U.S. envoy’s Gwadar tour shows Pakistan’s evolving China strategy
Islamabad balances superpowers while seeking stronger hand for Beijing negotiations
ISLAMABAD — A U.S. diplomat’s recent visit to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, the heart of China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects in the country, has highlighted Islamabad’s delicate task of balancing ties with rival superpowers and efforts to gain leverage for itself.
Donald Blome, the American ambassador to Pakistan, earlier this month made the first visit to Gwadar by a U.S. diplomat since a brief stop by the charge d’affaires in 2021. Before that, U.S. officials had not set foot in Gwadar since 2006.
The coastal town in southwestern Balochistan province is home to a Chinese-built and operated deep-sea port, a core facility for the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. While there, Blome met with local officials and the Pakistani Navy’s west commander. He spoke to reporters on a hilltop with the port providing a symbolic backdrop.
“Ambassador Blome also visited Gwadar Port and learned about port operations, Gwadar’s potential as a regional transshipment hub, and ways to connect with Pakistan’s largest export market: the United States,” the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad said of the Sept. 12 visit.
But the high-profile tour came at a sensitive time in Pakistan’s relationship with China. Beijing is concerned about rising threats and attacks against its interests and personnel in the country, including an ambush of a convoy of Chinese engineers in mid-August, which was foiled by security forces.
Moreover, China has been frustrated by cash-strapped Pakistan’s delayed payments to power plants built under CPEC. And Islamabad is reportedly negotiating with Beijing to reduce the cost of a railway known as Main Line-1, the largest CPEC endeavor, to $6.6 billion from $9.9 billion.
Pakistan has “welcomed foreign dignitaries and diplomats to visit Gwadar and see for themselves the potential of Gwadar and how it can be a game changer for prosperity in this region,” a representative of Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a briefing.
Experts and insiders Nikkei Asia spoke with since Blome’s visit suggested there was likely more to it.
A government official told Nikkei on condition of anonymity that Islamabad wants some leverage over Beijing in forthcoming negotiations on CPEC projects, likely to be finalized next month. “The visit of Blome should be seen in that context,” the official said.
Nasir Sohrabi, president of the Rural Community Development Council of Gwadar, sees the visit as an expression of American desire to work in Gwadar in some capacity. Echoing the official, he said, “Pakistan might be hinting to work with the U.S. in Gwadar as a means to pressurize China for gaining concessions on CPEC projects in some way.”
The U.S. “made its presence felt in Gwadar through this visit,” Sohrabi said.
Since former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted in April 2022, Pakistan’s ruling establishment at times has sought to repair strained ties with the U.S. But there have also been signs of frustration at a perceived lack of American support, such as a leak that indicated Pakistan was considering whether to move off the middle ground and go all in with China. Blome’s Gwadar trip, experts say, offers a window into Islamabad’s current thinking.
“The establishment in Pakistan appears to be trying to avoid putting all its eggs in the China basket, and to seek closer relations with Washington,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
Looking at the visit through the lens of U.S.-China strategic competition, Kugelman noted that it may have been designed to reassure Washington.
In 2022, the Pentagon said in its annual report to Congress that Gwadar could one day host a People’s Liberation Army Navy facility.
“Pakistan may have also wanted to ease U.S. concerns about Beijing using Gwadar for military purposes, especially in terms of potentially using the port as a Chinese naval base,” Kugelman said. “A good way to provide that reassurance is to give Blome a tour.”
On the other hand, Kugelman said the U.S. likely went ahead with the trip to amplify its desire to invest in and trade with Pakistan more broadly. “This is a top U.S. goal in Pakistan now,” he told Nikkei, “though it will be difficult to achieve until there is more economic stabilization [in Pakistan].”
The country has been mired in a debt crisis, forcing it to go to the International Monetary Fund for support and to implement austerity measures that are stoking public anger. Now it is heading into a turbulent election season, with polls expected in the last week of January.
Blome’s enthusiastic visit to Gwadar aside, Kugelman suggested the U.S. would have a long way to go to catch up with the scale and depth of Chinese infrastructure investment in Pakistan over the past decade.
“Given the turbulent economic environment in Pakistan, any major new U.S. investment, especially in a sensitive space like Gwadar, would be unlikely in the immediate term,” Kugelman concluded.
Ultimately, though, Pakistan is seeking ways to navigate today’s defining geopolitical contest.
“Pakistan has good reasons to maintain a balanced relationship with both China and the United States, both in terms of substance and perception,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Nikkei.