Dr. Ghulam Ali

This paper examines burgeoning naval cooperation between China and Pakistan and its impact on the Indian Ocean. Since the early 1960s, China and Pakistan have maintained strong strategic relationship. This cooperation is based on their deepening defence ties and coordination on regional security issues. Over the years, the overall relationship has expanded bringing almost all conceivable areas of cooperation, defence ties remains at the center of their partnership.

Although the two countries had established diplomatic ties in May 1951, their mutual cooperation was quite limited with hardly any interaction in defence sector. Sino-Pakistan friendship which turned to be entente cordiale started in the early 1960s. A host of developments brought them closer to each other. These included a change in US-Pakistan relationship, turning of China’s friendship with the USSR into hostility, the Sino-Indian border war in 1962 and Sino-Pakistan border agreement of March 1963. From then onwards closer defence cooperation with China’s arms supplies to Pakistan started and remained uninterrupted till this date.

As statistics shows, during initial decades, defence cooperation was primarily focused among armies and air forces of the two countries. In these two sectors, China not only provided large scale military supplies but also helped in establishing defence industries which grew substantially in the following decades and led Pakistan to gain a degree of self-sufficiency. Cooperation in naval sector, however, was quite modest in the early years of relationship.

China’s assistance in the naval sector was limited. Secondly, out of three branches of armed forces (army, air force and navy), only little focus was on the development of Pakistan Navy (PN) which remained small and relatively weak as compared to rival Indian navy. In fact to a great extent, as an analyst noted the PN is “the junior service, operating in the Army’s shadow.”[1] For example, in 2015 defence budget, navy received only ten percent out of US$6.6 billion. In terms of strengthen, it has [update]approximately 25,000 regular men, 1,200 Marines and over 2,500 Coast Guard. There are around 5,000 men in reserve and the combined exceeds 35,700 personnel. Yet, this force is far smaller compared to other branches and not fully capable to defend around 1046 km (650 mi) long coast line.

Because of relatively small navy, Pakistan faced security challenges at different occasions in the past. In particular, during the Indo-Pakistan War in December 1971, during the Kargil conflict in 1999 and Indo-Pakistan military stand in 2001-02, weaknesses of PN were well exposed. During those occasions, the Indian Navy quickly reached Pakistani Karachi Port (Chittagong and Dacca Ports during the 1971 War) and blocked them limiting PN’s maneuverability.

Naval weakness were compounded with the few less developed ports which could not fully care defense and commercial needs. Pakistan developed three major ports Dacca and Chittagong in East Pakistan which was separated in 1971 and became Bangladesh and the Karachi Port in the West Pakistan. The Karachi Port deals with both military and trade interests and is already overloaded. Bulk of Pakistan’s trade is conducted through it. A blockade of Karachi Port as mentioned above could affect Pakistan’s trade and naval activities. These acute shortcomings pushed Pakistani leadership to modernize country’s navy and build new ports. However, due to domestic political crises with frequent changes of governments and lack of funds, Pakistan could pay any serious attention to develop both its navy and ports.

A major decision to develop navy and ports came in late 1990s especially after India’s second attempt to block Karachi Port during the Kargil crisis. This push leadership to overcome these weaknesses. Coincidently, Pakistan’s decision matched with China’s growing naval power in the Indian Ocean and Beijing’s desire to modernize People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Beijing found the strengthening of Pakistan Navy and the development of Pakistani Gwadar Port to its own advantages. This led China and Pakistan to expand cooperation in naval sector with former military, economic and technical assistance coming to Pakistan. In a short period of time, the cooperation in naval sector has tremendously increased.

China had already handed over a Fuqing class oil replenishment tanker to Pakistan in the late 1980s. During the 1990s, Pakistan remained under the US arms sanctions due to Islamabad’s secret development of nuclear and missile programme. China stepped forward to fill the gap created by the US. China was already assisting Pakistan for ground and air forces, it stepped forward in the naval sector as well. As Pakistan approved, China quickly responded to its needs. In the early 1990s as Pakistan found that India received a Russian submarine, it began negotiations with China for a Chinese Type 091 Han class submarine. However, negotiations were later cancelled as India returned Russian submarine in 1991. With the advent of new century, Sino-Pakistan naval cooperation further expanded. This cooperation is consisted of China’s supplies of naval vessels, joint production with transfer of technology, joint naval exercises and China’s building and taking an “administrative” control of strategically important Gwadar Deep Seaport.

