Commentary: China’s Growing Naval Footprint in Pakistan
Dr Teshu Singh, Associate Fellow, VIF

China’s Jiwani Initiative

Recently, media reports have raised the possibility of Jiwani being developed as a naval base in Pakistan by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Pakistan has six ports: Karachi, Muhammad Bin Qasim, Ormara, Gwadar, Pasni and Jiwani Port. Jiwani is located on the far end of Gwadar Bay; it is 59 km from Gwadar and 34 km from the Iranian border. It has a small naval base and an airport with a 5500-feet runway. During the Second World War, it was also called Royal Air Force (RAF), Jiwani, and was used to supply water to the RAF garrison at the time of war. The Jiwani airport was also used by the United States Transport Command. It was a stopover for the flights enroute to Sharjah Airport, UAE, or Karachi Airport on Karachi-Cairo route. At present the airport is not in use.

The deep sea-port of Gwadar is already operational but China needs another port for its warships. According to the South China Morning Post, “China needs to set up another base in Gwadar for its warships because Gwadar is now a civilian port.”1 According to a report published in the Washington Times, “Plans for the base were advanced during a visit to Jiwani on December 18 by a group of 16 Chinese PLA officers who met with about 10 Pakistani military officers.”2 However, China has denied any such meeting. On 9 January 2018, the spokespersons of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Lu Kang while responding about the probability of China building a base in Pakistan said, “I am not aware of what you mentioned”.

According to informed sources, given its geographical location, Jiwani can offer a good hilltop height for placement of surveillance radar and flat top for placement of missile batteries. This would improve the range of anti-ship missiles of the Pakistani Navy, giving it an advantage as compared to Gwadar to dominate the Gulf of Oman. At present, Jiwani does not have repair facilities for warships or adequate space for the storage of ammunition. However, such facilities can be created. If the PLAN aspires to use the Jiwani coast, the airport there might have relevance for military purposes.

On the contrary, Jiwani may have its own set of security issues. The Iran-Pakistan maritime boundary cuts across the Jiwani Bay, hence a port at this point would be unsuitable. Also, both Gwadar and Jiwani are too close for the later to be considered for developing a base. Beside Jiwani, China may also consider other ports for its naval base. The alternate sites could either be in Pishkun, located at the eastern end of Gwadar Bay where some activity has already started. The second alternative can be the Ormara Port, located 353 km eastward from Jiwani, with the Jinnah naval base of Pakistan Navy and a small airport for landing of short run aircraft located there.

Earlier, in 2016, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation has confirmed export of eight attack submarines to Pakistan. On 13 November 2016, at the inauguration ceremony of the Gwadar Port, Nawaz Sharif called the occasion as the "dawn of a new era" and said, “the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is destined to transform the entire country and open up a world of possibilities for not just Pakistan but also the Central Asian states and the rest of Asia.” Evidently, Gwadar is important link in for the CPEC.

China’s Gradual inroads in the Indian Ocean Region

Clearly, China is gradually increasing its foothold in the Indian Ocean Region. On 14 March 2017, China had indicated plans to increase its marine corps from 20,000 to 100,000 personnel, to protect its maritime lifelines and its overseas interests. It also indicated that some of it would be stationed in Djibouti and Gwadar. The strength of PLAN is also likely to be increased.

On 1 August 2017, China established its first military base in Djibouti. It will be used to resupply fuel and also be used for anti-piracy mission. In December 2017, Sri Lanka has already handed over the port of Hambantota to China on a lease of 99 years. Earlier, in July, the China Merchants Port Holdings Company signed a deal with the Sri Lanka Ports Authority to control 70 percent stake in the Hambantota Port. The Sri Lanka Parliament has also approved tax concessions for the project. The tax concessions include an income tax holiday of up to 32 years. Additionally, China has developed a new underwater surveillance network to enable its submarines to get a stronger lock on targets while protecting the nation’s interests along the so called Maritime Silk Road, which runs through the Indian Ocean.

If a naval base at Jiwani or near it comes up, it will further cement the “all-weather friendship” between China and Pakistan. The proximity of Jiwani to the Chabahar Port has implications for India. The Chabahar Port is strategically important for India as it will help India to bypass Pakistan for transporting goods to Afghanistan using sea-land route.

Endnotes

1. Minnie Chan, ‘First Djibouti ... now Pakistan port earmarked for a Chinese overseas naval base, sources say’ accessed at http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2127040/first-djibouti-now-pakistan-port-earmarked-chinese .
2. Bill Betz, China building military base in Pakistan accessed at https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2018/jan/3/china-plans-pakistan-military-base-at-jiwani/ .

(Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the VIF)


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