Deterrence by Design: Sino-Pak Strategic Cooperation in Gwadar

F.S. Aijazuddin in his excellent book on Pakistan’s role in 1971 U.S.- Chinese rapprochement wrote that “Pakistanis love China for what it can do for them, while China loves Pakistanis despite what they do to themselves.” These lines have stood the test of time. In 1965 during the Indo-Pak war, Pakistan sought Chinese assistance and was advised by the Chinese Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai to change its strategy. Since Pakistan was facing a numerically superior army, the advice was to allow the Indians well inside Pakistan’s border, be prepared for loss of territory and then attack with full conventional might to break the enemy’s backbone and regain territory. An essential component of this strategy was to prepare the Pakistani nation to fight a prolonged people’s war, Mao style. But Pakistan was not ready to lose Lahore to India. Moreover, the concept of waging a people’s war was alien to Pakistani military strategists. Pakistan did what it knew best and did not follow the Chinese advice.

Once again in 1971, instead of seeking a political settlement to the East Pakistan crisis as per Chinese advice, Pakistan ended up fighting a war with India and lost East Pakistan. By that time, Pak-China informal alliance was almost a decade old. Since then, China has remained aligned with Pakistan despite its vulnerabilities – be they political, economic, or strategic – and never once has it turned around to throw “I told you so” in Pakistan’s face. Even though the relationship between the two countries is asymmetric in terms of what one can offer the other, its survival over past decades makes for a remarkable case study of a small state like Pakistan and its stable alliance with a major power like China in a very rough neighborhood. But can Pakistan push the boundaries of its alliance with China to develop a relationship where China would allow Pakistan to use Chinese strategic assets to deter India and enable Pakistan to augment its deterrence?

Take a closer look at this map and then read this passage below and determine whether Pakistan and China have anything to worry about with respect to India’s nuclear ambitions at sea:


Source: ‘China’s Submarine Noose Around India’

Sandeep Unnithan argues that “the Indian Navy is enhancing force levels at its Visakhapatnam naval base even as it has begun building a secret base for a proposed fleet of nuclear-powered submarines at Rambilli, south of Visakhapatnam. Equipped with the 700-km range B05 submarine launched missiles, the Arihant-class submarines will have to patrol closer to the shores of a potential adversary. But equipped with the 3,500-km range K-4 missiles currently being developed by the DRDO, the Arihant and her sister submarines can cover both Pakistan and China with nuclear-tipped missiles from within the Bay of Bengal, providing the ‘robust second-strike capability’ as stated in India’s nuclear doctrine.”

Certainly Pakistan and China have much to worry about and there should absolutely be no doubts about Indian ambitions in the region. Pakistan understands that in Gwadar lies a strategic opportunity for both China and Pakistan to do what India already assumes they are capable of doing: encircle India and do so effectively. During Chinese President Xi Jingping’s recent maiden visit, China and Pakistan inked 51 agreements  worth $46 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and various other development and infrastructure projects in Pakistan. Before Xi’s visit to Pakistan, there were reports about a Chinese sale of eight submarines to Pakistan but no such agreement has yet been signed by the two countries. Pakistan has five medium sized submarines but it requires new submarine platforms for an assured second strike capability. Acquiring such a capability entails serious budgetary investment and despite an increase in Pakistan’s defense budget, it is some years away from developing the sea leg of its strategic triad. While the government of Pakistan is happy about substantial Chinese investment, it must not lose sight of what is strategically important to Pakistan: a sea-based second strike platform.

Management and operation of Gwadar port was given to a Chinese company in 2013 after the Port Singapore Authority (PSA) broke off its agreement of administrative control of Gwadar five years into a forty year agreement. While its submarine development is underway, Pakistan should not waste time in proposing to the Chinese that the port of Gwadar can be used as a docking facility for the Chinese conventional subs helping China conduct its counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden more effectively. Look at the map once again: currently Chinese subs stop at the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka for refueling and refreshment of crew before heading to the Gulf of Aden, but once they will be docked at the port of Gwadar their logistical needs will be met in much less time and with shorter distance to the Gulf of Aden – increasing the overall effectiveness of their counter-piracy missions.

