Pakistan has asked China to build a naval base at its port of Gwadar, and wants the Chinese navy to maintain a regular presence there, Britain’s Financial Times reported Monday.
“We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s defence minister, told the Times, confirming that the request was conveyed to China during a visit last week by Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani.
Such a foothold would be the first overseas location offering support to China’s navy for out-of-area missions, the Times wrote, and so would be likely to reinforce international concerns over Beijing’s longer-term military ambitions.
In the past, China has shied away from military moves that might provoke the U.S. or its partners, such as India.
“This will definitely be a ‘game changer’ in China’s defense and security relationships,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a south Asia security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The construction of a naval base in Gwadar would provide its own ships and possibly submarines with ‘permanent’ basing rights, along with the possibility of regular patrols and exercises in the Arabian Sea to protect the growing number of Chinese-flagged oil tankers traversing the region to meet its increasing energy demands from the Gulf region.”
The decision comes at a time of heightened tensions between Pakistan and the United States.
U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a raid on his fortified compound in Pakistan on May 2, without notifying Pakistan in advance. And just last week, Pakistan soldiers fired at two NATO helicopters that had entered Pakistan’s airspace.
During Gilani’s visit, Beijing agreed to expedite delivery of a second batch of 50 jointly developed JF-17 fighter jets to Pakistan, possibly within six months.
Pakistan’s defence officials also want the Chinese navy to build up its presence in the Indian Ocean and the northern Arabia sea, to counterbalance India’s naval forces. the Times noted.
Anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden have made China’s navy aware that it lacks port access for resupply and maintenance, and the force had lobbied for the construction of foreign bases.
Christopher Yung, senior research fellow at National Defense University in Washington, said in a recent paper that “the nature and degree of China’s access to out-of-area bases will be the ultimate indication and warning” of any intention to become a global military power.