A January 1, 2018 article revealed a plan — later confirmed in two separate reports, here and here — for the construction of a Chinese naval base on the Jiwani peninsula in Pakistan, near Gwadar, a sea port critical to the success of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Although initially scheduled to begin in July, work on the Jiwani base was accelerated after the plan appeared in the media. That is consistent with the overall increase in a Chinese military activities in Pakistan, but particularly in regard to its naval presence.
According to sources, the decision to advance the schedule for the Jiwani base was likely made in a series of late February meetings held in Gwadar between Chinese and Pakistani civilian and military officials, some who flew into the city from Karachi and Islamabad.
As a result of the media scrutiny, the Chinese allegedly insisted that military-related work in Pakistan be either publicly denied or described as Pakistani military projects, not Chinese. In addition, the accelerated plan for the Chinese base in Jiwani required a more rapid relocation of the local populace for which the Chinese promised land seizure compensation. As part of the agreement, the Chinese were reportedly offered five thousand acres in an area known as Mouza Zanab Dun, west of Gwadar.
One of the February meetings, primarily between members of Chinese and Pakistani intelligence personnel, discussed the security surrounding a March visit by a Chinese nuclear submarine to the Pakistani naval base at Ormara, considered a prelude to a potential establishment of a joint base of operations.
In 2017, Pakistan opened a new naval air base in Turbat, a city approximately 100 miles northeast of Gwadar. The base is meant to provide air surveillance and defense cover for the maritime areas between Gwadar and the Ormara naval base and is considered of strategic importance to CPEC.
Since 2017, Chinese officials have visited the base and inspected an area about 50 miles southwest of Turbat adjacent to the M8 highway (map coordinates 25°47’05.8″ N 62°38’47.5 E). There is a large parcel of fenced land with watchtowers, purchased by the Pakistani Navy over a decade ago, where the Chinese had previously done pre-construction soil analysis. The site is believed to be designated for the housing of personnel.
Chinese and Pakistanis have been discussing projects on the island of Astola, which is located about twenty miles off the coast between the Pasni and Ormara naval bases. According to sources, the Chinese reportedly made at least two visits to Astola and by mid-April a Chinese company was doing construction on the island.
In December 2017, it was reported that high-level Chinese delegations had visited Sonmiani, just north of Karachi, and purchased large tracts of land in the area. Sonmiani is the location of Pakistan’s space center and the newly-established Weapon Testing Range, built with the support of China and, which an official statement claimed “is equipped with real-time tracking and measuring equipment to qualify the indigenously developed and procured weapon systems.”
That may refer to a Chinese-made system described by the South China Morning Post as a “highly sophisticated, large-scale optical tracking and measurement system” that could speed up the Pakistan’s missile development including those with multiple nuclear warheads. The report would only say that the Pakistani military recently deployed the Chinese system “at a firing range.”
Sources now indicate that the Chinese are building some type of large underground structure in Sonmiani. It is not yet clear, but it may be something similar to the tunnel storage and maintenance facility at the Chinese nuclear submarine base in Yulin Bay on the southern coast of Hainan Island.
In parallel with military activities, Pakistani intelligence, as instructed by the Chinese, has increased security operations in the Gwadar area against Baloch freedom fighters and Islamic extremist groups, who are no longer under Pakistani government control. Those additional security efforts have included border meetings with the Iranians, in which, according to sources, the Chinese have also participated in order to maintain stability in the area around the proposed Chinese naval base on the Jiwani peninsula. It appears to be part of an ongoing effort for Iran-Pakistan rapprochement encouraged by China.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative, CPEC in particular, is a soft power strategy with an underlying hard power military component. It is similar to what Imperial Japan attempted in the 1930s with its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Through military expansion on Pakistan’s southern coast, China intends to isolate India and dominate the vital sea lanes connecting the Suez Canal and the Persian Gulf with its control of the South China Sea.
The United States needs to counter China’s ambitions with a program of strategic disruption through power projection, financial leverage and exploiting the vulnerabilities or geopolitical fissures inevitably created by expansionism, including nation-state disputes, the Sunni-Shia divide and ethnic nationalism.
Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired US Army Reserve colonel, an IT command and control subject matter expert, trained in Arabic and Kurdish, and a veteran of Afghanistan, northern Iraq and a humanitarian mission to West Africa. He receives email at firstname.lastname@example.org.