India hopes to undermine any advantages Gwadar might provide Pakistan and China by gaining operational control of the Chabahar port in Iran. Chabahar will not only provide India a direct access route to Afghanistan, Central Asia, and beyond, it will also serve as a listening post for India allowing it to monitor Sino-Pak naval activities. What can Pakistan do to ensure that it does not lose the strategic opportunity Gwadar presents? The first and perhaps the single most important thing Pakistan can do is to ensure that development in Balochistan through massive Chinese investment in the region benefits the people of Balochistan before anyone else, listen to Baloch grievances, and involve them in decision-making where development of Balochistan is concerned. The insurgency in Balochistan is Pakistan’s Achilles’ heel, and while we can tell the world that “external forces” are trying to destabilize the region by aiding Baloch insurgents, we need to start treating Balochistan like the strategic “asset” that it is and protect it at all costs.

One sure way of diluting Indian second-strike advantage against Pakistan and China is by letting Chinese SSBNs also park at Gwadar and patrol Pakistan’s territorial waters. As provocative as it may sound, it can provide Pakistan a) relief from having to rush to complete its own naval second-strike submarine platform, and b) allow Pakistan to benefit from deterrence by design that such an arrangement will bring along with it. However, for such an arrangement to work one major assumption would need to hold: that a non-traditional extended deterrence arrangement exists between Pakistan and China, two nuclear weapon states, whereby presence of Chinese SSBNs in Pakistan’s territorial waters will not only neutralize India’s second-strike advantage against China, but also do the same for Pakistan. I understand that such a unique deterrence arrangement whereby Pakistan benefits from Chinese SSBN presence in the Arabian Sea will raise many eyebrows due to complex regional rivalries, several political sensitivities in the region, and the limitations of China’s own strategic doctrine. However, I will risk putting this thought out there in the interest of generating a dialogue on possible extended deterrence arrangements in South Asia that are unique and indigenous to the regional dynamics, and examine their affect on strategic stability in South Asia.

China’s presence in the Indian Ocean, Gulf, and the Arabian Sea in coming years is a foregone conclusion. All India and the United States have to do is wait and see how it unfolds. There’s no stopping that and Pakistan will have a critical role to play in it. I just hope that Pakistan is smarter about how it strategically aligns with China to offset India’s sea-based second-strike advantage.


Image: SM Rafiq Photography, Getty


Posted in , China, Defence, Doctrine, Foreign Policy, History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Maritime, nuclear navy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan

Rabia Akhtar

Rabia Akhtar is Director, Centre for Security, Strategy and Policy Research and heads the School of Integrated Social Sciences at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. She is a member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Council on Foreign Affairs. She is also a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. Dr. Akhtar holds a PhD in Security Studies from Kansas State University. She has written extensively on South Asian nuclear security and deterrence dynamics. She is the author of the book ‘The Blind Eye: U.S. Non-proliferation Policy Towards Pakistan from Ford to Clinton’. Dr. Akhtar is also the Editor of Pakistan Politico, Pakistan’s first strategic and foreign affairs magazine. She received her Masters in International Relations from Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad and her Masters in Political Science from Eastern Illinois University, USA. She is also a Fulbright alumna (2010-2015).

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7 thoughts on “Deterrence by Design: Sino-Pak Strategic Cooperation in Gwadar

  1. Fantastic Post Rabz. I do however, have a few questions.

    You say “One sure way of diluting Indian second-strike advantage against Pakistan and China is by letting Chinese SSBNs also park at Gwadar and patrol Pakistan’s territorial waters.” Agreed but could this be considered doable? Is Pakistan hoping for too much given that this is Xi Jingping’s China after all. This requires a considerable amount of diplomatic alacrity to convince Beijing to park their subs in a port such as Gwadar, be it for China’s counter piracy activities.

    Secondly, don’t you think the “Sino Triangle” is to expand China’s clout in South Asia to shoo off the Elephant, before the Dragon puffs into the South China Sea, where the real showdown with the US will take place?

