By Mahendra Ved*
The establishment of Pakistan Navy’s special ‘Task Force-88’ (TF-88) on December 13, 2016, exclusively for maritime security of Gwadar port, is the next logical step that China and Pakistan have taken after they operationalised the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) last month.
It is a given under the $46 billion CPEC that the task force will be equipped and financed by China, just the way it financed, designed, built and now operates the Gwadar port. This has serious implications for the entire region.
With this new geopolitical reality, it is inevitable to conclude that Pakistan has outsourced its national security, particularly in the Indian Ocean, by integrating it with that of China.
The Indian strategic planners must now face the inevitable: Any future military conflict with Pakistan is bound to involve China — directly.
China had adopted threatening postures against India during the 1965 and 1971 conflicts. But in future, it would be compelled to act to protect its own ships, equipment and personnel stationed at Gwadar.
Any notions about Indian naval superiority in the region must now be seriously reviewed and revised after this new, although not surprising, development.
For China, this underscores increasing commitment to the CPEC running from its Xinjiang region to Pakistan’s Gwadar port. It is both a necessity and a tool for power projection.
Whatever be China’s vision of its bold entry into the Indian Ocean, Pakistan is banking on the Chinese presence and its future role.
The commissioning of TF-88, made at an International Maritime Conference on the CPEC, the first held at Gwadar, was accompanied by announcement, as per Pakistani media reports, of the objective: For “protection of associated sea lanes against both conventional and non-traditional threats”.
The creation of TF-88 has been necessitated by the surge in maritime activity at Gwadar port — CPEC’s nodal point that is bound to impact the region’s sea lanes and with that come maritime risks.
TF-88 is to comprise ships, Fast Attack Craft, aircraft, drones (unmanned aerial vehicles), and surveillance assets. Additionally, marines would be deployed at sea and around Gwadar for security operations, Dawn newspaper reported, quoting an unnamed senior Pakistan Navy official.
Considerable planning has obviously been undertaken. In October last year, Islamabad had said it would acquire eight Type 41 Yuan-class diesel-electric submarines, half of which may be built in Pakistan while the other half would be made in China and transferred.
In a military relationship that has spanned five decades, this is certainly the most significant Chinese commitment that is obviously aimed at fulfilling its long-cherished desire to gain access to the Indian Ocean, very close to the Gulf region, the hydrocarbons’ hub.
Looking at the dimensions of CPEC and the need to protect it, this would be only a small, but significant portion of the overall defence of Gwadar port. On land, Pakistan has already committed to raising a special force to guard the corridor from internal troubles including Islamist militants and disgruntled groups of Balochis.
With focus on the CPEC, the Navies of both sides recently engaged in a joint exercise. The fourth such exercise concluded on November 21, 2016.
On its part, the Pakistan Navy has been increasing security at Gwadar port, conducting security patrols and coastal exercises, enhancing maritime domain awareness and engaging law enforcement agencies.
It is reportedly considering buying super-fast ships from China and Turkey for its special squadron to be deployed for the security of Gwadar port.
A ship-building project is being deliberated at Port Qasim in Karachi and Gwadar. The two advanced shipyards would design and develop ships and other security equipment for Pakistan Navy.
India is not far from the CPEC and it has been accused by Pakistan of working to sabotage the ambitious joint venture. This is depicted by Pakistan Navy’s claim — denied by the Indian Navy — that on November 14, an Indian submarine was detected snooping close to Pakistani waters and was shooed away.
The announcement of TF-88’s commissioning saw the same day a claim by Pakistani official Tasneem Aslam, Secretary (United Nations and Economic Cooperation) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As if justification of Sino-Pak military cooperation was at all needed, she was quoted as saying at a seminar in Islamabad that India was “developing atomic submarines” and that it was building its atomic stockpile ‘day by day’. The claim, or the report of it, was vague, but not its intent.
Such claims notwithstanding, India needs to note that Gwadar had a significant visitor in November in Russia’s Federal Security Services chief Alexander Bogdanov. He was reportedly on an inspection tour to assess whether Gwadar would be suitable for visits by Russian ships as well.
This is not surprising considering Russia’s growing proximity to China and efforts to find an alternative market to sell its military hardware, now that India, the old ally, has increasingly preferred Western defence systems.
The first-ever visit to Chinese-run Gwadar by a high Russian official significantly came within days of the American people electing Donald Trump as their next President.
Considering that the British Empire unleashed the original “Great Game” to prevent Czarist Russia from reaching the Indian Ocean and proceeded to drown the population of Imperial China in opium, these developments should carry their own implications for all concerned — that these are not just symbolic, but also deeply strategic.
*Mahendra Ved is a current affairs analyst and President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]