China and Pakistan held the third edition of Sea Guardian, their bilateral naval exercise, from November 11-17 in the Arabian Sea off the coast of Pakistan. This was the largest naval exercise between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Pakistani Navy to date, and it included both land and sea phases. The exercise aimed to develop the “all-weather strategic cooperative partnership” between the two countries and enhance military cooperation. Although this is only the third edition of the Sea Guardian exercise, it was the eighth bilateral naval exercise between the two militaries, with the first occurring in 2014.
History of Sea Guardian Exercise
The Sea Guardian exercise was first held in 2020 in the Arabian Sea followed by a 2022 edition in the East China Sea off Shanghai. The 2020 exercise included Chinese participants primarily from the Southern Theater Command and the 2022 exercise from the Eastern Theater Command. Sea Guardian was not held in 2021 due to the pandemic.
The inaugural exercise aimed to explore new methods of conducting joint exercises and fostering interoperability to address common maritime issues. At the opening ceremony for the first Sea Guardian drills, Vice Admiral Asif Khaliq, who commanded the Pakistani Naval Fleet, stated that the concept of the exercise was “to provide a platform for the two navies to share information, enhance understanding and deepen their common interests.” This would then become a basis for further cooperation.
China’s ambassador to Pakistan at the time, Yao Jing, added that Sea Guardian would complement the existing Warrior exercise series between the armies of the two nations and the Shaheen (Eagle) series between their air forces.
In the broader strategic relations between China and Pakistan, the Sea Guardian exercises are one facet of a multidimensional defense relationship that spans arms and technology transfers and sustained high-level military diplomacy. With continuous political upheaval in Pakistan, the military is viewed as a stable entity for Beijing to interact with and increasing military engagements seek to enhance overall bilateral relations.
According to one study, China and Pakistan had more military interactions between 2017-2021 than China-Russia interactions during the same period. Furthermore, between 2018 and 2022, 54 percent of China’s total arms exports were to Pakistan, supplying 77 percent of its total arms imports. The Chinese are also the primary supporters of Pakistan’s naval modernization.
Sea Guardian 3
For Sea Guardian 3, the PLAN sent a Type-052DL guided-missile destroyer, the Zibo, along with two Type-054A frigates, a Type-039 attack submarine, a Type-903 submarine support and supply ship, helicopters, and marines. The Zibo is the PLAN’s first vessel of the upgraded Type-052D class of destroyers; it is better equipped to detect stealth warplanes and is capable of accommodating the Z-20 attack helicopter, among other improvements. It is one of China’s most advanced naval vessels, and Sea Guardian 3 was reportedly the first time Pakistan hosted such a PLAN destroyer.
The Pakistani naval contingent included nine vessels, including PNS Shahjahan and Saif, three helicopters, four fighter aircraft, and an anti-submarine aircraft, along with marines.
Apart from formation maneuvers, cross-deck landings, joint search and rescue, and joint anti-submarine exercises, the third edition was the first to feature a joint patrol in the Arabian Sea, highlighting the importance of safeguarding the economic sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. Despite the decades-long strategic partnership, recent bilateral exercises between China and Pakistan have expanded and become more complex.
The timing of the naval exercise was noteworthy as well, as it took place after two important developments in the Indian Ocean. In New Delhi, India and the United States held their 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue between the defense and foreign ministers on November 11, where the two sides discussed threats posed by China and underscored their commitment to safeguard a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region. Earlier, the Russian Pacific Fleet held its first naval exercise “in modern history” with Myanmar from November 7-9 in the Andaman Sea, signaling a Russian presence in the Indian Ocean despite its ongoing war with Ukraine.
Motivations and Implications
With the Indian Ocean becoming an increasingly important theater for competition between the United States and China, the Sea Guardian exercises have become one of the institutionalized mechanisms for the PLAN to gain access to the Arabian Sea and sustain its presence in the Indian Ocean.
Additionally, Chinese state media reported that the joint exercises were also important to safeguard the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the original flagship project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The security of the CPEC has become an increasing concern for China. In a recent document laying out a 10-year vision for the BRI, a section on “security guarantees” was included, which called upon BRI nations to “jointly improve and refine security measures.” However, it remains to be seen how naval exercises off the Pakistani coast can bolster CPEC security, given the primary threat comes from Baloch nationalist organizations that have previously attacked Chinese infrastructure and targeted Chinese nationals.
Nevertheless, the exercises indicate continuity in China seeking to expand its military presence in the Indian Ocean in order to, as Beijing proclaims, contribute to regional peace and stability. The annual exercise is also a regular interaction with Pakistani counterparts and reaffirms the resilience of their bilateral military cooperation. Despite economic woes and political turmoil within Pakistan, the PLA and Pakistan’s military establishment continue to further relations and maintain an “all-weather” friendship.
For Pakistan, increasingly complex naval exercises and joint patrols with China allow it to “position itself as a regional player and security provider in the region.” During a period when India has been de-hyphenated from Pakistan and Western focus has shifted away from Afghanistan, Pakistan finds its previous strategic and geographic importance in decline. Additionally, it has also been argued the exercise has been hyped up by the Pakistan Navy due to the inaugural joint patrol.
In future Sea Guardian exercises, it can be expected that the scope of the drills will expand. Although the largest naval exercise so far, it was only slightly larger than previous iterations. Nevertheless, as China has successfully established a permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, there could be increasingly complex maneuvers and an increase in the number of vessels conducting joint patrols to further its influence in the region. Sea Guardian 3, therefore, augments China’s force-projection capabilities away from its “near seas” and is a way to normalize its presence in the Arabian Sea.