New Delhi: If the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) believes Indian antagonisms are past the point of no return and that New Delhi’s alignment with the West is a foregone conclusion, militarising Pakistan’s Gwadar would be a logical response, a report by the US Institute of Peace has said.
The fundamental reason why China might be unlikely to pursue basing in Gwadar is that by doing so, China would essentially be entering into an alliance, alienating India and abandoning 30 years of a carefully constructed South Asia strategy, which could catalyse Indian hard balancing.
However, recent circumstances could compel China to consider unprecedented shifts in strategy. In 2020, a border standoff between Indian and Chinese troops led to the first shots fired on the Line of Actual Control since 1967 and the first combat fatalities since 1975. Another flare-up along the disputed border occurred in December 2022. It is thus plausible that a precipitous deterioration in China-India relations is already underway, that Indian hard balancing is inevitable, and that China would therefore have nothing to lose in overt militarization of Gwadar, the report said.
The other half of the political equation is Pakistan’s willingness to host China’s military forces, and here the barriers are even lower. In 2011, Pakistan actively courted China to build a naval base at Gwadar, and reports suggest Pakistani officials would have been open to China conducting regular ship repair and maintenance on the base, the report said.
Some of Pakistan’s strategic elite have asserted that Pakistan’s history with foreign military basing by the US has soured the Pakistan military and general public opinion on the idea, but other unnamed serving officials have suggested China’s presence would be welcomed in a balancing role.
Pakistan’s public might also support Chinese basing if they believe it offered a form of extended deterrence. Within the limited survey research that has been conducted on the Pakistani public’s foreign policy attitudes, a high level of support for China and curiously high expectations of China’s material and military support in particular remains constant. Public opinion has consistently held that China is Pakistan’s most important friend for more than two decades. This translates into high expectations of military support from China.
The prospects for China projecting military power over the Indian Ocean from Pakistan’s Western coast are growing, the report by the 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 militarized use of the port, akin to China’s apparent plans to secretly militarise its port facilities in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
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 Xinjiang region would secure an alternative route against such contingencies.
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.