No signature of a Djibouti style base but signs of expansion plans; road, access still limited.
New Delhi: Limited work has started at Pakistan’s much-hyped Gwadar port that has been leased on a long-term basis to a Chinese company, latest satellite images reveal.
The project seems to be more suited to be a military base in the future, rather than a successful commercial port.
The satellite images do not yet show the signature of a major Chinese base akin to Djibouti but at least two locations seem to be earmarked for future expansions to accommodate military infrastructure at the strategically located port.
Gwadar has strategic importance given its geographic location at the mouth of Persian Gulf that makes it a central point between Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Most of the world’s sea lines of communications (SLOCs) — where most of global trade flows — can also be monitored from Gwadar.
China is looking at exploiting this huge potential of Gwadar in the name of improving Pakistan’s, especially Balochistan’s, economic condition and has apparently leased the port for 45 years, right up to 2059.
Although the port was inaugurated many times by Presidents, PMs and even chief martial law administrators, there has not been much progress on the construction or operations front from 2006 until November 2016.
China’s push for Gwadar as the main hub of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — a part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — has led to some construction, although at a snail’s pace.
Satellite images show that the port still lacks proper roads or storage facilities, especially for oil storage, besides bulk cargo/containers handling equipment. However, the prospects of the Gwadar port turning into a Chinese base seem to be brighter now than any time before.
Construction work at the port started in November 2016 and satellite images from Google Earth dated 20 May 2017 and later suggest that limited progress has been made in this period.
The road access to the port is still very narrow at a width of just 5 m width. The last stretch of 5 km is not yet complete, possibly due to local citizens’ objections. The Chinese government has allocated $250 million as compensation after which probably the work is progressing very slowly.
Work on deepening of the waterway is yet to start. The port would also require at least two turning basins, large enough to allow cargo ships to change directions with ease. However, dredgers have not been observed near the port for a long time now.
Possible Chinese base
A large area meant for future expansion of the port is being prepared for different types of buildings, not akin to a terminal. Perhaps, this area is being developed as a Chinese base.
Two large multi-storey buildings and a very huge shed are being constructed as well. The western revetment has been broken to make a pathway, possibly for sea access to this base area. The area east of the present cargo terminal and the newly constructed Chinese staff barrack are being developed too.
Pier remains same
There is no change in the size and shape of the pier. Even now only three ships can be parked at Gwadar at any given time. There are five new heavy-duty cranes observed there, suggesting improvement in loading and unloading timings. No other facilities have been added.
About 30 large barracks have been constructed recently for Chinese staff. The barracks have been provided with triple layered security perimeter but seem to be guarded only at the entrance. A large football field is observed in the area.
A large fenced area near the barracks has been allocated for storage of construction materials and for parking of vehicles. Some construction material and vehicles have been kept under camouflage near the area.
There are a few major irritants in the progress of Gwadar port.
The Chinese government has promised to build a large harbour for fishermen’s ease on the western side of Gwadar but nothing has been done in this regard. The pier constructed is neither a pier nor long enough as planned. Recent images show a breakwater type of structure rather than a pier.
Local fishermen have not yet vacated their pier on the eastern side, which would pose a hindrance to movement of large cargo ships.
Colonel Vinayak Bhat (retd) is a Military Intelligence veteran of the Indian Army with vast experience of satellite imagery analysis. He has worked as a Chinese interpreter and is a specialist on PLA and Pakistan’s armed forces. He tweets @rajfortyseven