In mid-July, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy and the Pakistan Navy (PN) held the “Sea Guardians-2” exercise in the waters off Shanghai (China Brief, October 4; Pakistan Television, July 12). The joint naval drills focused on neutralizing maritime security threats, particularly those that might jeopardize strategic sea lanes. The bilateral exercise also included joint target practice, anti-submarine, anti-aircraft and anti-missile drills (China Military Online [CMO], July 10). The drills built on the first iteration of the exercise, Sea Guardians-1, which was held in January 2020 in the North Arabian Sea off Karachi, Pakistan. The participation in these exercises of the guided missile frigate Taimur, which is the most advanced warship built by China for the PN, demonstrates the increasing level of Chinese support for the training and modernization of Pakistan’s naval forces (Global Times, July 10).
Bilateral military ties, which are a mainstay of the China-Pakistan all-weather friendship and strategic partnership, have strengthened in recent years. China is the main supplier of military equipment to Pakistan, which from 2017-2021 absorbed nearly 47 percent of all Chinese arms exports (China Brief, March 25). In a move to further deepen defense ties, China provided Pakistan with J-10C multi-role fighters in late 2021 (South Asian Voices , April 12). In June, a high-powered Pakistani delegation comprising top brass from the army, navy and air force paid a visit to China at a time when tensions between China and the West were on the rise (CMO, June 12). The visit was part of the Pakistan-China Joint Military Cooperation Committee (PCJMCC), which is the highest body involved in facilitating bilateral defense cooperation. Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa also attended the top-level committee’s meeting, along with senior-most counterparts in the PLA. Both countries vowed to further deepen their strategic partnership in challenging times and enhance their joint military cooperation in training, technology and counterterrorism (Express Tribune , June 12).
China’s Role in Modernizing the Pakistan Navy
For the past few years, China-Pakistan military cooperation has become more focused on Pakistan’s naval forces. The procurement of technologically more advanced platforms from China, is a central part of Pakistan’s efforts to modernize its naval fleet. Under a U.S. $5 billion deal signed in 2016, Pakistan will acquire eight Chinese Yuan-class type-041 diesel submarines by 2028 (Naval News, June 24).
Beijing has stepped up its support for Pakistan’s naval modernization in order to strengthen the capabilities of a key partner that will assist it in addressing the security challenges facing China in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China has simultaneously increased its naval presence in the IOR, establishing its first overseas military facility in the Horn of Africa in Djibouti. China is also the builder and operator of the Indian Ocean port at Gwadar on Pakistan’s southwest coast, an essential part of $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (China Brief, July 15). CPEC is supposed to link the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Gwadar port through a network of highways, railways and energy pipelines (Belt and Road Forum, April 10, 2017).
Strategically located at the terminus of the Arabian Sea, the port of Gwadar lies just 624 nautical kilometers east of Strait of Hormuz—the narrow waterway between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. Presently, about 25 percent of the world’s oil passes from source countries in the Middle East through the Strait of Hormuz en route to foreign markets. Gwadar is China’s trump card in the great game for dominance over the Indian Ocean’s sea lanes (Express Tribune , May 13, 2015).
In January, the PN commissioned its most advanced vessel, the guided missile frigate, Tughril, which was built at the Shanghai Shipyard. The Tughril, which is armed with Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and Supersonic Surface to Surface Missiles (SSMs), is a versatile warship capable of undertaking multiple missions. In the coming years, Pakistan will commission three more advanced frigates, which the navy views as force multipliers (Pakistan Today, January 23). In the beginning of this year, the Pakistan Navy not only inducted the PNS Tughril into service, but also rolled out ten Sea King helicopters, which were a gift from Qatar (Dawn , January 25).
In June, China delivered the Taimur, the second of four powerful Type 054A/P frigates built in Shanghai for the PN. The addition of these advanced frigates enhances the PN’s capability to operate in distant waters, which is demonstrated by its ability to conduct joints drills with the PLA Navy in the East China Sea this year (Global Times, July 10). Initially, Pakistan signed a contract with China in 2017 for the delivery of two Type 054 A/P frigates. However, the contract was renewed to include production of two more ships in 2018. Under the deal, all four ships will be built in China (Naval News, June 24).
