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China Refuses to Confirm Reports it Will Run Strategic Pakistani Port

Stephanie Ho | Beijing May 24, 2011

China says it has not heard of Pakistan’s request to operate a strategic port on Pakistan’s southwest coast and to help build a naval base there.

Pakistani Defense Minister Ahmed Mukhtar says China has agreed to take over operation of Gwadar, a strategic deep water port that China helped to build several years ago.

The Pakistan Defense Ministry also has said that Islamabad would be grateful if China also helped to build a naval base there. A Pakistani statement says the deal was reached last week when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was in China.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu Tuesday told reporters that China and Pakistan are engaged in extensive cooperation. But she said she has not heard of the specific Gwadar project.

Jiang says the topic also was not raised during the Pakistani leader’s visit to China last week.

While China helped to fund and to build the commercial Gwadar port several years ago, it is now run by the Singapore Port Authority. The port is located at the northern end of the Arabian Sea, with key access to shipping lanes heading west to the Persian Gulf.

Despite China’s lack of official confirmation, Tim Huxley, a defense expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, says he has heard about the proposal.

“The initiative seems to have come from the Pakistani side, and I am sure there would be commercial benefits for China in doing this,” he said.

The Pakistani prime minister’s trip to China last week came as some U.S. lawmakers are calling for reducing billions of dollars in aid to Islamabad. While ties between Pakistan and the United States have long been tense, the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani territory has worsened the relationship on both sides.

Huxley says he sees two reasons why China may want to consider helping with the Gwadar port.

“One is China’s assistance in developing a commercial port and secondly possibly China’s assistance to develop a Pakistani naval base, that might in the future, that Chinese vessels could visit that Pakistani naval base, which was been developed with Chinese assistance," he said. "I would not rule that out in the future.”

Huxley says China has been expanding its naval operations in the Indian Ocean mostly because it wants to secure its oil supplies from the Middle East. He said that as China’s economic power increases, its navy will increase as well to protect those interests, raising concerns among China’s neighbors.

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