The prospects for China projecting military power over the Indian Ocean from Pakistans western coast are growing, a report by the Washington-based US Institute of Peace has said.
Chinese basing has meaningful support within Pakistan’s strategic circles. The material and political obstacles to upgrading naval access into wartime contingency basing appear to be surmountable and diminishing over time.
China might deploy PLA Navy marine corps units to provide security to overseas ports like Gwadar.
Open-source satellite imagery analysis has detected Chinese complexes in Gwadar with “unusually high security”, the report said.
While security could easily have been increased in response to the unsafe environs of Balochistan, which has seen a resurgence of insurgency and terrorist attacks, a hardening of the Chinese facilities could alternatively be an indicator of a covert militarised use of the port, akin to China’s apparent plans to secretly militarize its port facilities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Some analysts have argued that with the PLA’s and the PLA Navy’s long-term goal of acquiring overseas bases for naval expeditionary fleets in the Indian Ocean, turning Gwadar port into a PLA Navy foothold is just a matter of time as more PLA Navy staff will inevitably be deployed to train submariners, maintain the port and vessels, perform repairs, and provide logistical support, especially with the planned transfer of eight conventional Type 039 submarines by 2028, the report said.
A recent report by the US Naval War College substantiated a number of US projections, but also cast doubt on the stronger claim that future PLA Navy basing is inevitable.
Gwadar, the report writers held, is neither destined nor likely to become a PLA Navy base; rather, it is more likely to have military utility for China in peacetime by providing pier space and facilities for conducting repairs and replenishing fuel and supplies.
The conspicuous absence of commercial activity at Gwadar — which has raised the suspicions of expert observers — makes it easier for a naval footprint to increase without economic disruption and with greater concealment from foreign observation, the report said.
Gwadar’s port manager, the China Overseas Port Holding Company-Pakistan, is also legally required to support PLA overseas operations if called upon to do so. Even though the PLA Navy at present appears to prefer making port calls in Karachi, some Chinese officials boast of Gwadar as a turnkey military facility.
As Isaac Kardon and co-authors noted, “One PLA officer said of the PLAN’s option for using Gwadar as a base, The food is already on the plate; we’ll eat it whenever we want to”, the report said.
China is clearly developing the capability to turn Gwadar into a naval port, but its purpose remains unclear. One explanation is that China does not yet know what it wants but is establishing a presence as a form of contingency planning. In many ways, this is similar to the US approach in the Indo-Pacific of building partnerships, creating access, and putting in place logistical arrangements that can be operationalised in high-end contingencies, USIP report said.
China could leverage an Indian Ocean naval facility for a number of missions, ranging from non-combat and counterterrorism operations up to intelligence collection, coercive diplomacy, and even support for conflict operations.
Even in the absence of a definite strategy on China’s part, Pakistani strategists have been more forward leaning, suggesting that “the potential for Gwadar to be used in support of future Chinese naval operations is also very real”.
In several strategic journals published by the Pakistan military, Pakistan military analysts and officers have offered four potential military-strategic rationales for China to transform Gwadar into a PLA Navy military base, the report added.
The most commonly cited motive has to do with energy security, that is, as insurance against a blockade of the Strait of Malacca, a crucial shipping route for importing petroleum and liquefied natural gas. Even though overland transit is still highly vulnerable to disruption and is cost-prohibitive, transporting oil overland from Gwadar through China’s in the Xinjiang region would secure an alternative route against such contingencies.
A Pakistani strategist proposed that “Pakistan would give a naval base to China at Gwadar Port to minimize the cost of transportation of oil to China”; another specified that it “can serve as an alternate to the sea route that passes through the Straits of Malacca”.
A second motive for developing a PLA Navy base at Gwadar might be to bottle up and constrain the Indian and US navies, the report said.
As a Pakistani colonel pointed out, “Naval facilities or foothold on the Arabian Sea Coast could provide the Chinese a forward base to monitor US naval activity in the Persian Gulf region and Indian naval activity in the Arabian Sea”.
A Pakistani brigadier asserted that a militarized Gwadar would “deny maneuver(ing) space to Indian Navy in Indian Ocean” and “provide the Chinese with a listening post to observe the naval activities of the US”.
Confining the Indian Navy to the Western Indian Ocean would limit its ability to threaten China’s sea lines of communication or to join a US-led military coalitional effort in the Pacific. A third potential motive is that a formal base could help sustain China’s enhanced naval presence in the Indian Ocean and help “to defeat blockade of her (sea lines of communication)… by placing her military assets at these ports”.
An enhanced attack submarine presence could then be leveraged to threaten US capacity to swing US forces from the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean, and the island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago to the Pacific, particularly in a conflict over Taiwan, the report said.
The most aggressive motive cited, however, is that PLA Navy basing in Gwadar could serve as a source of power projection to strengthen China’s own blockade or maritime interdiction of the Strait of Hormuz as a horizontal escalation response to a US blockade of the Strait of Malacca.
Gwadar access, Lieutenant Colonel Asim wrote in Pakistan’s Command and Staff College journal, Citadel, “would also fulfil China’s strategy to generate its effects in (the) Indian Ocean… thus countering any future blockade to its energy routes”.
This would give China leverage not only over the US but also over US allies, such as oil exporters in the Gulf and heavy oil importers, such as Japan and South Korea, USIP report said.