How to Track China’s Naval Dreams

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How to Track China’s Naval Dreams

Is the talk around the port of Gwadar a sign that China is considering a string of pearls strategy? Anti-air missile batteries will be the first sign.

Last weekend, the Pakistan Navy briefly dominated headlines when two unrelated events took place the same day. Both constituted part of the fallout from the US Navy SEAL raid on Abbottabad, which claimed the life of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. On Sunday, Taliban militants struck at a naval air station in Karachi, killing 13 Pakistan Navy personnel and torching two US-built P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft. A seesaw gun battle raged into Monday before the militants were finally silenced. The attack on Mehran Naval Air Station was part of a spate of Taliban operations evidently meant to remind Islamabad, the region, and the world that Islamist militancy remains a going concern despite bin Laden’s death. In essence, it was Taliban commanders’ way of messaging vis-à-vis important audiences.

Also on Sunday, Pakistani officials made an announcement of potentially seismic importance for the Indian Ocean region. It pertained to the western Pakistani seaport of Gwadar, which has occasioned no end of buzz among China-watchers since construction of deep-water port infrastructure began there in 2002. Gwadar lies near the Strait of Hormuz, along sea lanes bound to and from the Persian Gulf. More noteworthy, China bankrolled the project, putting up $200 million—or some 80 percent—of the initial funding. The harbour’s strategic site, coupled with the identity of its external funder, has fanned speculation that China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN, will someday convert Gwadar into a forward naval station in the Indian Ocean—paving the way for a standing PLAN Indian Ocean squadron.

The first part of the Pakistani announcement was innocuous. A Singaporean firm, PSA International, has administered the container terminal since it commenced operations in 2008. Islamabad has been having second thoughts about the arrangement, which came under legal challenge last autumn. Chinese officials have made occasional noises about taking over management of the port.

It was the other part of the announcement that raised eyebrows. Defense Minister Chaudhry Ahmad Mukhtar accompanied Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on a mid-May trip to China. Upon his return, Mukhtar reported that the Pakistani delegates had proposed both shifting management of Gwadar to a Chinese firm and constructing a military facility there.‘We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,’ Mukhtar told the Financial Times. While he offered no timetable for the move, Mukhtar alleged that China had agreed to take over port operations. He added that Islamabad would be ‘more grateful to the Chinese government if a naval base was being constructed at the site of Gwadar for Pakistan.’ His words seemed designed to put Washington on notice that Islamabad has other allies as US-Pakistan relations sour following the Abbottabad strike.

Beijing quickly soft-pedalled the Pakistani pronouncements. On Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry professed not to know about such an overture. ‘I haven’t heard of this project,’ declared spokesman Jiang Yu. ‘As far as I know this subject wasn’t brought up during the visit last week.’ China has ample reason to distance itself from such plans. Its leadership clearly entertains strategic motives of some sort in Gwadar. Energy security is one. An overland pipeline connecting coastal Pakistan to western China would ease Beijing’s ‘Malacca dilemma,’ letting oil and gas supplies bypass the Strait of Malacca. Chinese officials openly fret that some antagonist—most likely the US Navy—might mount a ‘distant blockade’ of Chinese shipping, interrupting the flow of energy resources as an asymmetric reply to Chinese actions in the Taiwan Strait, or during some other contingency that pits the United States against China.

It only makes sense for Beijing to open up new supply routes, diversifying its energy-security portfolio. This is uncontroversial. As Robert Kaplan points out, however, such a pipeline would run through a modern-day Wild West, with all the insecurity it entails. The surrounding province of Balochistan is home to a nagging insurgency. A pipeline would make an inviting target for insurgent mischief-making. Cutting Chinese oil supplies would be an excellent method of sowing discord between Pakistan and its Chinese patron, bringing indirect pressure on Islamabad. In short, the parlous security situation in South and Central Asia casts doubt on the pipeline project’s fate.

The more intriguing question is whether Beijing will proceed with a naval base. Indeed, this is the crux of the debate over Gwadar. Since 2005 or thereabouts, the rumour mill has held that China means to construct a ‘string of pearls,’ or network of forward naval bases in the Indian Ocean. For those who subscribe to this view, putatively commercial port developments like Hambantota, on Sri Lanka, Chittagong, in Bangladesh, and Gwadar represent the precursors to such a network. And indeed, Beijing almost certainly negotiated some form of guaranteed PLAN access to these harbours when it struck the deals to develop them. Chinese leaders would be foolish not to.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean a full-fledged base is in the offing. Calling at a foreign port for fuel and stores is one thing. Building a facility capable of hosting a permanent naval squadron is quite another. Almost any port can meet basic needs. Dubai and Abu Dhabi offered excellent places for refuelling and R&R when I deployed to the Gulf 20 years ago, but no one would have mistaken them for full-service bases. It’s rather like the difference between a self-serve gas station and a full service station with mechanics standing by to perform extensive repairs and maintenance.

Writing during World War I, Rear Adm. Bradley Fiske observed that the advent of oil-fired propulsion plants, along with techniques and hardware for refuelling, rearming, and reprovisioning underway, had ‘partially’ liberated US fleets from their bases. Fiske added that underway replenishment ameliorates warships’ need for depot maintenance and repair not one whit. Such services comprise a critical element of the ‘stored-up energy’ a naval station discharges to men-of-war to sustain at-sea operations. Any naval station worth the name, therefore, boasts not only piers and navigable channels—as Gwadar and other Chinese-funded Indian Ocean ports already do—but also maintenance facilities, ammunition and fuel storage, and ideally even dry docks for taking warships out of the water and overhauling their hulls.

Will Gwadar morph into a true naval station, as Mukhtar’s words suggest? And, if so, how good a base would it be for the PLAN? Fiske’s contemporary Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan is as good an authority as any on this topic. Mahan would probably voice scepticism about the port’s value unless Pakistan and China undertake some major improvements. I remain agnostic myself. Mahan evaluated prospective bases by three standards, namely position, strength, and resources. Sited near Hormuz, Gwadar possesses strategic position in abundance. Strength, a.k.a. defensibility, is another question, as are the resources by which a seaport sustains itself and visiting ships. Look Gwadar up on Google Earth. The port sits on a narrow peninsula jutting into the Arabian Sea. It looks like an easy target for cruise-missile or air strikes. Indian airmen reportedly profess confidence in their ability to pummel this nearby target from aloft.

While Beijing has demurred about making Gwadar a forward base, the nature and scope of building activity there presents observers a metric by which to track the evolution of Chinese naval ambitions in the Indian Ocean. Correcting the port’s deficiencies in strength and resources would demand extensive construction of workshops, ammunition and fuel dumps, and the like. Offsetting its vulnerability would demand defences against sea and air attack.

Now that Beijing’s truck-launched CSS-5 antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) has reached initial operational capability, that system looks like an ideal, easily transported defence for Gwadar and other exposed sites. According to the Pentagon’s annual reports on Chinese military power, in fact, ASBM coverage will extend over the northern Arabian Sea from sites along China’s western frontier once the system is fully operational. Similarly, outside observers should watch for signs that Beijing has positioned mobile anti-air missile batteries to fend off US and Indian aviators and other potential opponents. Such capabilities would go far toward hardening Gwadar—and blunting Mahanian objections about its prospects of withstanding assault.

Monitoring such developments will alert China watchers to any quickening of Chinese ambitions for a string of pearls.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.