It's Chabahar versus Gwadar
Enter Pipelineistan -- via the key Iran-Pakistan umbilical cord in the making: the 2,700 kilometre-long IP gas pipeline, from Iran's gigantic South Pars field through Balochistan and Sindh and into Punjab.
According to National Iranian Gas Company (NIGC) managing director, Javad Oji, the stretch from Iranshahr in southeast Iran to Zahedan and the Pakistani border is 90 percent ready. The 900 kilometre-long pipeline on the Iranian side should be active one year from now. It's up to Islamabad to finish its stretch.
Totally in character in terms of interminable Pipelineistan soap operas, IP used to be IPI (Iran-Pakistan-India) -- but Delhi pulled out, forced by relentless pressure from the Bush and Obama administrations.
And it's here that the going gets really tough -- because there's nothing Beijing would love more than to turn the former IPI into IPC.
According to China's minister of national defence, Liang Guanglie, on a recent visit to Delhi, "China has no plans for Indian Ocean military bases."
Tell that to the Pentagon.
What Beijing does want, with relish, is to build Indian Ocean ports. The $1.5bn Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka that opened only three months ago was mostly financed by China. Beijing is also investing in the Dawei and Kyaukpyu ports in Myanmar. And then, of course, there's the Holy of the Holies: Gwadar, in southwest Balochistan in Pakistan.
Gwadar was built mostly with Chinese money -- over $220 million. It was managed until virtually yesterday by Singapore -- a contract signed in 2007.
But then, in a Pipelineistan bombshell, Singapore decided to pull out. The official motive is that Islamabad did not grant 584 acres of Pakistan Navy land for Gwadar's free zone.
The unspoken motive is the extremely dodgy security panorama in Balochistan. As the Baloch have received virtually no benefits from the exploitation of their local wealth, Islamabad is now facing a renewed offensive of enraged Baloch nationalists.
The roads less travelled
So guess who will take over Gwadar? China -- who else?
This is strictly in line with China's complex energy strategy -- which essentially translates into an escape from the straits of Malacca and Hormuz. By 2015, no less than 75 percent of China's oil imports may have to transit the Malacca bottleneck if Beijing does not act fast coming up with alternative ports.
Beijing is bound to invest no less than US $10bn in Gwadar -- and will get a $12bn oil refinery and oil city project back on track.
As much as India bets on Chabahar, China bets on Gwadar as a key trans-shipment hub linking it to Central Asia and the Gulf.