Home >News >World >What is China's military aspiration for Pakistan's Gwadar port?
The dusty fishing town of 90,000 inhabitants in Pakistan's remote and volatile Balochistan is strategically located on the Arabian Sea. (Bloomberg)
The dusty fishing town of 90,000 inhabitants in Pakistan's remote and volatile Balochistan is strategically located on the Arabian Sea. (Bloomberg)

What is China's military aspiration for Pakistan's Gwadar port?

  • The dusty fishing town of 90,000 inhabitants in Pakistan's remote and volatile Balochistan is strategically located on the Arabian Sea
  • Gwadar is just 400 km from the important Hormuz Strait, through which 40 per cent of Chinese imported oil flows

HONG KONG : Gwadar has long been touted as the site for a Chinese base suitable for People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) operations. However, it is certainly not inevitable that Gwadar will become a PLAN base, even though its location has a lot going for it from a Chinese perspective.

China pursues a "strategic strongpoint" concept whereby strategically sited foreign ports containing terminals and commercial zones operated by Chinese firms can be used by its military. Of course, high-level coordination between Chinese officials, state-owned enterprises and private firms makes this concept workable, especially when there are connecting infrastructures such as railways, roads and pipelines.

Such "strongpoints" offer the potential for China to form a network of supply, logistics and intelligence hubs, and there is certainly a nascent network along the perimeter of the Indian Ocean.

Gwadar is important to Beijing for two reasons. One is establishing direct transport links to the Indian Ocean via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). In this respect, China does not need its Gwadar investment to create a monetary return, for it is a strategic investment. The second factor is that Gwadar helps anchor or stabilise western China, a region where Beijing feels vulnerable to Islamic agitation.

The dusty fishing town of 90,000 inhabitants in Pakistan's remote and volatile Balochistan is strategically located on the Arabian Sea. Gwadar is just 400 km from the important Hormuz Strait, through which 40 per cent of Chinese imported oil flows.

China has been Gwadar's chief promoter and investor since 2002, with the port beginning operations in 2008. Commercial activity in Gwadar is quite limited with minimal vessel traffic and tenuous road transport links for the USD 248 million port project (of which China provided USD 198 million).

China's solitary military base in the Indian Ocean region is in Djibouti, commissioned in August 2017. Its creation followed many years of commercial investment there, although China does not have to necessarily follow the Djibouti model when setting up more overseas bases. Yet Gwadar remains an "exit to the sea" for China, a key differentiator of Gwadar compared to Djibouti.

Berthing space for three ships of 200m length and 50,000-tonne deadweight is present in Gwadar, and a turning basin permits a ship of maximum 295 m length. Its designed annual capacity is 137,000 TEU (containerised cargo) plus 868,000 tonne of general and bulk cargo. The port lease gives 91 per cent of income to the China Overseas Ports Holding Company, Pakistan (COPHC).

In fact, cargo throughput has decreased since COPHC started running the port in 2013, and only USD 2.26 million in revenues had been generated by 2019. In other words, Gwadar port sits idle most of the time, with just seven container ships arriving in 2019. Three quay cranes arrived in July 2019, but no better utilisation of the port is on the horizon.

An associated 2,281-acre free zone is part of the development, but demand has been insipid. Phase 2 development will add another nine ship berths (including a container terminal with four berths, a grain terminal, a bulk terminal and two oil terminals).

If road infrastructure can be firmed up, Gwadar will give China continental access to the Indian Ocean. It would thus provide an alternative to the "Malacca Dilemma", where China's sea trade must pass through the constricted waterway near Singapore. Chinese companies started building an enlarged airport at Gwadar last year, destined to be the second largest in Pakistan.

On August 1, the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) of the US Naval War College published an insightful report entitled Gwadar: China's Potential Strategic Strongpoint in Pakistan.

Authors Isaac B. Kardon, Conor M. Kennedy and Peter A. Dutton concluded, "Work to date has yet to meaningfully connect the port to inland transport networks ... The lack of high-capacity transport infrastructure greatly limits the potential for Gwadar's commercial development. The Balochistan hinterland is insufficient to realise the grand regional ambitions for Gwadar. However, the long-term nature of China's interest in Pakistan's development cautions against ruling out the eventual development of a viable transport network."

They added, "The commercial prospects for the Chinese projects at Gwadar are uncertain in significant part because of the local security situation. Terrorism, in particular, poses a direct threat to Chinese workers and projects, which have been targeted by Baloch nationalist groups hostile to China's presence. This risk has not, however, deterred Chinese investment in Pakistan - in fact, perhaps counterintuitively, it may have spurred increased investment since bringing about a more secure and stable Pakistan through development is the underlying strategic motivation."

Undeniably, the security situation in Balochistan does present risks to Chinese projects and personnel.

The most glaring question is whether China is already using Gwadar for military purposes.

The CMSI report definitively answers, "Gwadar is an inchoate 'strategic strongpoint' in Pakistan that may one day serve as a major platform for China's economic, diplomatic and military interactions across the northern Indian Ocean region. As of August 2020, it is not a PLA base, but rather an underdeveloped and underutilised commercial multipurpose port built and operated by Chinese companies in service of broader PRC foreign and domestic policy objectives."

The academics describe reports of Chinese military use of Gwadar as "premature". "...There have been no PLA deployments to Gwadar to date, nor even a single observed PLAN port call."

Nonetheless, the American authors contend, "Chinese analysts view Gwadar as a top choice for establishing a new overseas strategic strongpoint, owing to its prime geographic location and strong China-Pakistan ties. Many PLA analysts consider Gwadar to be a suitable site for naval support."

