12 August 2020

CMSI China Maritime Report #7: “Gwadar: China’s Potential Strategic Strongpoint in Pakistan”

A superb new contribution from my colleagues!

Isaac B. KardonConor M. Kennedy, and Peter A. DuttonGwadar: China’s Potential Strategic Strongpoint in PakistanChina Maritime Report 7 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, August 2020).

China Maritime Report No. 7 offers a detailed examination of China’s infrastructure project in the port of Gwadar, Pakistan. Written by Dr. Peter Dutton, Dr. Isaac Kardon, and Mr. Conor Kennedy, this report is the second in a series of studies looking at China’s interest in Indian Ocean ports and its “strategic strongpoints” there (战略支点). People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, military officers, and civilian analysts use the strategic strongpoint concept to describe certain strategically valuable foreign ports with terminals and commercial zones owned and operated by Chinese firms.

Gwadar is an inchoate “strategic strongpoint” in Pakistan that may one day serve as a major platform for China’s economic, diplomatic, and military interactions across the northern Indian Ocean region. As of August 2020, it is not a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base, but rather an underdeveloped and underutilized commercial multipurpose port built and operated by Chinese companies in service of broader PRC foreign and domestic policy objectives. Foremost among PRC objectives for Gwadar are (1) to enable direct transport between China and the Indian Ocean, and (2) to anchor an effort to stabilize western China by shoring up insecurity on its periphery. To understand these objectives, this case study first analyzes the characteristics and functions of the port, then evaluates plans for hinterland transport infrastructure connecting it to markets and resources. We then examine the linkage between development in Pakistan and security in Xinjiang. Finally, we consider the military potential of the Gwadar site, evaluating why it has not been utilized by the PLA then examining a range of uses that the port complex may provide for Chinese naval operations.

Key Findings

  • Chinese analysts view Gwadar as a top choice for establishing a new overseas strategic strongpoint, owing to its prime geographic location and strong Sino-Pakistani ties. Many PLA analysts consider Gwadar to be a suitable site for naval support.
  • China’s interest in Gwadar—and in Pakistan’s economic development in general—does not depend primarily on commercial returns. Instead, the Gwadar project is best understood as a mode of strategic investment in China’s internal and external security.
  • Externally, Gwadar’s principal strategic purpose for China is to become an “exit to the ocean” (出海口)—that is, a direct route via Chinese infrastructure to secure reliable access to the strategic space and resources of the northern Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.
  • Internally, Gwadar is an extension of China’s national security and development policies. Beijing seeks to develop commercial linkages between western China, Pakistan, and Central Asia to promote economic growth and thus manage perceived risks to social stability in Xinjiang.
  • Extensive transport infrastructure is fundamental to China’s overall plans for Pakistan. Yet while the planned transport corridor is often discussed as though it were operational, very little modern infrastructure has been built beyond a few roads and the port itself.
  • The inland markets and resources of Pakistan (and Afghanistan) present some commercial prospects, but these have not yet borne fruit in part due to severe insecurity.
  • Security measures may mitigate some risks to Chinese projects and personnel, but Gwadar and its hinterlands are unlikely to be secure enough to become a major commercial entrepôt.
  • Gwadar is not a PLA base, but it is used extensively by the Pakistan Navy (PN). The PN operates frigates and patrol vessels bought from China and will also field Chinese-made submarines. Their facilities, parts, and technicians may be readily employed for some of the PLAN fleet.
  • Gwadar’s port facilities could support the PLAN’s largest vessels. Beyond the pier, Gwadar possesses a sizeable laydown yard for marshalling military equipment and materials.
  • Gwadar will not necessarily have utility as a base in a wartime scenario. The most critical factor informing this view is the apparent lack of political commitment between China and Pakistan to provide mutual military support during times of crisis or conflict.
  • If the infrastructure projects mature, Gwadar could become a key peacetime replenishment or transfer point for PLA equipment and personnel. Prepositioning parts, supplies, and other materials at Gwadar would be a productive use of the port and airfield facilities.

