With recent satellite images of several new complexes at the western end of Pakistan’s coast, analysts are now more confident than ever of the long-expected Chinese naval base at Gwadar in Pakistan.
One of the several complexes has been identified as a Chinese company involved in port development and has unusually high security. The base, to complement the one at Djibouti, would strengthen China’s foothold in the Indian Ocean.
Located at the western end of Pakistan’s coast, Gwadar is expected to be a major port in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This will allow Chinese goods to shortcut through Pakistan, instead of sailing all the way around South Asia.
China was first reported to be planning a naval base there in January 2018. While the plan has never been confirmed officially, it would be a natural path.
The high-security compound has been identified as being used by the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC Ltd). This is a majority state-owned company which is heavily involved in many Chinese civil engineering projects. While some degree of security is normal in the region, the level of security seen here is extensive.
It has anti-vehicle berms, security fences and a high wall. Sentry posts and elevated guard towers cover the perimeter between the fence and the inner wall. This suggests armed guards with rifles.
China has good reason to focus on security. The region, near the border with Iran and Afghanistan, is facing a long-standing insurgency. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) seeks an independent state for the Baloch people. They carried out an attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi on November 23 2018, and on a hotel in Gwadar on May 11 2019. The latter attack targeted the Zaver Pearl-Continental 5-star Hotel which is another centerpiece of Chinese investment in the town.
The high security compound is not alone. There are also two smaller sites built in the last year with rows of blue-roofed buildings. It has been suggested that these might be barracks for a Chinese Marine Corps garrison. China was reported to be deploying marines there back in March 2017. But the sites lack the level of security that would be expected. Whatever their purpose, their location and timing suggests that they are connected to the port expansion.
Until now the commercial port at Gwadar appears to have been under-used. But Gwadar’s luck as a port is already changing. A deal was recently made to allow Afghanistan-bound trade to use the port. The first large merchant ship, the MV Manet, landed 17,600 tons of wheat there last week. But the economic benefit of the Chinese port and potential naval base could be much larger.
Whether the Chinese naval base materializes remains to be seen. But these new sites, including the heavily defended compound, may indicate that the next phase of port construction is imminent. And if the Chinese Navy does begin using the port it will strengthen their capabilities in the Indian Ocean.