Major Chinese naval supplies to Pakistan

In 2005, the Pakistan Navy ordered four F-22P light frigates and six Z-9c helicopters from China in a deal worth $750 million. The agreements covered all the associated equipment, systems and transfer of technology. Three of the frigates were built in China while the fourth at the Karachi Shipyard and Engineering Works (KSEW).[2] By September 2010, China had supplied three frigates while Pakistan built the fourth at the KSEW.[3] During this process, Pakistani engineering gained expertise. Pakistan has commissioned all four frigates which have the ability to embark Harbin Z-9 helicopters on deck. Pakistan’s Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah termed the co-production of the F-22P frigates and Fast Attack Craft (FAC) project a “milestone in the defence cooperation” between China and Pakistan.[4] Pakistan also signed an agreement with China to acquire two FAC one to be built by China Ship Industry Corporation, while the other by KSEW.[5]

In 2015, Pakistan signed an agreement with China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation for the purchase of six patrol boats four of 600ton while two of 1500 ton with the transfer of technology. Three (600 ton) and one 1500 ton boats will be built in China, and one 600ton and one 1500 ton at the KSEW to be completed by 2017.  Pakistan Navy also ordered fast attack craft/missile boats, the 500–600 tons Azmat class, equipped with C802/803 anti ship missiles from China. In addition, PN operates two Jalalat II class and two Jurrat class missile boats each armed with four Chinese C-802 anti-ship missiles. Pakistan has also ordered four marine petrol vessels. China has already delivered two ships while other two are being constructed at KSEW.

Most recently, China and Pakistan have signed deals for the production of eight Chinese submarines worth US$6 billion to Pakistan along with the transfer of technology. Once finalized, it will be the largest deal in the history of the two countries. Four would be purchased from Beijing and four built at KSEW. The package includes a training centre in Karachi and probably includes an access to China’s Beidou-II (BDS-2) satellite navigation network.[6] As an analyst has stated that the “similar designs,” of these China-built submarined enable to operate her own submarines much more efficiently in the Indian Ocean, home to vital SLOCs (sea lanes of communication) for China.[7]

Most construction takes place at KSEW. China has also signed an agreement to modernize and expand the KSEW. Like China’s building industrial complexes for army and air forces of Pakistan, this could potentially become naval industrial base.

Joint naval exercises

In line with growing naval cooperation, the two countries have started regular naval exercises at bilateral and multilateral levels. In 2003 the navies of the two countries held their first ever joint exercise which was also PLAN’s first ever exercise with a foreign country. China also participated in four multi-national naval exercises organized by Pakistan in the Arabian Sea.[8] In April 2011, Chinese and Pakistani ships on anti-piracy duty off the Somali coast, conducted a joint anti-piracy exercise and later a bilateral naval exercise.[9]

Most recently, Pakistan Navy guided missile frigate Shamsheer and fleet replenishment vessel Nasr conducted a joint naval exercise with a pair of PLA Navy Type-054A Jiangkai II frigates, Xuzhou and Yangzhou in the East China Sea off the coast of Shanghai. This  fast-paced, high-intensity exercise involved day and night maneuvers including joint escort, counter-piracy and live-firing. The objectives of these exercises are to hone interoperability between the two navies, while affording PN personnel the opportunity to get acquainted with Chinese technologies. What was new in this latest iteration, however, was the inclusion of an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) component for the first time. Shamsheer, Xuzhouand Yangzhou cooperatively tracked a simulated submarine threats in the exercises. [10] According to an analyst, this constitutes a logical progression from the limited scope when this bilateral exercise first began in 2003 as a simple search-and-rescue drill. In fact, both the scale and scope of the exercises have expanded over the last 16 years.

Gwadar Port

At the center of Sino-Pakistan naval cooperation is strategically important Pakistan’s Gwadar Port. The Port is located in Pakistan’s south-western province of Baluchistan. It is about 460 kilometres west of Karachi, and 70 kilometres east of the Iranian border, close to the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. China also provided a US$200 million loan to Pakistan for the construction of the 653-kilometre Makran Coastal Highway (National Highway 10 or N10). This highway links Gwadar Port with Karachi other cities along the coast line. Furthermore, under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a number of roads are being built which will link the Port to rest of Pakistan as well as with China. Both sides also intend to build railway track from Gwadar up to China’s borders. Importantly, China has already taken the administrative control of Gwadar Port for a period 40 years.

