Sino-Pak Friendship Express hits ‘Gwadar naval base’ bump

China regards Pakistan as a strategic bulwark against India.

Updated: May 27, 2011, 16:46 PM IST

Beijing: The ‘all-weather friendship’ between Pakistan and China has hit a bump over the Gwadar naval base issue.

Earlier this week, the two nations politely disagreed over whether Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had given the Chinese a gift that would be hard to mislay: an entire naval base, right at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, The New York Times reports.

Pakistan’s Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar, who accompanied the prime minister on his state visit to Beijing, announced the deal after Gilani returned home last Saturday.

“We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” a deepwater port on Pakistan’s southwest coast, he told journalists, adding that Pakistan had invited China to assume the management of the port’s commercial operations, now run by a Singapore firm under a multi-decade contract.

However, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang Yu disagreed on Tuesday, saying that the port had neither been offered nor accepted.

“China and Pakistan are friendly neighbours,” she said at the ministry’s twice-weekly news conference. “Regarding the specific China-Pakistan cooperative project that you raised, I have not heard of it. It’s my understanding that during the visit last week this issue was not touched upon.”

Some analysts were at a loss to explain the discrepancy.

“Maybe there were some discussions between the two sides when Gilani was up in China last week, bearing on some kind of future Chinese stewardship of the port,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said in a telephonic interview.

“Maybe there was some speculative discussion. Perhaps the Defense Ministry simply got its signals wrong… We’re seeing a lot of incompetence in the Pakistani government these days,” he added.

Others, however, saw Mukhtar’s announcement as a pointed, if graceless, effort to send a message to the United States that Pakistan had other options should its foundering relationship with Washington prove beyond repair, the paper said.

On the other hand, China regards Pakistan as a strategic bulwark against its longstanding rival, India, and it needs Pakistan’s help to combat Islamic separatists in the Xinjiang region, which abuts Pakistan’s northern border, the paper noted.