Certainly, the US government recognises the possibility of Gwadar becoming a Chinese military base. The Pentagon's most recent annual report, Military and Security Developments involving the People's Republic of China 2019, observed, "A more robust overseas logistics and basing infrastructure would allow China to project and sustain military power at greater distances. China's leaders may assess that a mixture of military logistics models, including preferred access to overseas commercial ports and a limited number of exclusive PLA logistics facilities, probably collocated with commercial ports, most closely aligns with China's overseas military logistics needs."

In addition to Djibouti, the Pentagon predicts, "China will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and in which there is a precedent for hosting foreign militaries ... International press reporting in 2018 indicated that China sought to expand its military basing and access in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the western Pacific."

Pakistan denies any such plan. In January 2018, Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal stated, "There is no proposal of building any Chinese military base near Gwadar. This is all propaganda against the development of CPEC and the strengthening of relations between Pakistan and China." Yet by leading with a commercial presence, China can forge permissive conditions for future decisions supporting military utilisation of Gwadar.

Under what circumstances could China request to use Gwadar militarily?

China has a growing need to protect citizens, investments and supply lines in far-flung areas of the world. Chinese warships operating near the Persian Gulf (e.g. escorting commercial ships in the Gulf of Aden) could call in there for rest and replenishment, plus Gwadar could support the logistics base in Djibouti. It would take PLAN ships about 10 days to travel from China to Gwadar, so stronger logistic support in the Indian Ocean would be helpful.

If Gwadar's infrastructure projects mature, it could become a key peacetime replenishment or transfer point for PLA equipment and personnel. Prepositioning parts, supplies and other materials would beneficially leverage the port and airport. Prepositioned supplies would help optimise loadouts for naval task forces sallying from China. In fact, merchant vessels could ferry supplies from Gwadar to at-sea warships, thus reducing international criticism. Incidentally, COPHC is legally obliged to support overseas PLA operations under Article 38 of the National Defense Transportation Law.

Gwadar would simultaneously diversify political risk of access, in case another host country limited Chinese activity. The airport would also be useful too, its 12,000-foot runway long enough to host any PLA aircraft. A Y-20 transport aircraft could fly from Chengdu without any refueling, for instance, thereby inflowing troops, fuel, equipment or vehicles into the region.

The US Naval War College said, "While there is no evidence as yet to demonstrate that the PLAN intends to use Gwadar as a logistics hub, the possibility bears careful observation." A terrorist incident or a crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, could also propel Beijing forward along such a trajectory and offer a raison d'etre for such a deployment.

Gwadar could be used by large PLAN ships, even the new 235 m-long Type 075 amphibious assault ship. Even an aircraft carrier could call in, though this would depend on tidal variation, wind and atmospheric pressure at the time because of under-keel clearances.

Beyond the currently existing pier, a sizeable laydown yard could be used to marshal military equipment. Empty warehouses in the adjacent free zone could also be converted to military use. "Especially given low levels of commercial utilisation, Gwadar could provide a number of regular services to naval ships operating in the theater without much economic disruption to the terminal," the CMSI report said. A lack of commercial activity would also assist with military secrecy, and the port's isolation makes it more secure.

Gwadar is already home to PNS Akram, a modest Pakistan Navy (PN) base set up in 1987, while the 500-man 3rd Marine Battalion was commissioned there in 2013. Pakistan already has two naval bases farther east - Karachi and Port Qasim - that are well connected to urban areas, but Gwadar's distance from Karachi gives strategic depth against Indian attack.

Task Force-88 was activated there in December 2016 to protect the port and adjacent sea lanes, and the Pakistan Maritime Security Agency bases 600-ton Hingol-class patrol vessels there. A surveillance station monitoring the North Arabian Sea is present at Gwadar as well. The PN has been promised 600m of berthing space, and a combined facility with the Chinese is a possibility. Because Pakistan and China are such close security partners, and because Islamabad depends on Chinese goodwill and investment, Pakistan would likely seek more substantial cooperation with the PLA.

As Pakistan inducts more Chinese-built naval vessels, including four future Type 054A frigates and eight S-20 submarines, the PN will rely heavily on Chinese technical expertise and personnel. PLAN ship stops in Gwadar could leverage this local Chinese technical know-how. Significantly to date, the PLAN has shown a preference for Karachi for port calls for either diplomacy or joint exercises. Joint exercises could utilise Gwadar in the future, as bilateral cooperation continues.

In relation to establishing new overseas bases, the Pentagon report on China noted, "China's overseas military basing will be constrained by the willingness of potential host countries to support a PLA presence."

Indeed, China and Pakistan are surely cognisant of Indian and the US sensibilities. Thus, would Beijing sacrifice its relationship with India for the sake of a single military base to marginally improve its naval posture? Then again, deteriorating relations with India and the US may push Beijing to proceed, with an attitude that it has little more to lose.

The CMSI authors assessed, "Still, the most critical factor limiting the basing option at Gwadar (or Karachi, Jiwani or elsewhere in Pakistan) is the apparent lack of political commitment between China and Pakistan to provide mutual military support during times of crisis or conflict. More likely in the short- to medium-term is a fuller realisation of the dual-use potential of the facility."

While Gwadar could evolve to become a key peacetime logistics hub for the PLA, "establishment of a base from which the PLAN could undertake naval operations throughout the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean during periods of conflict is unlikely. Ultimately, the militarisation of China's Gwadar port facility requires a strategic decision in both Beijing and Islamabad that will not come without significant trade-offs."

Yet vigilance is necessary. As 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."

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