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China-Pak Navy nexus yet another ‘strategic blunder’

Updated October 13, 2020 13:28 IST
Admiral Amjad Khan Niazi took over as new Pakistan Navy chief last week (Photo Courtesy: Pakistan Navy/Twitter)

Pakistan Navy is aggressively expanding its naval fleet by adding more than 50 vessels, including 20 major ships as part of an ambitious modernization to improve its capabilities, revealed country’s outgoing Chief Naval Chief of Staff, Admiral Zafar Mahmood Abbasi while demitting office on October 7. He also added that the Pakistan Navy (PN) will induct four Chinese frigates in the next
few years between 2021 and 2023.

In addition, the PN is massively growing its submarine branch with eight Chinese-designed Type-039B Yuan Class boats. The first batch of Yuan boats will be delivered to Pakistan in the next few years, and some may be built locally. They may incorporate some Pakistan specific equipment and capabilities, such as the Babur-3 nuclear-capable cruise missile.

The outgoing Chief said his primary focus had been on transforming the Pakistan Navy into a combat-ready force, with special emphasis on optimum battle preparedness and professional competence. In August, China has launched first of the four most advanced naval warships meant for Pakistan at Chinese state-owned Hudong Zhonghua Shipyard in Shanghai.

The Type 054A/P, a guided missile frigate, is the largest combat ship China has built for any foreign country. Chinese state media reported the acquisition of the warship would double the combat power of the Pakistani Navy’s surface fleet.

Historically, the PN would operate around eight or nine ‘major’ surface ships including multi-mission frigates, corvettes, or destroyers with a displacement of over 2,000 tons. However, Admiral Abbasi highlighted that these small force size “constrained Pakistan’s regional footprint and influence.” To eliminate this constraint, the PN is moving towards acquiring a fleet of over 50 ships to coming out of sea blindness.

By populating its inventory with Chinese hardware including planned induction of submarines, and creating dual-use quasi-military facilities in Gwadar port with China’s largesse, the Pakistan Navy has lent credence to its global perception as a junior partner of the PLA Navy of the Chinese Communist Party.

While one can somewhat empathise that Pakistan wants to bolster its land borders with India, the expanding naval inventory is a puzzle. The kind of naval shopping list makes people wonder whether Pakistan expects to dominate the Indian Ocean or usurp territories. Surely, for defending its sea lanes of communication, the procurements seem to be an overkill.

Amidst the heightened border standoff between India and China in the Himalayas along with eastern Ladakh, the focus on maritime contestation in Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is also on radars for sometimes now. China’s rapid naval expansion and Pakistan’s dream of coming out of sea blindness by handing over Gwadar port to PLA Navy are in the reckoning. Amid the so-called Sino-India rivalry in
IOR, Pakistan projects itself a key factor and its brown water force Pakistan Navy the equaliser to maintain the ‘balance of power’ in the blue water seaboard.

The power contestation in the Indian Ocean between status quo maritime powers like India and expansionist ones like China is neither new nor unexpected. China’s rapid naval expansion is a matter of global attention and the concerns about its revisionism and revanchist policies are now universal. Numerous encroachments of Chinese naval power in the region and the role of the Pakistan Navy in providing protection to China’s economic and political ambitions in the waters of the Indian Ocean is well known.

The Port of Gwadar, located in the restive province of Balochistan, hyped as the ‘game-changer’ in Pakistan’s quest to challenge India’s maritime resurgence in the region. A dispassionate assessment reveals that using Gwadar as bait to entice China to invest in Pakistan may actually amount to strategic short-sightedness on the part of Islamabad. With the example of Djibouti, where China
steadily converted an ostentatious commercial facility into a fully developed military base, the winds of reality are blowing in the face of Pakistan in Gwadar.

The Chinese designs at Gwadar have created apprehension among Western powers also, especially the United States, about Pakistan’s reliability and sincerity as a regional player. Chinese military presence at Gwadar will present the extant powers in the Persian Gulf region with a serious challenge to their military advantage in the critical choke points in the Northern Indian Ocean.

Therefore, be in the internal context or external one, development of Gwadar as a quasi-Chinese facility is bound to present Pakistan with a complicated strategic situation.

The emerging Sino-Pak nexus at sea promises to be yet another ‘strategic blunder’ by Islamabad of choosing an external benefactor to maintain the military’s primacy in domestic affairs. It is understandable that Pakistan desperately wants to establish its role and relevance on the global stage through interventions in IOR, but it has embarked of an uncharted voyage of an uncertain
destination.

 

 

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