Strategic Synchronicity: Unpacking The Significance Of Recent China-Pakistan Joint Naval Drills

The increasing Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea, especially with submarines and research ships docking in Hambantota port, poses a challenge to the perceived balance of influence in the region, traditionally considered to be within India’s sphere.

The joint naval drills between China and Pakistan in the Arabian Sea, taking place until November 17, involve comprehensive exercises, notably anti-submarine operations. These manoeuvres strengthen military ties between the two nations, showcasing collaborative efforts in maritime security.

The naval exercises between China and Pakistan, known as Sea Guardians, have been ongoing since 2014, with this recent event being the largest to date. These joint maritime drills aim to enhance cooperation and interoperability between the two nations’ navies. Notably, it’s the first time that Pakistan hosted an advanced Chinese destroyer for training, highlighting the deepening defence ties between the two countries.

The exercises typically include various scenarios such as anti-submarine warfare, air defence, and surface operations. By alternating as hosts, both China and Pakistan benefit from shared expertise and experiences, fostering a robust partnership in the maritime domain. This collaboration not only strengthens their military capabilities but also contributes to regional stability and security.

The naval exercise held from Nov. 11-17 sought to highlight China and Pakistan’s joint commitment to protecting their shared economic corridor, integral to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Senior Capt. Qi Jian of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy emphasized this goal in a pre-drill media briefing. The exercise was not only about military cooperation but also aimed at reinforcing Sino-Pakistan relations and discovering fresh opportunities for collaboration in naval activities.

Simultaneously, the recent maritime exercise between the Russian Pacific Fleet and Myanmar highlights the evolving dynamics in regional security, while India and the United States affirm their commitment to security cooperation, reflecting the intricate geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Drill Equipment and Proceedings

The Chinese naval contingent brought advanced capabilities to the joint exercise hosted by Pakistan. The Type 052DL destroyer Zibo, a part of the Chinese fleet, reportedly boasts anti-stealth capabilities, representing cutting-edge technology.

The Type 052D guided-missile destroyer features a modified design compared to the Type 052C, with a larger inclination angle in the superstructure for improved stealth. Notably, the helicopter hangar was shifted from the left side to the centre axis, resembling the layout of the Type 054A frigate. The ship incorporates an H/PJ-12 short-range defence system and a 24 Hongqi-10 air defence missile system, forming a comprehensive defence setup. Additionally, the original 100mm naval gun was replaced by the H/PJ45 naval gun, offering enhanced stealth and elevation. The Type 052D is the first Chinese surface combatant to utilize canister-based universal VLS, carrying 64 cells for various missiles, including extended-range HHQ-9 SAMs, YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missiles, and CY-5 anti-submarine missiles. The extended version, 052DL, maintains the hull but elongates the helicopter deck to accommodate the Zhi-20 helicopter.

Notably, this exercise marked the first instance of Pakistan hosting such a sophisticated Chinese destroyer for training, underlining the deepening cooperation between the two nations.

Additionally, a Song-class submarine, known for its versatility and stealth features, was part of the Chinese fleet. While other Chinese submarines have previously visited Pakistan, the inclusion of these high-tech assets signifies a strategic advancement in their joint maritime endeavours.

The broader Chinese fleet included Type 054A frigates Jingzhou and Linyi, showcasing a mix of modern surface vessels.

The Type 054A frigates, exemplified by ships like Jingzhou and Linyi, are integral to China’s naval fleet. Renowned for versatility and cost-effectiveness, they feature advanced weaponry, including the HQ-16 missiles and YJ-83 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of 83-250 km. The frigates are equipped with a 32-cell vertical launch system, a main 76mm gun, and two 30mm close-in weapon systems capable of targeting aerial threats up to 3 km away, firing at a rate of 4,600 to 5,800 rounds per minute.

The submarine support ship and replenishment vessel Qiandaohua played a crucial role in sustaining the fleet during the exercises. Complemented by helicopters and a marine detachment, the fleet demonstrated a comprehensive range of naval capabilities.

The joint manoeuvres, which commenced on Nov. 14, involved coordinated movements with Pakistani naval assets, specifically the Type 054A/P frigate Shahjahan, further enhancing interoperability and mutual understanding between the two navies. This collaborative effort not only strengthens military ties but also contributes to regional maritime security.