Series Overview

This China Maritime Report on Gwadar is the second in a series of case studies on China’s Indian Ocean “strategic strongpoints” (战略支点). People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, military officers, and civilian analysts use the strategic strongpoint concept to describe certain strategically valuable foreign ports with terminals and commercial zones owned and operated by Chinese firms. Each case study analyzes a different port on the Indian Ocean, selected to capture geographic, commercial, and strategic variation. Each employs the same analytic method, drawing on Chinese official sources, scholarship, and industry reporting to present a descriptive account of the port, its transport infrastructure, the markets and resources it accesses, and its naval and military utility.

The case studies illuminate the various functions of overseas strategic strongpoint ports in China’s Indian Ocean strategy. While the ports and associated infrastructure projects vary across key characteristics, all ports share certain distinctive qualities: (1) strategic location, positioned astride major sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and/or near vital maritime chokepoints; (2) high-level coordination among Chinese party-state officials, state-owned enterprises, and private firms; (3) comprehensive commercial scope, including Chinese-led development of associated rail, road, and pipeline infrastructure and efforts to promote trade, financing, industry, resource extraction, and inland markets; and (4) potential or actual military utilization, with dual-use functions that can enable both economic and military activities.

Ports are a key enabler for China’s economic, political, and potentially military expansion across the globe. As China’s overseas economic activity grows, so too have demands on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to secure PRC citizens, investments, and supply lines abroad. Official PLA missions now include “safeguarding the security of China’s overseas interests,” but “deficiencies in overseas operations and support” persist. Yet with the notable exception of the sole overseas PLA Navy (PLAN) base at Djibouti, all of the facilities examined in this series are ostensibly commercial. Notably, the establishment of the Djibouti base followed many years of Chinese investment at the adjacent commercial port and sustained attention into resources and markets inland.

We should not assume that Djibouti is a model for other future bases. Instead, China’s strategic strongpoint model should be understood as an evolving alternative to the familiar model of formal overseas basing. With strongpoints, trade, investment, and diplomacy with the host country remain the principal functions. However, the strongpoint creates conditions of possibility for the PLAN to establish a network of supply, logistics, and intelligence hubs. We are already observing this nascent network in operation across the Indian Ocean, and this series seeks to understand its key nodes.


Peter A. DuttonIsaac B. Kardon, and Conor M. KennedyDjibouti: China’s First Overseas Strategic StrongpointChina Maritime Report 6 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, April 2020).

This report analyzes PRC economic and military interests and activities in Djibouti. The small, east African nation is the site of the PLA’s first overseas military base, but also serves as a major commercial hub for Chinese firms—especially in the transport and logistics industry. We explain the synthesis of China’s commercial and strategic goals in Djibouti through detailed examination of the development and operations of commercial ports and related infrastructure. Employing the “Shekou Model” of comprehensive port zone development, Chinese firms have flocked to Djibouti with the intention of transforming it into a gateway to the markets and resources of Africa—especially landlocked Ethiopia—and a transport hub for trade between Europe and Asia. With diplomatic and financial support from Beijing, PRC firms have established a China-friendly business ecosystem and a political environment that proved conducive to the establishment of a permanent military presence. The Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission that justified the original PLA deployment in the region is now only one of several missions assigned to Chinese armed forces at Djibouti, a contingent that includes marines and special forces. The PLA is broadly responsible for the security of China’s “overseas interests,” for which Djibouti provides essential logistical support. China’s first overseas strategic strongpoint at Djibouti is a secure commercial foothold on the African continent and a military platform for expanding PLA operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Daniel Caldwell, Joseph Freda, and Lyle Goldstein, China’s Dreadnought? The PLA Navy’s Type 055 Cruiser and Its Implications for the Future Maritime Security Environment, China Maritime Report 5 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, February 2020).

