed the benefits, as it would antagonize Afghanistan, India, and the Soviet Union.
In 1980, Pakistan opened its second deepwater port: Port Qasim. But it is located just a few dozen nautical miles away from Karachi. So Pakistan’s leaders continued to seek the patronage of a great power to build another deepwater port further away from India.
In 2001, Pakistan finally found a taker: China, which agreed to finance the construction of the port and a highway connecting it to Karachi. The first contract to run the port actually went to Singapore’s PSA International. Contrary to Pakistan’s great expectations, the port saw little commercial activity due to insecurity and poor hinterland connectivity. Finally, in 2013, a Chinese company took over the Gwadar port concession, just as Beijing was set to announce its Belt and Road Initiative.
Gwadar and the New Cold War
The official State Department readout of Blome’s visit focuses on discussions of how Gwadar can fit into the U.S.-Pakistan trade relationship and ways Washington can help Islamabad address its climate challenge. The 557-word text concludes with a sentence acknowledging a meeting with the Pakistan Navy’s Western Command.
But the Pakistani military loomed large in Blome’s meeting. The military, which controls outsider access to the city, organized the trip. Blome was joined by the U.S. defense and naval attaché Tom Croci, a former Navy intelligence officer and current reservist who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon assesses that Gwadar — a port once offered to the U.S. — could one day host a PLA Navy facility. A 2019 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report identified Gwadar as a port where China is “expanding its access” to “pre-position the logistic framework necessary to support the PLA’s growing presence abroad, including normalizing and sustaining deployments into and beyond the Indian Ocean.”
Put more succinctly, at least during peacetime, Gwadar could serve as a refueling and replenishment point for the PLA.
To be clear, there are a host of ports in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific regions, and even the Atlantic that could host future overseas Chinese bases or military facilities. That includes Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
But Gwadar’s value stems from the closeness of the China-Pakistan partnership and its location. The two countries share a land border and a common rival: India. China and Pakistan are not treaty allies, but the extent of their military cooperation — which includes increasingly complex joint exercises — has led one analyst to describe their ties as a “threshold alliance.”
Gwadar is located just outside the Strait of Hormuz, through which over 20 percent of the world’s oil consumption is transported. Most of this oil from the Persian Gulf goes to Asian markets like China. While claims that China could construct an energy pipeline from Gwadar to its Xinjiang region are fanciful, the port can potentially be part of its energy security strategy.
The U.S. has hundreds of overseas bases, while China — at the moment — has just one. But Washington is keen on dissuading strategically located countries from allowing Beijing to establish military facilities.
Pakistan’s Western Pivot
Pakistan is just one of many countries that have struggled in recent years to figure out how to manage the U.S.-China rivalry. These days, U.S. officials say they aren’t forcing countries like Pakistan to choose between it and China. But U.S. actions say otherwise.
The Pakistani military too is wary of alienating the West. As the U.S. headed for exits in Afghanistan in 2021, Pakistan accelerated efforts to rebalance its relations with China and the U.S. Last year, in an op-ed for the New York Times, I wrote that “as U.S.-China competition intensifies, Pakistan’s army fears getting trapped in a cul-de-sac with Beijing.”
The rebalancing effort made sense. Pakistanis have learned that the Chinese cannot do miracles. Economic transformation requires local ownership, not outside saviors.
The Gwadar port remains dormant. And Pakistan, after receiving tens of billions of dollars in project financing from China, is an economic basket case. The Belt and Road Initiative-linked China-Pakistan Economic Corridor served to exacerbate the imbalances in Pakistan’s economy, forcing the country to return to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2018.
Also, while China may not be falling apart, but the taps of its overseas lending are drying. And China’s slowing economy along with the disappearances of its defense and foreign ministers suggests a regime that is not stable.
The Pakistani military feels it has an opportunity to play the China card to woo back the Americans. Earlier this year, unnamed Pakistani “interlocutors” — almost certainly from the military — told a U.S.-based Pakistani researcher that “China has previously made certain asks that Pakistanis have resisted, including a port call for a Chinese naval vessel at the Gwadar port.” These efforts are probably part of a Pakistani effort to reel the U.S. in using the Chinese debt trap fears.
Yet, for all its flaws, China is in some ways a reliable partner. It provides Pakistan with some of its best military hardware — equipment that it can’t get from the U.S. or most other Western powers. And Beijing has provided Islamabad with billions of dollars in short-term loans to help it avert default. It has repeatedly rolled over this debt.
The Blome visit serves to signal that Gwadar isn’t some exclusive Chinese territory. But a more prudent way to make that point without invoking and stoking the U.S.-China rivalry would have been to bring in the U.S. envoy as part of a multi-country delegation to the port.
Pakistan, after all, is seeking yet another infusion of funds from China. And it will need China’s cooperation as it seeks another IMF program next year, which will likely involve discussions of debt reprofiling with its creditors — including Beijing.
So the question for Pakistan is whether it makes sense to risk antagonizing China at this moment. Beijing, for example, could go slow on debt reprofiling or bilateral military projects of strategic importance.
The Pakistani military’s rebalancing to the West also could put it in the crosshairs of Russia. The Pakistani military has been keen to appear to side with the West on the Russia-Ukraine war — at times publicly contradicting the country’s civilian leadership.
Since the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan last year, Pakistan has supplied Ukraine with vital artillery rockets. These weapons transfers have been taking place through Western partners and sometimes involve shadowy arms dealers, including U.S. defense contractor Marc Morales.
Pakistan’s sale of arms for Ukraine has only grown during the course of Ukraine’s counter-offensive. Russia has now gone public with its displeasure.
Last month, when asked about Pakistan’s arms transfers to Ukraine, the Russian envoy to India said that Moscow takes these reports “very seriously.” He added, that “if confirmed,” these are “very explicit anti-Russia actions which we cannot ignore” and “have watched very closely.”
To be clear, Russia is no friend of Pakistan. It is a malign actor. And that is precisely the point: Russia has the potential to do damage in Pakistan through information operations and other subversive activity. It could also pass on intelligence to its ally India.
Pakistan’s arms sales for Ukraine provide its military value — much-needed foreign exchange while also earning the good graces of the West. They are analogous to the Coalition Support Funds — payouts the Pakistani military used to receive from Washington during the War on Terror.
But the Pakistani military’s support for Ukraine also comes with potential costs, both in direct blowback and in lost opportunity. The import of discounted Russian oil, as India has done, probably would have better served the interests of the Pakistani people, who are now reeling from yet another fuel price hike.
In the end, this is nothing new for the Pakistani people. They are used to being at best a secondary consideration for their rulers and powerful countries. And every few decades, they see their military finding a new global conflict to involve itself in, reaping individual and institutional benefits off of high-risk geopolitical rents. It is invariably the people of Pakistan who end up paying the price.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.