Some analysts speculate that the Gwadar Port would become China’s naval base in future. As noted, “Securing a route to the Indian Ocean via the port of Gwadar will do the job nicely, and will also help China develop its military presence in the region, while playing a role in its “String of Pearls” strategy.”[11] In its annual report to Congress on “Military and Security Developments in China”, the US Department of State has indicated that Beijing is looking for naval facilities with countries having good relations such as Pakistan. Thus, Gwadar could become China’s naval base in future.[12] With the administrative control already in its hands, by sitting at Gwadar could enable China to monitor sea lanes of communication along the Persian Gulf. In the context of the modernization of China’s armed forces, developing a blue navy and increasing presence in open seas together strengthened this perception. Although, China and Pakistan deny such speculations, given close strategic relationship between the two countries spanning over decades and expanding naval cooperation in recent years, such possibilities could not be ruled out either. These aspects explain why China’s recent US$46 billion commitment to Pakistan.

Sea-based deterrence

As a result of its growing naval capabilities, Pakistan is considering a sea-based deterrent to provide it with a second strike capability. This, according to an analyst, will provide Pakistan greater strategic stability and will prevent India of completely destroying Pakistani nuclear forces and thus escape unacceptable damage. This sea-based deterrent will also increase PN’s status within the military. According to Scott Cheney-Peters (US Navy reserve officer and CIMSEC founder) “Unless Pakistan’s Navy can develop an at-sea strategic nuclear deterrent it is likely to remain the ‘junior service.’ This means it has a strong institutional incentive to pursue an SLBM second-strike capability. But just as this incentive may not be enough to bring the capability to fruition any time soon, so the second-capability may not be enough to remove the perception of the Navy as a junior partner in the nation’s armed forces.” [13]

According to an analyst, “Pakistan, fearful of India’s overwhelming presence in the Indian Ocean region, is naturally drawn closer to China. With both confronting the same adversary, there could be no better geostrategic partners. China’s naval relationship with Pakistan is, therefore, the most developed for any country.”[14]

As noted by an expert, “Pakistan has long sought to facilitate the enhancement of Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, by tapping its strategic geographical location in the Arabian Sea and long coastline. “We can provide facilities, ports, logistics, maintenance among other things (to Chinese navy),” a PN official remarked. This will help Islamabad stave off the pressure from India, with whom the former has long perceived a naval force imbalance, especially in the undersea arena as New Delhi seeks to enhance its submarine capabilities.”[15]

Thus, Pakistan looks forward to a multifaceted format of naval cooperation with China, which will thereby institutionalize the process of building interoperability and technical commonalities. During an interview with Beijing Review in March 2013, Rear Admiral Khan Hasham Bin Saddique, Commander Pakistan Fleet called for a bilateral memorandum covering not just naval exchanges but also training, exercises and shipbuilding, which includes submarine technical cooperation. With the latest joint ASW training, Beijing has answered part of this call. It will become a matter of time that the Sino-Pakistani naval nexus gains greater traction in the undersea arena.[16]

Response from rival states

Growing Sino-Pakistan naval cooperation is bound to create reaction from rival countries. India has already expressed its concerns about burgeoning naval cooperation between Beijing and Islamabad, about CPEC and the construction of Chinese submarines. Indian Naval chief stated in his statement, “We have our eyes firmly set on waters of interest around us. The navy is a multi-dimensional combat force and we are looking at all aspects related to sea control and sea denial amid the unfolding developments in the region.”

Although, India has modernized its navy in recent years, it still lags behind the Chinese Navy, which operates close to 60 submarines, including nuclear-powered attack and ballistic missile submarines. It is also preparing to commission three more advanced nuclear-powered attack submarines. The last decade has seen Beijing scale up its presence in the Indian Ocean, building a string of ports, power plants and highways across the small island nations at the cost of billions of dollars.[17]

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, India has expanded naval ties with the US. It reacted angrily in 2014 when a Chinese submarine docked in the Sri Lankan port of Colombo, and has warily watched the expansion of one of President Xi Jinping’s priority projects, a maritime “silk road” with major ports in Gwadar, Pakistan, and Chittagong, Bangladesh. During President Obama’s visit to India, the two countries issued a joint statement on “the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region,” something India had refused to do in the past. [18]

