Thursday, June 13, 2024

China Strengthening Pakistani Navy to Enhance Power in Indian Ocean Region

Washington, DCStrategic thinkers in Pakistan consider the development of Gwadar Port and modernization of the Pakistan Navy as helpful in maintaining ‘Balance of Power (BoP)’ in the ‘Indian Ocean Region (IOR).’ The modernization of the Pakistan Navy, primarily sourced from China, besides setting the BoP with India, aims to protect China’s economic and political ambitions in IOR. The future role of the Pakistan Navy is, therefore, premised on achieving “Equalization of Sino-Indian Confrontation” in the IOR. This is in line with Islamabad’s tradition of seeking short-term gains in pleasing external strategic benefactors. Earlier it was the US, and now it’s China. 

China, whose revisionist and revanchist policies are universal, now has an eye on the IOR, including the nations on the East-African coast. According to a report from the Pentagon,  Beijing might seek to build more overseas military bases in countries with which it has long maintained good relations and shared common strategic interest with it. While Pakistan is a fit candidate in Asia in this scheme of things, ports in countries like Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania are also on the Chinese wish list in Western IOR. 

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, in a meeting (April 2019) with Pakistani Chief of Naval Staff Abbas Raza, termed China-Pakistan defense and security cooperation as an important pillar of bilateral relations. Notably, China and Pakistan’s exchanges and cooperation in the defense sector have intensified over the years. In November 2021, Pakistan commissioned the first of four Chinese made Type 054A/P frigates contracted in a 2017 deal with China. Pakistan also signed a contract to acquire eight Type 039B Yuan/Hangor II-class submarines from China  in 2015.

The induction of ‘Type-054A Frigate’ was intended to bring about BoP parity between Pakistan and Indian Navy. However, the procurement pattern of the Pakistani Navy indicates that its focus is to maintain a strategic nuclear force in deterring India rather than improve its conventional capabilities, especially in the maritime sphere. 

Currently, Pakistan’s Navy has four Type F-22P Frigates imported from China, five ‘Tariq’ Class Destroyers from the UK, four German-designed ‘Jalalat’ Ship Class Missile Boats, and three Agosta-90B Submarines provided by France. However, most of these ships have been in service for more than 20 years and need replacement. 

With Chinese political and economic support, Pakistan has expanded its Navy and acquired combat weapons, including ‘Babar,’ a cruise missile, which is typical of the Chinese C 862 Missile. There are also Anti-Ship Cruise Missiles such as ‘Harappa’ and ‘Zarabu,’ which are also basically of Chinese design. Additionally, China’s support to Pakistan includes eight Type-S 20 Conventional Submarines. In 2017, China installed C 602 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles on the Fast Attack Ships of the Pakistani Navy. 

On the other hand, Gwadar Port is being touted as the ‘game changer’ through which Islamabad is seeking to challenge India’s ‘Maritime Renaissance’ in the IOR. Increased Chinese military presence in Gwadar and the IOR would disturb the equilibrium in the Persian Gulf region and put Beijing at an advantage militarily at key choke points in the northern Indian Ocean. In the internal or external context, developing Gwadar as a Chinese facility would present a complex strategic situation for international trade flow. 

Additionally, the Gwadar Port would allow China to bypass the Indian Ocean. On becoming operational, the port and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) would connect China’s western region with an outlet in the Arabian Sea and support the development of its restive Xinjiang Province. China would use this route primarily for trade transportation in the future over its Southeast coast from the South China Sea to the Persian Gulf. This, therefore, highlights the significance of Pakistan and hence the assistance for modernization of the Pakistani Navy to espouse the interests of China in IOR. 

An analysis of Chinese support to Pakistan’s Navy reveals that China intends to:

  1. Establish sea-lanes connectivity for its global trade, bypassing SCS, a shorter route to connect to the African continent and overcome its ‘Malacca Dilemma.’
  2. Use the Pakistani Navy to ensure the security of interests in IOR once the CPEC fully operationalizes.
  3. Check the increasing influence of the Indian Navy in the IOR to further its and Pakistan’s interests. 

Earlier, China developed its first-ever overseas military base in Djibouti after taking over a port in the country. Following a similar pattern, China is helping to transform Gwadar into a facility for its military use. Meanwhile, suffering from a sense of insecurity from India, Pakistan continues its spending to import military hardware from China. However, Islamabad needs to understand that India’s vision for the IOR is inclusive, as reflected in its ‘SAGAR (Security and Growth for All States in the Region)’ policy. Nevertheless, Pakistan continues to establish China in the IOR, rather than recognizing that its own interest lies in seeking a fair, confrontation-free way of living in the region. However, it appears to have chosen to be exploited and play a ‘strategic appendage’ of Beijing.

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