CPEC helps Pakistan further Chinese interests and counter India
At a time when politics of infrastructure and connectivity are shaping international relations, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has placed Islamabad at a focal point of evolving dynamics in the Indian Ocean Region and turned Pakistan into a platform for Chinese expansion in the region.
Apart from being a significant stakeholder in the ambitious Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Pakistan has stepped up its deterrence capabilities by acquiring nuclear triad capabilities. Pakistan, as a reactive state, has found ways to possess the capabilities that India, its arch competitor, possesses. Its leadership is aware of the importance of the ‘all-weather friendship’ with Beijing to help Pakistan stay in the game.
Their defence cooperation primarily focused till recently on their armies and air force. China assisted Pakistan by supplying military equipment and by helping to establish defence industries. Such close-knit cooperation was absent in the naval sector. However, with increasing importance of the Indian Ocean in world politics and modernization of India’s naval capabilities, Pakistan and China joined hands to meet their mutual interests. This coincided with modernization of the PLA Navy and Pakistan’s realization of its inherent weaknesses in the ocean.
At the centre of China-Pakistan naval cooperation lies the Gwadar Port in Baluchistan. Being part of the CPEC and strategically located near the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, Gwadar provides an opening for China into the Indian Ocean. It will also help Beijing monitor the sea lanes of communication that are so very crucial for its economy and trade.
China provided a loan of US$200 million to Pakistan for the construction of a highway that essentially connects the major cities along the coastline, including its most important port city of Karachi. Connectivity and infrastructure projects that are part of the CPEC and that connect the two countries are currently under construction. With this, China aims to gain easy, direct access to the Indian Ocean, given that Pakistan provides the closest point to the Arabian Sea from its western part.
However, there is an apprehension that Gwadar will become a naval base of China in the near future. Adding to the apprehensions, China has acquired administrative control of the port for 40 years. Despite official denials, the possibility cannot be ruled out, as Pakistan is not merely a defence and economic partner of China, but also part of the latter’s larger maritime strategy. Concerns were raised in India when the Yuan-class submarine “335” was docked at Karachi port for a week.
With rapidly growing naval cooperation between the two countries, Pakistan has been able to develop its nuclear triad capabilities. The successful test of Babur-III, a nuclear-capable submarine launched cruise missile (SLCM) placed it in the club of countries possessing triad. This was possible due to Chinese backing.
Pakistan was reactive when it tested the SLCM, evident in the statement given by its military- “The development of second strike capability reflects Pakistan’s response to provocative nuclear strategies and posture being pursued in the neighbourhood through induction of nuclear submarines and ship-borne nuclear missiles, leading to nuclearization of Indian Ocean region.”
These Pakistani measures reflect the importance of the Indian Ocean for its economy and security. Its visibility in the Ocean has grown manifold after the CPEC was announced. On the one hand, Pakistan will economically benefit from the connectivity and modernized ports and, on the other, it might be able to better monitor India’s activities.
It also has the satisfaction of possessing deterrent nuclear triad capability, an important aspect of its maritime strategy, to target India. As far as Chinese interests are concerned, counterbalancing India in the South Asian region is the larger aim and Pakistan is a key to achieving that objective.
China is clear when saying that it respects Pakistan’s “independence” in the region. Such statements carry the weightage of a counterbalance strategy. Going a step further, it has placed Islamabad as a central point of connectivity in the Indian Ocean. It is yet to be seen if Pakistan can go beyond Chinese influence and prioritize its own interests in formulating its long-term maritime strategy.