A recent meeting between the Pakistani prime minister and top Chinese officials in Beijing showed that Pakistan is attempting to strengthen its alliance with China, which has become all the more important amid U.S. pressures on Pakistan. But there are reasons to be skeptical about the degree to which the two countries will follow through on proposed military projects, including a reported plan for China to turn Pakistan's Gwadar port into a Pakistani naval base.
Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani completed his visit with top Chinese officials in Beijing on May 20. The meeting was intended to stress the strength of their alliance amid U.S. pressure on Pakistan, and such an alliance is of concern not only to the United States but also to India. In response to the meeting, Indian Defense Minister A. K. Anthony said his country has "serious concerns" about the heightened degree of defense cooperation between China and Pakistan and that India would have no choice but to build up its military capabilities in response. A day after the meeting concluded, The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times quoted Pakistani Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar as claiming that China had agreed to take over operations at the strategic deep-water port at Gwadar, located in southwest Balochistan province on the Gulf of Oman, and that Pakistan had asked China to transform the facility into a naval base, though a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman on May 24 denied that the issue was discussed during Gilani's visit. Mukhtar also said Pakistan sought a Chinese loan to pay for an unknown number of 4,400-ton frigates and wanted China to train Pakistani naval personnel in submarine operations. Pakistan also claims that China will expedite delivery of the JF-17 multirole fighter jets that the two countries have been manufacturing together for several years. Pakistan says China will deliver 50 new fighters within six months. Given that Pakistan has received only eight of these fighters since their production began, six months for 50 fighters would be a very rapid time frame. Pakistan has said it will increase the total number of these jets that it hopes to acquire from 150 to 250. The JF-17 production is a well-established avenue of cooperation between the two states, but it remains to be seen how capable they are of accelerating production and delivery to match this accelerated timeline. The Chinese have not fully corroborated Pakistani claims regarding the fighter jets. While their negotiations suggest that China and Pakistan will substantially increase their military cooperation, there are reasons to be skeptical about the degree to which they will follow through. What is beyond doubt is that Pakistan has an interest at the moment in playing up China as an alternate patron to the United States. Pakistan and China built Gwadar port together, and it has long been assumed that the Chinese would eventually operate it. But China has maintained a low profile on the matter because of tensions with India, which fears Chinese encirclement. China has not yet confirmed that it will take over port operations, as Pakistan claims, or said whether it will agree to convert the facility into a naval base. But even if all of this is confirmed, there remain a number of issues to bear in mind.
From all indications, there has been very little naval activity at the port so far. Pakistani naval activity at Gwadar has not been openly reported, although the strategic purpose of the port was to give Pakistan's navy an alternative to Karachi, which is vulnerable to an Indian naval blockade. As for a Chinese naval presence, the Chinese have reportedly installed an electronic monitoring and surveillance station at the port but nothing more. Officials representing the Chinese builder China Harbor Engineer Co. visited the port and met with the commander of Pakistan's western naval area in December 2009. Indian media outlets have claimed that in December 2008, Pakistan asked China to base Chinese nuclear submarines at Gwadar.
Since the port took a long time to build and is not yet fully operational, it is not likely that expanded operations will happen quickly. Pakistan had originally planned to build the commercial port as early as the 1960s and first received Chinese support in 2002. China reportedly paid for 80 percent of the initial investment and finished constructing the port in 2007. A Chinese company bid for the lease to operate the port, but in a sudden turn of events, the Chinese were rejected and Singapore Port Authority International won the bid in 2007 reportedly with a 40-year agreement. Since 2007, the port has been criticized for operating at low capacity, with only 92 ships docking there in the first three years. In the fall of 2010, Pakistani officials said they would review Singapore's management of the port and that a Chinese company could take over operations.
Singapore could have a problem transferring port authority. Pakistan says Singapore's lease will soon expire, a claim that contradicts widespread reporting that the Singaporeans signed a 40-year lease to operate the facility. It is possible that Singapore is willing to hand over operations to Pakistan, but that is by no means clear. If Pakistan intends to transfer operations to a Chinese company without Singapore's approval, it will have to force out the Singaporeans, which would worsen relations between Pakistan and Singapore and also could affect China's relationship with Singapore.
Local resistance to Gwadar port remains high. From the beginning of port construction in the 1990s, the local Baloch tribe in Balochistan has resisted the facility, saying that the tribe has not been promised adequate compensation for the land that will be set aside for new infrastructure to support the port. The tribe also claims it has not been granted a sufficient share of the wealth the port will generate. The Balochs fear being written out of the profits as they have been with natural gas development in the region. Baloch militants staged attacks at the port in 2004, wounding several Pakistani and Chinese workers, and have threatened to stage more. Baloch resistance is frequently blamed for lack of full operations at the port and is expected to remain staunch at least until the Pakistani state forges some kind of agreement. Pakistan will have to deal with these local concerns effectively if it is to make Gwadar a secure and reliable commercial port. The security situation could also deteriorate rapidly if Pakistan relies entirely on military force to ensure access to and assert control over the port.
In addition to these caveats, China's own strategy does not clearly support converting Gwadar into a naval base for forward operations. True, China is seeking overland supply routes and ways of diversifying and adding redundancy to its existing supply routes, and building out a corridor through Pakistan into its far western Xinjiang region is an important aspect of this strategy. But having a state-owned company control and operate a port is considerably different from maintaining a full-time naval presence there. It requires a considerable stock of supplies and a constant stream of logistical support to maintain continuous naval operations at such a distance. China does not have the land routes to make this possible. Though a railway connection through Pakistan is planned, construction has yet to begin on it, and although it has expanded the Karakorum highway linking Pakistan to China, there are limits to the feasibility of road transport. Meanwhile, the sea route is limited, since it does not obviate the crucial Strait of Hormuz choke point and would also require China to build out its other ports and way-stations in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. The sea route would also remain vulnerable to interdiction by hostile naval forces (India, the United States or Japan). While China may have the raw capability to operate a naval outpost in Gwadar, it has not yet shown itself willing to take such a bold step. In fact, Gwadar fits better with China's goals of creating a friendly port for purposes of naval visits, maintenance and refueling, restocking supplies, and especially for conducting commercial activities, such as bringing minerals extracted at the Chinese-invested Saindak mine in Balochistan down to Gwadar for shipment. Eventually, the two countries may follow through on plans to build rail connections and oil or natural gas pipelines from Balochistan to Xinjiang. Hence, while there could be a strategic reason for China to develop Gwadar port as a naval base, it is far from inevitable and not something that can be achieved easily or immediately. Rather, China and Pakistan are gradually laying the foundation for steady commercial operations that could involve limited naval activities in future. This raises the question of why Pakistan is drumming up the issue now. For Pakistan's leaders, reigniting the Gwadar port debate may show their domestic audience that Pakistan can count on Chinese support and serve as a warning to the United States that Pakistan has alternative patrons. This can help shore up domestic support amid mounting tensions with the United States, which boiled over following the Osama bin Laden raid. But it will not change the fact that China is not a real substitute for the United States in Pakistan's strategic calculus or that China has its own strategic considerations with India and the United States that it cannot sacrifice merely to reassure an uneasy Pakistan.