Beijing has also committed to deliver eight Chinese submarines to Pakistan as part of its plan to modernize the PN (The Print, November 9, 2021). The Chinese-made J-10 fighter, which is part of China’s naval arm, can be used by the Pakistan Navy to carry out maritime operations in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The warplane can carry anti-ship missiles, which could enable PN to play a more responsive role in the Indian Ocean (South Asian Voices , April 12).
China-Pakistan-Turkey Triangle Strengthens Pakistani Navy, Lays Ground for Trilateral CPEC
Along with China, Turkey is also playing a key role in strengthening and modernizing the PN fleet. In 2018, Pakistan and Turkey signed a contract for the construction of four Milgem class corvettes based on the design of Turkish Ada-class ships. Under the deal, Turkey is bound to deliver four ships to PN by February 2025. In May, Turkey launched the third Milgem Corvette for the PN, the Badr, at the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works (KS&EW) (Naval News, May 20).
Speaking at the launch ceremony of the Badr at the KS&EW in May, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif expressed hope that strong Turkey-Pakistan defense ties would strengthen relations between the Pakistani military and Turkish defense firms. On the occasion, Sharif suggested turning CPEC into a trilateral arrangement between China, Pakistan and Turkey (Dawn, May 30). “The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will translate our desire to expand connectivity and maximize trade and transshipment with Gwadar as the focal point,” he said (Business Recorder, May 20). President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also virtually addressed the Badr’s launch ceremony stating that Turkey would provide the necessary support to strengthen Pakistan’s military infrastructure (Naval News, May 20). The purchase and receipt of the corvettes paves the way for the future manufacture of more PN vessels in cooperation with Turkey.
Shebaz Sharif’s suggestion to make CPEC a trilateral arrangement has given further impetus to the development of the China-Pakistan-Turkey triangle, particularly in terms of defense cooperation. Both China and Turkey are already playing a key role in the modernization of the PN and developing its maritime infrastructure. In June 2016, Pakistan signed a contract with Turkish defense contractor STM for the modernization of the PN’s three Agosta 90B submarines, which were designed and built by France (STM).The same Turkish company also won the contract to design and build a fleet tanker for the Pakistan Navy (Andalou Agency, December 4, 2018).
If Turkey joins CPEC, the development of Gwadar’s maritime infrastructure will be a key priority. For China, Gwadar port is the key to expanding its influence in the Indian Ocean. As a transit conduit for China’s trade and energy, the Indian Ocean is of immense geopolitical importance for China, including to secure the sea lines of communication (SLOCs) that connect China to Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Without a significant naval presence in the region, China cannot become a key player in the Indian Ocean and ultimately, a global maritime power. The growing Chinese presence and influence is likely to lead to the Indian Ocean’s emergence as a center of major geopolitical competition that also heavily involves India, Pakistan, the U.S. and other key regional players (Observer Research Foundation, January 2, 2021)
The modernization of the PN and the development of Gwadar port are not only a part of China-Pakistan cooperation to safeguard BRI sea routes, but also support the PLA Navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. A modern naval base at Gwadar could enable the PLA Navy to patrol sea-lanes and monitor naval patrols by the U.S. in the Indian Ocean, which is the strategic link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in terms of oil transportation in the region. U.S. Navy “freedom of navigation” operations in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits are already a major source of frustrations for Beijing, which lays claim to much of the East Asian littoral. As a result, Beijing may seek to settle its score with the U.S. in the Indian Ocean by gaining strategic depth with a naval base at Gwadar.
Presently, Pakistan cannot come close to matching the maritime power of its archrival India, but the continued push for modernization and renewed strategic cooperation with China and Turkey could change the status quo by transforming Pakistan into a genuine regional naval power. A strong PN equipped with advanced frigates and other weapons is part of Beijing’s grand plan to ensure the security of Chinese oil imports coming from the Persian Gulf and attain control of the sea-lanes traversing the Indian Ocean.
Syed Fazl-e-Haider is a contributing analyst at the South Asia desk of Wikistrat. He is a freelance columnist and the author of several books including the Economic Development of Balochistan (2004). He has contributed articles and analysis to a range of publications including Dawn, The Express Tribune, Asia Times, The National (UAE), Foreign Affairs, Daily Beast, New York Times, Gulf News, South China Morning Post, and The Independent.