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:
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