China and Pakistan concluded their largest-ever naval exercises in the North Arabian Sea on Friday. During the week-long Sea Guardians exercise, the two countries also conducted joint maritime patrols for the first time.
The exercises were aimed at improving the interoperability of the Pakistan Navy and People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) and bolstering Pakistan’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities vis-a-vis its larger neighbor and arch-rival India.
Anti-submarine warfare has been a feature of recent China-Pakistan naval exercises and is key to Pakistan’s maritime defense strategy. Notably, the PLA Navy fleet participating in the exercise included a Chinese destroyer with advanced anti-stealth capabilities, the Type 052DL, and the Type 039 diesel-electric attack submarine, writes Usman Ansari of Defense News.
Senior Captain Qi Jian of the PLA Navy said that the exercises would bolster the two countries’ resolve to defend the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a connectivity project linked to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Key sites along the CPEC route have been attacked by ethnic separatist militants — including, most recently, an attack earlier this month along a coastal highway that connects the China-operated port of Gwadar with Karachi, Pakistan’s largest port.
A Complex U.S.-China-India-Pakistan Game
Naval cooperation between China and Pakistan continues to grow, driven by a shared rivalry with India and the deepening ties between the U.S. and Indian navies. Indian ports will serve as vital repair and resupply facilities for the U.S. military over the coming decades.
While some observers say military ties between Beijing and Islamabad reflect movement toward a “threshold alliance,” the Pakistan Army has been keen in recent years to avoid being locked into the China camp as great power competition has intensified.
In September, the Pakistan Army arranged a visit of the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan to the Chinese-operated port of Gwadar, signaling that it does not desire the facility to become militarized by China. It’s unclear whether Pakistan’s navy and other military services share the same view.
Pakistan’s 650-mile Arabian Sea coastline is home to several large commercial ports and naval bases. Strategically located between India and Iran and north of the Persian Gulf oil shipping lanes, it is unsurprising that both China and the United States are keen to ensure that neither side gains exclusive access to Pakistan’s naval bases.
A More Competitive Landscape in the Indian Ocean Region
Beyond Pakistan, the strategic landscape in the northern Indian Ocean region is becoming more competitive.
The China-Pakistan naval exercises occurred amid reports that Oman is considering hosting a Chinese military facility. Other countries in the region, including the United Arab Emirates, have engaged in talks with China on hosting a military base.
PLA Navy ships are frequent visitors to Oman’s Arabian Sea port of Salalah, with some observers assessing that it “has achieved de facto facility status.” But China could build a facility at another Omani port — Duqm — where a Chinese state-owned consortium is building an industrial park. The U.S., nonetheless, remains the dominant maritime power in this region, with unfettered access to military facilities in numerous Gulf Arab states.
Russia also just concluded its first-ever maritime exercises with Myanmar earlier this month. Russia has been Myanmar’s largest source of arms since 2017, topping China. The military junta in Myanmar seeks to avoid dependence on China, which has supported armed ethnic groups. Moscow has been a key provider of military aircraft used by the military regime to target civilians.
And in a setback for New Delhi, Mohamed Muizzu, the new president of the Maldives — an archipelago in the Indian Ocean — asked India to withdraw its military contingent from his country.
How the strategic balance of power in the Indian Ocean region will transform is uncertain, but one thing is clear: while some regional states feel forced to pick sides between great powers, many others are making the most of this multipolar era.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine. He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.