The Tughril-class frigates, designated Type 054A/P, are custom-built guided-missile frigates by Hudong–Zhonghua Shipbuilding for the Pakistan Navy. Derived from the Type 054A frigate, they are tailored to meet the Pakistan Navy’s operational needs, featuring capabilities in anti-surface warfare (ASuW), anti-aircraft warfare (AAW), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and low radar observability. Expected to be a cornerstone of the Pakistan Navy’s fleet, these frigates are designed to replace the outdated Tariq-class destroyers.

The Chinese frigate Linyi and the Pakistani F-22P frigate Saif engaged in separate joint maritime drills, joined by elements like Azmat-class missile boats and aircraft from the Pakistan Navy. Commodore Syed Rizwan Khalid stated that safety considerations limited submarine participation. The flotilla’s command rotated, overseeing drills simulating a multi-threat environment. The exercises covered visit, board, search and seizure missions; air defense; anti-surface warfare; joint anti-submarine warfare; countermine operations, and special operations. This aimed to enhance maritime cooperation, defence relations, and interoperability between the two navies through a mutual exchange of experience.

India’s Position

The increasing Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea, especially with submarines and research ships docking in Hambantota port, poses a challenge to the perceived balance of influence in the region, traditionally considered to be within India’s sphere. Pakistan’s naval strategists aim for India to take the lead in the Indian Ocean, leveraging China as a counterbalance to India’s maritime dominance. The focus is on competitive diplomacy in the region rather than projecting Chinese or Pakistani power directly into India’s maritime vicinity.

The recent Sea Guardians event highlights China’s dedication to modernizing Pakistan’s Navy and extending its influence in the Indian Ocean, according to Frank O’Donnell from the Stimson Center. India is reportedly monitoring all Chinese ships involved, expressing particular concern about the participation of a Type 052 guided-missile destroyer and a Type 039 diesel-electric attack submarine. Despite friendly relations with both India and Pakistan, recent years have seen border disputes leading to tensions between India and China.

The showcased ship classes, integral to anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies, reinforce Pakistan’s naval approach towards India, according to Frank O’Donnell. China-Pakistan joint operations with these vessels enhance Pakistan’s A2/AD capabilities against India. O’Donnell notes that while the Song-class submarine may not be China’s most advanced, its presence raises concerns for India, especially given its value to Pakistan. The Type 039’s role as a predecessor to the Type 041 submarines that Pakistan is acquiring from China suggests increased experience in operating similar vessels, which could be employed for dual nuclear and conventional strike missions.

The recent exercises emphasize China’s earnest intent to expand its influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), traditionally seen as within India’s sphere. The growing Chinese presence in the Arabian Sea and instances of Chinese submarines and research ships in Hambantota port could potentially shift this balance. These drills showcase Beijing’s evolving naval and blue water capabilities, asserting its claims in the IOR. Additionally, they serve as a prominent demonstration of the enduring friendship between China and Pakistan, reinforcing their collaboration on regional and international issues, often countering New Delhi’s influence. China consistently supports Pakistan, including on matters concerning Pakistani terrorist outfits viewed with concern by India.

They also take on added significance amid the ongoing military standoff between India and China since the 2020 Galwan clashes. Despite the absence of breakthroughs in easing tensions, regional dynamics are evolving, especially with the positive momentum in China-Bhutan relations. This adds complexity to Indian diplomacy, given that many of its neighbours are economically connected to China through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s economic leverage in the region has allowed it to advance geopolitical objectives and limit India’s influence.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), an extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has resulted in over $25 billion in Chinese investments in constructing roads, ports, and power plants in Pakistan over the last decade. This extensive initiative has completed and operationalized the strategically positioned Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan.

Beijing and Islamabad have maintained strong defence ties over the years. However, in addition to the defence collaboration, the two allies have strengthened economic cooperation, notably through China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project. This economic partnership reflects a broader spectrum of engagement between China and Pakistan.

Despite the strengthening ties with Washington, New Delhi has maintained enduring relations with Moscow, particularly in the realm of defence cooperation. This strategic balance reflects India’s approach to preserving diverse and longstanding international partnerships.

India and the United States closely collaborate as key maritime allies. In the recent 2+2 talks, both nations reaffirmed their commitment to safeguarding a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. During these discussions, there was a shared focus on addressing concerns related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, highlighting the strategic alignment between India and the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region.