China’s naval modernization, a process that has been underway in earnest for three decades, is now hitting its stride. The advent of the Type 055 cruiser firmly places the PLAN among the world’s very top naval services. This study, which draws upon a unique set of Chinese-language writings, offers the first comprehensive look at this new, large surface combatant. It reveals a ship that has a stealthy design, along with a potent and seemingly well-integrated sensor suite. With 112 VLS cells, moreover, China’s new cruiser represents a large magazine capacity increase over legacy surface combatants. Its lethality might also be augmented as new, cutting edge weaponry could later be added to the accommodating design. This vessel, therefore, provides very substantial naval capability to escort Chinese carrier groups, protect Beijing’s long sea lanes, and take Chinese naval diplomacy to an entirely new and daunting level. Even more significant perhaps, the Type 055 will markedly expand the range and firepower of the PLAN and this could substantially impact myriad potential conflict scenarios, from the Indian Ocean to the Korean Peninsula and many in between. This study of Type 055 development, moreover, does yield evidence that Chinese naval strategists are acutely aware of major dilemmas confronting the U.S. Navy surface fleet.

Conor M. Kennedy, Civil Transport in PLA Power Projection, China Maritime Report 4 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, December 2019).

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has ambitious goals for its power projection capabilities. Aside from preparing for the possibility of using force to resolve Beijing’s territorial claims in East Asia, it is also charged with protecting China’s expanding “overseas interests.” These national objectives require the PLA to be able to project significant combat power beyond China’s borders. To meet these needs, the PLA is building organic logistics support capabilities such as large naval auxiliaries and transport aircraft. But it is also turning to civilian enterprises to supply its transportation needs.

Ryan D. Martinson and Peter A. Dutton, China’s Distant-Ocean Survey Activities: Implications for U.S. National Security, China Maritime Report 3 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, November 2018).

Today, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is investing in marine scientific research on a massive scale. This investment supports an oceanographic research agenda that is increasingly global in scope. One key indicator of this trend is the expanding operations of China’s oceanographic research fleet. On any given day, 5-10 Chinese “scientific research vessels” (科学考查船) may be found operating beyond Chinese jurisdictional waters, in strategically-important areas of the Indo-Pacific. Overshadowed by the dramatic growth in China’s naval footprint, their presence largely goes unnoticed. Yet the activities of these ships and the scientists and engineers they embark have major implications for U.S. national security.

This report explores some of these implications. It seeks to answer basic questions about the out-of-area—or “distant-ocean” (远洋)—operations of China’s oceanographic research fleet. Who is organizing and conducting these operations? Where are they taking place? What do they entail? What are the national drivers animating investment in these activities?

Ryan D. Martinson, The Arming of China’s Maritime Frontier, China Maritime Report 2 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, June 2017).

China’s expansion in maritime East Asia has relied heavily on non-naval elements of sea power, above all white-hulled constabulary forces. This reflects a strategic decision. Coast guard vessels operating on the basis of routine administration and backed up by a powerful military can achieve many of China’s objectives without risking an armed clash, sullying China’s reputation, or provoking military intervention from outside powers.

Among China’s many maritime agencies, two organizations particularly fit this bill: China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and China Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). With fleets comprising unarmed or lightly armed cutters crewed by civilian administrators, CMS and FLE could vigorously pursue China’s maritime claims while largely avoiding the costs and dangers associated with classic “gunboat diplomacy.”

Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA, China Maritime Report 1 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, March 2017).

Amid growing awareness that China’s Maritime Militia acts as a Third Sea Force which has been involved in international sea incidents, it is necessary for decision-makers who may face such contingencies to understand the Maritime Militia’s role in China’s armed forces. Chinese-language open sources reveal a tremendous amount about Maritime Militia activities, both in coordination with and independent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Using well-documented evidence from the authors’ extensive open source research, this report seeks to clarify the Maritime Militia’s exact identity, organization, and connection to the PLA as a reserve force that plays a parallel and supporting role to the PLA. Despite being a separate component of China’s People’s Armed Forces (PAF), the militia are organized and commanded directly by the PLA’s local military commands. The militia’s status as a separate non-PLA force whose units act as “helpers of the PLA” (解放军的 助手) is further reflected in China’s practice of carrying out “joint military, law enforcement, and civilian [Navy-Maritime Law Enforcement-Maritime Militia] defense” (军警民联防). To more accurately capture the identity of the Maritime Militia, the authors propose referring to these irregular forces as the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM).