The new port of Gwadar will be unveiled April 6 as the "Dubai of Pakistan," even if it lacks the theme-park glitz of the Gulf's fantasy city. The point, say Chinese officials, who bankrolled 80 percent of the $248 million project, is that this new deepwater cargo port is "strictly commercial." But hawks in Washington and New Delhi believe Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has given Beijing the nod to use Gwadar as a port of call for the Chinese Navy. "Gwadar's a strategic location, just 400 kilometers from the Strait of Hormuz," says William Triplett III, a Washington-based conservative analyst who warns Gwadar will become a Chinese naval base "on little cat feet."
Alarm bells are ringing in Washington, where some see a pattern in Beijing's naval build-up, combined with a foreign-port building spree and efforts to secure maritime oil-transport routes. An internal report circulated among Pentagon officials late last year says Beijing is assembling a "string of pearls"--including ports, listening posts and naval agreements from Pakistan to Bangladesh to Burma--to protect its fragile oil-supply routes. Gwadar is critical, because it would provide the Chinese a listening post for monitoring ship traffic to and from the oil-rich Middle East, according to the report, which asserts that China is building up naval power at maritime "chokepoints... to deter the potential disruption of energy supplies from potential threats, including the U.S. Navy." China's naval outreach program is of concern to New Delhi, too, and was an underlying theme during U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to India last week.
Until a few years ago, China's hunt for energy resources was confined largely to the economic sphere, spearheaded by its state-owned oil and gas firms. But Chinese officials came to see U.S.-led conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as wars over oil, just as its own oil demands were booming. Two years ago China surpassed Japan as the world's second biggest oil importer, after the United States. Now crude-oil prices are hitting record highs, topping $57 a barrel last week, amid warnings from strategists of a coming "energy cold war." What began as a commercial rivalry for oil supplies engaging the United States, Japan and China now seems poised "to spill over into the political and military spheres," according to Chietigj Bajpaee, a researcher for Civic Exchange, a Hong Kong think tank. In the event of conflict over Taiwan, say mainland strategists, Beijing should expect the United States to try to starve China of oil with a naval blockade.
China is now lavishing funds on its Navy, long a neglected arm of the military services. Since George W. Bush took office, China has been building up its fleet of amphibious assault ships and submarines, and last December launched its first in a new class of nuclear subs, years earlier than anticipated by U.S. intelligence. In November, Japan chased a Chinese sub out of its territorial waters, near a disputed and gas-rich area of the East China Sea. Almost as soon as Beijing apologized for that incident, a Chinese research vessel intruded into Japanese waters, apparently surveying the seabed for oil and gas deposits.
Meanwhile, India has pursued closer military contacts with the United States, and last year issued a new naval doctrine stressing the need to protect energy routes and respond to Beijing's inroads in the Arabian Sea. Ziad Haider, an analyst at the Henry L. Stimson Center think tank in Washington, says the port at Gwadar could monitor U.S. naval activity in the Gulf, Indian naval activity in the Arabian Sea and future U.S.-Indian maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean. Gwadar may not be a full-fledged Chinese naval base, says Haider, "but it could facilitate a [Chinese] naval presence."
China also helped build the Chittagong port in Bangladesh where, says the Pentagon report, Beijing is "seeking much more extensive naval and commercial access." Beijing is even discussing a deal with Phnom Penh that would provide Chinese patrol boats and naval training to Cambodia. The Pentagon report puts far more stress on the billions of dollars in military aid China has provided the junta in Myanmar "to support a de facto military alliance." China has helped build several ports, road and rail links from the Chinese province of Yunnan to the Bay of Bengal, and a listening post on Myanmar's Coco Islands to monitor sea traffic.
Myanmar is well positioned for policing the chokepoint that concerns Beijing most: the Malacca Strait. Eighty percent of China's energy supplies pass through this pirate-infested waterway, which is 1,000 kilometers long but only 2.4 kilometers wide at its narrowest point. Last year pirate attacks in the area left more than 400 ship-crew members dead, injured, taken hostage or missing. Less than a year ago, Chinese counterterrorism forces conducted the first exercise simulating the rescue of an oil tanker from attackers.
Another solution may lie in the Isthmus of Kra, a neck of land linking Thailand's north and south. Thai and Chinese authorities have discussed building a canal across the isthmus, which would allow oil tankers from the Middle East to bypass the Malacca Strait. This "Asian Panama Canal" carries a price tag somewhere between $20 billion and $28 billion, and Washington is watching its development closely. "We know [the Chinese] are looking at a variety of things with regard to the security of the Malacca Strait," says a State Department official. "We have a particular interest that these proposals are not exclusionary or against our interests."
Last month Thai authorities revived an alternate plan for a $700 million Kra oil pipeline and refinery, in which Chinese firms have been invited to participate. Bangkok will tread cautiously, says Paitoon Sayswang, an adviser to Thailand's Senate, because "Thais don't want to take on the risk of a turf battle between China and America." No Asian state does. But if they stand on an oil-supply route, there may be no way to avoid the struggle.