Recent reports indicate that China is building several new high-security complexes at the Gwadar Deep Sea Port (at western-end of Pakistan’s coastline in Balochistan). Earlier, in March 2017, Chinese military sources had spoken about deploying Navy Marines at Gwadar and Djibouti to defend Chinese interests overseas. When viewed alongside China’s overall activities in the Indian Ocean, it does seem that Beijing is likely looking at using Gwadar as a dual-use, economic hub-cum-military base.
China had first evinced interest in Gwadar in 2001 as the end point of a trade corridor connecting Kashgar (Xinjiang) to the Arabian Sea through the Karakorum Highway. The aim was to drastically reduce the trade transit costs and time between its north-western regions and markets in the Middle-East/Africa. China completed the initial development of Gwadar Port in 2006, and the same year, signed an agreement with Pakistan to upgrade the Karakorum Highway.
In January 2013, Pakistan gave control of Gwadar Port to a Chinese company, and four months later, China proposed the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) as a trade transit corridor between Pakistan’s coastal areas and China’s Xinjiang.
The ‘20-point Joint Statement’ (April 2015) pledged to make the CPEC an important project of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), with Beijing investing substantially in infrastructure, power generation and dams. Gwadar Port and the Karakorum Highway upgradation were thus subsumed under the CPEC project. Both Pakistan and China visualise turning GDSP into a regional trade hub by 2023.
An Economic Issue Turned into a Military Problem
China’s export-orientated economy is critically dependant on unfettered movement of resources and goods across seas. But with its maritime traffic through the Indian Ocean vulnerable to interdiction, the economic issue has turned into a military problem, compelling China to look for:
- Overland routes for resource-access and trade. The BRI, CPEC, and its oil/gas pipelines are examples of that.
- Opportunities to deploy its Navy in the Indian Ocean.
- A base to servicing its naval elements.
Deployment of Chinese Navy in Indian Ocean
China’s ‘Naval Development Plan’, laid-out by Admiral Liu Huaqing in the 1980s, had envisioned its Navy venturing into the Indian Ocean from 2010 onwards to first gather operating information, and then entering in strength by 2020.
The UN resolutions of 2008 on piracy provided China a perfect cover to establish a naval presence in the Indian Ocean without adverse international fallout – January 2009 saw the deployment of the PLA Navy’s Anti-Piracy Task Force off the coast of Somalia. This Task Force continues to maintain a presence there. Further, from February 2014, China’s nuclear-powered and conventional submarines also commenced sorties into the Indian Ocean, with stops at Karachi or Colombo enroute. China’s assistance to Pakistan in the construction of a Very Low Frequency (VLF) facility at Turbat (north of Gwadar) for communications with strategic submarines assumes significance in this context.
China’s Quest for a Naval Base in the Indian Ocean
China does need some sort of permanent basing to sustain its operations in the Indian Ocean, especially with India objecting to PLA submarines docking at Colombo. Its first military base on foreign soil at Djibouti, established in 2017, is however adjacent to the bases of seven foreign militaries including the US. Hence, it serves only as a ‘logistical facility’ for operations associated with anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance & disaster relief.
There have thus been conjecture about China establishing a military base in countries where it has developed port infrastructure under its ‘String of Pearls’ (e.g. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives). These conjectures however directly extrapolate the US model of military basing. The powerful US military has the bandwidth to defend its bases worldwide - whereas the PLA Navy yet does not have such a force structure. Besides, in India’s neighbourhood, the Indian military, operating off the Indian landmass, holds the home advantage.
In the absence of this capability, China needs a country that is a strategic ally, is inimical to India, has a strong military, and can contribute to the defence of the Chinese base.
Pakistan, a client-state, and Gwadar, located at the furthest end of Pakistan, fit this requirement ideally.
Presence of Chinese Assets at Pakistani Ports Could Inhibit Indian Plans
A 2014 analysis by the US’s National Defence University entitled ‘Chinese Overseas Basing Requirements in the 21st Century’ had highlighted that ‘Dual-Use Logistics Facilities’ best suit Chinese policies, with trusted ally Pakistan being the ideal location for a military base. Gwadar fully fits this description. This analysis is backed by Chinese commentaries on establishment of ‘Overseas Strategic Support Bases’, which espouse a “fully functional base… in Pakistan”.
A Chinese naval base at Gwadar will increase India’s operational dilemma.
China will have a readily available naval force in the Indian Ocean, albeit small-sized. The presence of Chinese assets at Pakistani ports could inhibit Indian plans, just as US military presence at Pakistani bases post-9/11 had complicated its plans after the 13 December 2001 attack on our Parliament.
Gwadar Port: A ‘Commercial’ Venture or a ‘Colonising’ One?
A Chinese naval presence at Gwadar, which is located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, will also allow it :
- to monitor ship traffic from/to the Persian Gulf as well as the movement of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet (part of the US’ Central Command; headquartered at Bahrain)
- protect its own maritime traffic while being in a position to interdict similar vessels of adversaries.
Gwadar Port has witnessed sparse maritime traffic since opening in 2007. While China continues to plug Gwadar as a commercial venture, it is increasingly looking like a coaling station the British built in their colonisation ventures. With China already maintaining an average of six-to-seven naval ships in the Indian Ocean, and its media hinting at the deployment of an aircraft carrier in near future, it does seem that China is gearing up to use Gwadar also as a military base in the times to come.
(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)