Spearhead Analysis – 21.02.2018
By Shirin Naseer
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
Under the Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s naval presence has extended further beyond its immediate coastline into regions not previously considered as lying within its sphere of influence. According to reports, China is now in the process of constructing its second base in Pakistan. Its first offshore naval military base, which was set up in August 2017, is located in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa.
Reportedly, certain Chinese military officials held that the current port in Pakistan, which caters largely to merchant ships, is unable to supply adequate services and logistical support that Chinese warships require.
“China needs to set up another base in Gwadar for its warships because Gwadar is now a civilian port…It’s a common practice to have separate facilities for warships and merchant vessels because of their different operations. Merchant ships need a bigger port with a lot of space for warehouses and containers, but warships need a full range of maintenance and logistical support services”, a Beijing-based military analyst, Zhou Chenming added.
China’s second offshore facility is expected to be built at Jiwani, a port close to the Iranian border on the Gulf of Oman. The Jiwani base will be a joint naval and air facility for Chinese forces. Located in Pakistan’s western Baluchistan province, this base will be about 80 kilometers to the west of the Gwadar port, wherein China already has a strong maritime presence. Compared to Gwadar, however, Jiwani is located closer to the Strait of Hormuz and further away from Indian airfields. The new base will also be set in close proximity to Iran’s Chabahar port, which is being jointly developed by Iran, Afghanistan and India.
Beijing extending its long-term presence in the Indian Ocean region has prompted several concerns from regional players, such as India and the US. Regional experts warn of the prospects of China replacing the US as an important security partner for Pakistan.
China has justified it scale of investment in Gwadar with the need to secure alternate shipping routes. Beijing fears the possibility of a naval blockade obstructing its sea lanes of communication. With the advancement of President Xi Jinping’s China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Gwadar has become even more significant to Chinese geostrategic interests in the region. The corridor consists of multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects including a series of vital road and transport links.
Despite insurgency in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province—where both Gwadar and Jiwani are located, China seems intent on intensifying its investment in the province. It is vital to consider that when it comes to Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, Beijing stands the risk of becoming involved in the local politics. For Pakistan however greater Chinese investment may be a welcome development after American President Donald Trump’s recent decision to cut all security funding to Pakistan.
Amid such development China, however, has declared all reports of a second military base as “purely speculative”. Several Chinese officials have even gone as far as denying that Beijing has plans to build any such base at Jiwani. Yet, the growing pace of Chinese outwardly expansion points to how there is an undeniably strong desire in China to push its power projection capabilities further. So considering Beijing’s inclinations and tendencies, it is still important to note the consequences of such a development, if it is to materialize.
India is already wary of China’s long-term strategic plans in the region. According to Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, “China finds it very useful to use Pakistan against India and ignore India’s concerns, particularly on terrorism issues. That has created a lot of stress in the relationship between Beijing and Delhi”. If such a base is established it will likely only exacerbate already heightened tensions between rivals India and China. It may stroke fears in India of a potential encirclement by China.
A Chinese military base in Jiwani will hold considerable influence over sea lanes in the Arabian Sea and may even provide links from the South China Sea to Africa, while bypassing both India and the US naval base in Diego Garcia. With Beijing adopting newer transport routes, it is likely that a concerned New Delhi under such circumstances will further move closer in partnership with Washington.
Recently, reports also emerged that Beijing and Kabul had come to an agreement for China to build and supply a military base in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, located in the farthest northeastern part of the country between Tajikistan and northern Pakistan. China has been concerned about Uyghurs fighters in Syria and Iraq seeking to return to China’s Xinjiang province or establishing bases across the border in Afghanistan and Tajikistan after the fall of the Islamic State. Even though China has formally denied any such reports Afghan security officials have confirmed that China is indeed building its military base on the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border for the Afghan armed forces.
The appointment of Liu Jinsong as the Chinese ambassador to Afghanistan is also significant in this regard. According to Liu Zongyi, a senior fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, “The appointment of Liu is a carefully considered one – he was raised in Xinjiang and has experience in South Asia.”
Liu was born in eastern Zhejiang but was raised in the Xinjiang region, which is home to the Muslim Uygur minority. Jinsong has also been a former director of the Belt and Road initiative’s $15 billion Silk Road Fund. Beijing has claimed Uygur extremists receive jihadist training in neighboring Afghanistan. For Beijing, shielding itself against Uyghur militancy is of utmost importance—even if it requires for Beijing to extend its efforts to regions beyond its borders.
While reports of China adding new bases have not been confirmed by Beijing, these developments are likely to renew New Delhi’s push to consolidate its regional alliances. It is too early to consider whether the Chinese navy may be able to challenge the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Nonetheless, establishing naval and air facilities in the region will provide China with a range of different options to respond with in event of any crisis situation, whether it is to protect Chinese nationals and investments, or to protect Chinese interests in case of military interventions. Much depends on Indian intentions and actions. During the recent visit to India by the Iranian President an agreement to allow India to use a specified part of Chahbahar port was reportedly signed.