  2. In Pakistan, we believe that Indo-US strategic partnership is meant to counter China. If this makes sense then it is also plausible that China might use Pakistan to engage India when we know that majority of Indian forces are deployed at Pakistani border and China will be competing India in Indian Ocean. Moreover you are proposing that China should provide Pakistan sea based deterrence capability against India; then the question is what would China be getting in return especially keeping in mind the price for China as it would not only send a wrong signal to India but it would also annoy USA. Soon after independence, we allied with USA for military support and we still complain that they betrayed us. Then we aligned with non-state actors, now they are hurting us and we are unable to control them. Why should not just accept the status quo with India and take effective actions against militant groups? Why don’t we constructively engage India through diplomatic means? Why don’t we accept that we are weaker state due to our worsening economic indicators? Why don’t we acknowledge that India is too large, in terms of geography, population and economic prowess, for us to compete with?

    I think it is in our strategic culture to just for the sake of competing India, we undermine our sovereignty. We are fine with US’s influence in our internal matters, Saudi Arabia using us like mercenaries, and Chinese using us for extra circular activities but we just cannot accept India a better power than us.

    My conclusion is that tense relationship with India makes our military powerful and also an excuse to seek more funding.

  3. Well done, Dr. Akhtar.

    A couple of reactions.

    Are sea-based capabilities needed for China, India, and Pakistan for secure second strike capabilities? Apparently so, since all three are intent on having sea-based deterrents. But I don’t see capabilities in this part of the world to completely nullify land-based, mobile missiles. This is very hard to do. How many land-based, retaliatory strikes do you think would be acceptable to Beijing, Delhi, or Islamabad/Rawalpindi? If the answer is “not many,” and if no leader can have high confidence in getting every last mobile missile, and if targeting decisions must be made in deep crisis, when missiles are in motion, then land-based capabilities will provide assured retaliation, no?

    I read and see pictures in the Pakistani media that Gwadar has loading and off-loading facilities for sea-based commerce. What I don’t know is whether Gwadar has port facilities for submarines and surface warships. If not, I expect this to happen. I also expect Chinese subs to dock there. But it may take a while for China’s SSBNs to carry out long-distance patrols. And SSBNs usually don’t make stops at foreign ports. So if what you propose comes to pass, this would be a message sender, for sure.

    What seems likely to me is that Chinese attack submarines would make port calls in Gwadar, just as they have in Sri Lanka. That, too, would be a message sender.

    Best wishes,

  4. Interesting conceptualization ” Deterrence by Design” . As i see it, this conceptualization has more to do with political reorganization of Pakistan’s relations with China that might facilitate a tacit extended deterrence arrangement with unique characteristics rather than a traditional model of extended deterrence. Pakistan needs to evaluate realistically its requirements, challenges, efficacy and more importantly , the intended effect it wants to generate to secure its interests. Does Pakistan requires such an arrangement for deterrence purposes? Answer in my view is NO (operationally) but YES ( political signalling). What would be the biggest challenge for its operationalization? Limitation of Chinese strategic thinking . Would it be effective if materialized? Depends upon the intended objective and its structure. SSBN port calls will not neutralize Indian sea based second strike capabilities but would certainly cause a political headache for Indian policy makers. What can be intended effect and its scope Pakistan would want to generate? Should it be strictly deterrence driven or should it be responding to larger geopolitical trends in the region? Plus how about Pakistan enhancing its relationship with Tehran, in order to prevent or mitigate negative implications of Tehran-Delhi relationship, and seeking deterrence by design at the same time.

  5. The major assumption in such a discourse and relationship of dependency is that Pakistan remains an asset to China. Between India and China there exists no known enmity but mere competition, often alongside collaboration. The belief that China will jeopardize its important economic relationships for the sake of Pakistan or any other country is far fetched. Countries that stand on their own feet earn international respect, those dependent on handouts are destined to be squeezed like a lemon. India and China have coexisted for thousands of years as good neighbors, to presume that they can be provoked into warfare by saboteurs is to live a delusion. This theory of “you use my territory to encircle and bomb your enemy” is a cold war illusion long dead. The world has moved on.

  6. As far as Pakistan is apprehensive, it should be vibrant in its objectives and defining its foreign policy goals to move with the fast moving world. If China succeeds in surpassing the US in economy and military, provided by geographical access in Pakistan, is it wise to give that deep access to a foreign country in one’s own? It might sound like violation of international customs.

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