The emerging Sino-Pakistan naval cooperation in general and China’s rapid modernizations of PLAN and growing interests in the Indian Ocean in particular will push India closer to US. The US has long been courting India (along with other adversaries of China in the region such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam). The chief of the United States Pacific Command, Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., proposed reviving an informal strategic coalition made up of the navies of Japan, Australia, India and the United States. This proposal was raised a decade ago but could not succeed due to pressure from China. It is one of the latest response in a series of United States overtures to India. The American ambassador to India, Richard R. Verma stated that “in the not-too-distant future,” joint patrols by navy vessels from India and the United States “will become a common and welcome sight throughout Indo-Pacific waters.” Most importantly, India and the US has signed logistics agreement that would allow the two countries’ militaries to easily use each other’s resources for refueling and repairs. Without directly pointing towards China, Admiral Harris said powerful countries were seeking to “bully smaller nations through intimidation and coercion,” and made the case that a broad naval collaboration was the best way to avert it. “Exercising together will lead to operating together,” he said, before meetings with his Indian counterpart. “By being ambitious, India, Japan, Australia and the United States and so many like-minded nations can aspire to operate anywhere in the high seas and the airspace above it.”[19]


The cooperation between China and Pakistan in the naval sector match their mutual interests. Pakistan’s desire to modernize its navy and ports coupled with China’s desire to expand its naval presence in the Indian Ocean to protect its naval and commercial interests worldwide. The Western sanctions especially of the US over Pakistan provided China ample space to fill the gap and expand naval ties with Islamabad. China’s help will boost Pakistan’s naval capabilities vis-à-vis India whose navy is big and superior. China’s (naval) presence at Pakistani  ports in particular will help in preventing future Indian blockade of Karachi and other ports. The construction of Gwadar Port with Chinese economic and technical assistance will provide Pakistan Navy a suitable alternative, and strategic depth. On the other hand, cooperation with Pakistan will provide China direct access to the Indian Ocean where its interests are rapidly expanding. Out of other allies, Pakistan serves China’s interest in most befitting way due to Pakistan’s geostrategic location, long history of strong ties. In fact, cooperation with China benefits Pakistan’s own core defence and strategic objectives. The Sino-Pakistan naval cooperation will expand the overall Sino-Pakistan relationship. But it will create reaction from India, the US and other states which have troubled relations with either China or Pakistan. This will also increase competition among rivals to expand their sphere of influence. A closer cooperation between India, the US along with Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Australia is thus quite expected. It seems the Indian Ocean is becoming a new theater of competition among rival countries.


[1] http://cimsec.org/pakistans-navy-quick-look/23227

[2] Pak Akhbar, <http://www.pakakhbar.com/military/navy.html&gt;

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://www.china.org.cn/world/2015-03/26/content_35162031.htm

[5] Pakistan Observer, 21 September 2011 <http://www.pakobserver.net/201109/21/detailnews.asp?id=115288&gt; Also see The Economic Times, 20 September 2011 <http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2011-09-20/news/30180297_1_pakistan-navy-admiral-noman-bashir-attack-craft&gt;

[6] http://cimsec.org/pakistans-navy-quick-look/23227

[7] http://cimsec.org/pakistans-navy-quick-look/23227

[8] These exercises were termed as “AMAN” [peace], and were held in 2007, 2009, 2011 and 2013.

[9] Daily Times, 27 September 2014 http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/national/27-Sep-2014/pakistan-chinese-navies-commence-bilateral-naval-exercise-at-arabian-sea

[10] http://atimes.com/2016/01/china-and-pakistan-join-forces-under-the-sea/

[11] Muhammad Daim Fazil, “The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor: Potential and Vulnerabilities,” The Diplomat, 2 May 2015, http://thediplomat.com/2015/05/the-china-pakistan-economic-corridor-potential-and-vulnerabilities/

[12] Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015  http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2015_China_Military_Power_Report.pdf

[13] http://cimsec.org/pakistans-navy-quick-look/23227

[14] http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Power-play-in-the-Indian-Ocean-and-what-it-means-f-30279447.html

[15] Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Source URL (retrieved on June 19, 2016): http://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-pakistan-join-forces-under-the-sea-14829

[16] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/china-pakistan-join-forces-under-the-sea-14829

[17] http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/india-keeping-a-close-eye-on-china-pak-military-cooperation-navy-chief/story-GcwVMjVVKrisrVJqb9uWrN.html

[18] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/03/world/asia/us-proposes-india-naval-coalition-balance-china-expansion.html?_r=0

[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/03/world/asia/us-proposes-india-naval-coalition-balance-china-expansion.html?_r=0

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