Lessons for India from China-Pakistan joint naval drills
China and Pakistan have been carrying out joint naval exercises since 2020 when they first conducted Sea Guardian-1 in the northern Arabian Sea.
In this increasingly fluid geopolitical scenario against the backdrop of the Israel-Hamas war, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the not-so-sweet meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, India’s attention has been drawn to the ongoing joint maritime exercise by the Chinese and Pakistani navies—Sea Guardian-3—in the waters and airspace of the northern Arabian Sea (AS).
Although China’s official version is that the naval exercise will focus on “joint response to maritime security threats and will include formation movement, search and rescue and anti-submarine operation, besides professional exchanges and mutual visits between the two navies”, Beijing’s ulterior motive is not lost upon New Delhi, which has been monitoring the building of Chinese naval assets in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and AS, and the docking of ships and submarines at Karachi.
From its first military base in Djibouti to the Gwadar port in Balochistan, China has been strategically mapping the IOR and the AS. The Gwadar port, inaugurated by the then Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in 2007, is owned by the Gwadar Port Authority and operated by China Overseas Port Holding Company, a state-run Chinese firm.
It has become a symbol of China’s presence on the shores of the Indian Ocean and has drawn much attention from the security forces. The Gwadar port is located roughly 600 nautical miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 25 per cent of the world’s oil passes from source countries in West Asia to international markets. Besides becoming a flagship project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Belt and Road Initiative, its ideal and strategic location for a naval base bolsters China’s power play and intelligence capabilities in the IOR.
China and Pakistan have been carrying out joint naval exercises since 2020 when they first conducted Sea Guardian-1 in the northern AS. This was followed by the second edition in 2022 in waters off Shanghai.
For Pakistan, a joint naval exercise in the AS along with long-term ally China not only means military heft and legitimacy but is also a desperate move to avoid the repetition of ‘Operation Trident’. In the 1971 war, the Indian navy brought down the Pakistan military by attacking Karachi port, the headquarters of Pakistan’s navy and the country’s economic nerve centre.