Gwadar port: Pakistan-China deal worries India

China's role in operating a strategically important port in Pakistan is a matter of concern for India, as New Delhi and Beijing jostle for influence in the region.

Gwadar port is about 600 kilometres from Karachi and close to Pakistan's border with Iran. AFP Photo
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BANGALORE, INDIA // China's role in operating a strategically important port in Pakistan is a matter of concern for India its defence minister said yesterday, as New Delhi and Beijing jostled for influence in the region.

Authorities in New Delhi have long been wary of a string of strategically located ports being built by Chinese companies in its neighbourhood, as India beefs up its military clout to compete with its Asian rival.

The management of Gwadar port, about 600 kilometres from Karachi and close to Pakistan's border with Iran, was handed over to the state-run company Chinese Overseas Port Holdings last week. It was previously managed by Singapore's PSA International.

"It is a matter of concern to us," said the Indian defence minister, AK Antony, when asked about Chinese control of the port.

The port, which opened in 2007 and is being expanded, has the potential to open up an energy and trade corridor from the Arabian Gulf, across Pakistan to western China, and could also be used by the Chinese Navy, analysts say.

"It will enable [China] to deploy military capability in the region," said Jay Ranade of the Centre for Air Power Studies, and a former additional secretary at the government of India. "Having control of Gwadar, China is basically getting an entry into the Arabian Sea and the Gulf."

China has also funded ports in Hambantota, Sri Lanka and Chittagong in Bangladesh, also India's neighbours.

"Gwadar is a more serious development than the others," Mr Ranade said, as the Pakistani port gives China base facilities.

A Pakistani foreign ministry official said the port was none of India's business.

"India has no concern with whoever Pakistan decides to work with on Gwadar," said the official, who declined to be identified. "We first had a deal with Singapore but that didn't work out as desired. Singapore's PSA International and the Chinese have settled the deal."

China and India fought a brief border war in 1962.

Hong Lei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said last week that Gwadar was a commercial project, part of long-standing bilateral cooperation.

"China will actively support any programme that benefits China-Pakistan relations and the prosperity of Pakistan," he added.

India, the world's biggest arms importer in recent years, plans to spend about US$100 billion (Dh367bn) over the next 10 years in upgrading its mostly Soviet-era military hardware to keep pace with China's ramping up of defence spending.

The country was bound to modernise its armed forces in response to China's own modernisation, the Indian defence minister, AK Antony, said yesterday at an air show in the southern city of Bangalore.

But strengthening its north-eastern border with China was not a confrontation with its neighbour, he added.

"It is our duty. If they are doing it, we will also do it," he said, adding that the presence of a Chinese delegation at the show was a "welcome step", without elaborating.

Despite the push to overhaul its military, India's defence budget would not escape a tightening of government spending this year, said Mr Antony, as New Delhi attempts to rein in its fiscal deficit.

"Our priority areas will not face budget cuts," he said. "Those essential to operational preparedness, there won't be any budget cuts."

A long-awaited deal for India to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets from France's Dassault Aviation was being reviewed by a cost negotiation committee, Mr Antony said, adding that the delay in finalising the deal was not due to budget cuts.

India selected the Rafale from several options and entered into exclusive talks with Dassault for the $15bn contract more than a year ago.