Maritime Challenges Of 21st Century And Sino-Pak Friendship: A Theoretical Analysis


A perpetual transition is one of the prominent attributes of the international political system. The conversion occurs because of the interplay of several factors. The alterations in the characteristics of revisionist and status quo powers nonetheless play significantly in this endless change. Consequently, states directly experience impact of international political order on their economic and strategic environment from time to time, leading to convergence or divergence of interests between states.

Accordingly, in international relations, today’s foe could be friend tomorrow and vice versa. It is under this pattern of a system characterized by varying state-interests that statesmen govern foreign affairs and craft foreign policies of their states. Therefore, the only key to successful and reliable state to state relations is mutual convergence of interests. Only convergence of interest can ensure the possibility of long-term and trust worthy relationships among states.

The coming of twenty-first century has witnessed an intense rise in pressure of growing trade, energy transit and other economic activities between states. Growing dependency of international trade and other economic activities on sea-routes has made state-to-state maritime relations even more crucial. Moreover, a proportional rise in illegal activities on sea domain such as piracy, drug/human trafficking terrorism, environmental issues have added to maritime security challenges.

The intensity of the issue demands a proper code of conduct to be followed, in order to ensure secure and safe maritime domain for economic activities. Although this is a matter of global concern, however; keeping in view the peculiar nature of South Asian environment, a rational response from Pakistan was obvious.

In the changing and competitive environment, Pakistan has a multi-layered national interest to protect. The shores of Arabian Sea have a major role in promoting its national interest. Its maritime routes impact several aspects of its national security and economic welfare of the state.

Because of this significance of the country‘s maritime domain, it was considered essential to build a strong indigenous naval capability to cope with the growing challenges and threats of twenty-first century. For time to time Pakistan has tried to secure its maritime domain from external threats and challenges yet the state cannot meet these challenges all alone. For this purpose, China was considered to be the most reliable source, and in a decades-long friendship, China has verily proven itself a reliable maritime ally. Of late, the evolving geo-political realities, regional challenges and shared perceptions has given a new impetus to this enduring partnership.

The Sino-Pak maritime relationship can be explained with reference to the aforementioned “mutual convergence of interest” frame of analysis. The relations between Pakistan and China are not only rooted deep in the region’s history but are founded on mutual trust underscored by commonality of interests. Both states share a particular geographical location and common perceptions on myriad regional challenges and threats. The leadership of both sides has always tried to enhance mutual cooperative ties in economic, defence and various other sectors.

Although Sino-Pak defense ties were established in mid 60s, cooperation in the maritime sector had to wait till after the war of 1971, when Pakistan Navy considered it critically urgent to review the naval strategy.

An effort got underway to replace mostly WWII vintage ex-British warships. Since China as a policy then did not venture into Blue waters and remained restricted to operations in the coastal or brown waters, PLA Navy had not invested in heavy naval combatants capable of conducting sustained operations in deeper waters. Nonetheless China’s assistance came handy as induction of several Fast Patrol Boats in quick succession in mid 70s was followed by provision of a number of anti-submarine corvettes.

In 80s, PN acquired its first batch of missile boats from China. The era of 90s later saw a new boom in Pak-China maritime collaboration. A number of programs were inked between PN and PLA-N including port calls and bilateral training. Construction of missile craft PNS SHUJAAT and PNS JALALAT equipped with long range surface to surface missiles at KS&EWi was also the result of this expanding collaboration. There has been no looking back since. With PLA- N discarding its early strategy of inshore operations and duly replacing it with operations in the wider and larger sea expanse of Pacific and Indian Oceans, its technology, weapon, sensors and construction of large ships skills and thinking has undergone massive shift.

A key lesson drawn by Pakistan Navy both during and following the cold war era was that for provision of ships and advance technology necessary in naval warfare, it could not wholly depend on foreign equipment manufacturers and suppliers. The PN-PLA Navy have fortunately and triumphantly ushered into an era of collaboration which is marked by the construction of large surface combatants.

In 2005 a contractual deal with ToT was signed between PN and PLA Navy. According to the stipulations, four F-22 P class Frigates were to be delivered to Pakistan Navy. Out of these, three were to be constructed in Chinese Shipyard, while the fourth was to be constructed in Pakistan at KS&EW with Chinese assistance. While three Chinese built frigates have since become integral part of PN fleet, the last one PNS ASLAT, being built at the Karachi Shipyard is expected to be formally commissioned in the PN fleet in April, 2013.

From a pure strategic and economic perspective, the commissioning of PNS ASLAT while being a giant leap towards indigenization of warship construction in Pakistan, it also revitalizes and breathes a new life in KSEW to become a viable state enterprise capable of undertaking similar orders from regional countries in future.

PNS ASLAT had successfully gone through Harbour and Sea trials in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Outfitted with cutting edge combat system and technology, the ship is capable of multiple operations including anti-submarine and anti-surface. It has a Z9EC helicopter onboard which can conduct variety of operations. With the integration of four modern frigates, Pakistan Navy’s potential in securing national maritime interests in the far reaches of the western Indian Ocean has received a tremendous boost. It has also spiked the level of confidence in Sino-Pak maritime relationship and is a landmark achievement for both navies.

China’s regular participation in multinational exercise AMAN, organized by PN, since 2007 onwards; its role in construction of Pakistan’s deep water port Gwadar and later on acquiring its operational rights, and rendering technological and professional assistance in the construction of Fast Attack Missile Craft at Karachi shipyard, are also landmarks of Sino-Pak maritime cooperation.

Energy is going to be the most influential factor behind shaping and reshaping international relations in the twenty-first century. Because of energy reserves and its transit, the significance of maritime domain of the Indian Ocean, which Pakistan and China both share through the Arabian Sea, is going to rise further in this “energy-century”, leading to proportional increase in the significance of their maritime cooperation.

World is gradually moving towards a multi-polar system, where there would be more than one centers of economic and military power. Such a change would require from smaller powers to align themselves with larger groups of states to serve their needs. Whereas, having uninterrupted supply of goods, oil, raw materials for economic needs and security of their strategic sphere would require from the major powers to have strong ties with neighbouring states. Moreover, to prevent high seas from anarchy, multilateral cooperation appears to be the only viable option.

Beijing and Islamabad thus share many areas of common interests which solidify their friendship and co-operation. The maritime domain is just one such area which highlights the depth and intensity of their friendship. Therefore, this possible scenario strengthens the hypothesis that the convergence of interest does help forging a long-term and reliable relationship between two states.


Miss Umm-e-​Habiba is P​h.D. Fellow at Quaid-i-Azam University Islamabad and Lecturer at National University of Science and Technology. She is a research-analyst of Pakistan and global affairs.

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