As India’s diplomat-in-chief, the external affairs minister Salman Khurshid sought to down play the story. He was quoted as saying “I don't think we should overreact to everything that Pakistan does or everything that China is involved in. We need to take these matters in our stride and in the normal course”.
That was last week. This week at the inauguration of the air show in Bengaluru, the defence minister, A. K. Antony was cryptic but quite clear. India is "concerned' about the development that could bring Chinese navy closer to India’s shores.
The absence of coherent policy articulation in Delhi is made worse by a media debate that has no space for putting a story in perspective or bring some facts into play.
The prospect of China running the Gwadar port in Pakistan, currently being run by a subsidiary of the Port of Singapore Authority, has been around for a while. After the American raid on Abbottabad and the execution of Osama bin Ladin in May 2011, angry Pakistani leaders were quite open in offering Gwadar as a base for the Chinese navy. It was Beijing that said, “thank, but no thanks”.
Last week the Pakistani Cabinet has taken a decision to hand it over to a Chinese company. The port, on a small island off the Makran coast of Balochistan, was built with Chinese financial assistance in the last decade. Has China changed its mind? Is it ready to build a naval facility at Gwadar, that is so close to the sensitive Persian Gulf and next door to India?
Facts speak otherwise. For all the hype, Gwadar is not an attractive place for the Chinese navy. It is located in one of the most backward regions of Pakistan. The Baloch insurgency has frequently targeted Chinese nationals doing project work in the region.
Gwadar does not have the kind of infrastructure that navies look for. What Gwadar lacks, Karachi has in plenty. Since it first showed up in the Indian Ocean nearly three decades ago, Karachi has been the favourite port of call for the Chinese navy.
Chinese companies have long partnered the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works which is assembling the Chinese supplied frigates there. Karachi has enough infrastructure to service Chinese naval vessels and potential deployment of Chinese maritime aircraft in the Indian Ocean.
Someday, Gwadar might well emerge as a full-fledged Chinese naval facility. For now, Karachi already serves as a major facility for the projection of Chinese naval power into the Indian Ocean.
(C. Raja Mohan is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express)