Opposition from within Pakistan and economic interests are likely to prevent China from basing its People’s Liberation Army in the country.
Pakistani lawmakers and analysts say opposition and disagreements regarding Chinese investments and Beijing’s economic and political interests are likely to prompt China to decide against a military foothold in Pakistan, which now hosts a key part of China’s One Belt One Road initiative. This Chinese grand strategy is aimed at reshaping regional and global economic relations.
A Pentagon report this week predicted that Beijing will seek to build a base in Pakistan. "[China] is seeking to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan," the report said.
Senator Usman Kakar represents the southwestern province of Balochistan in the upper house of the Pakistani Parliament. He says the $50 billion in Chinese energy and infrastructure investments collectively called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is already controversial.
Kakar says the country’s most populated eastern province of Punjab has manipulated the investments by diverting a key route and most projects from the impoverished minority provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in western Pakistan.
“The fact that China is not interested in developing the western route [through Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa] raises suspicions about their military designs,” he told Radio Mashaal. “We say that no country, including China, has the right to build military bases in the Pashtun and Baluch regions [comprising these two provinces]. We need education, health care, and employment.”
Kakar’s Pashtukkhwa Milli Awami Party is allied with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League in Balochistan and Islamabad. Other opposition parties are also likely to oppose a Chinese military presence more robustly.
For nearly a decade, militant Baluch separatist factions have attacked China’s presence in Balochistan’s Makran region, where Kakar says the coastal towns and villages of Pasni, Ormara, and Gwadar are likely sites for hosting future Chinese military bases. Baluch militants have stepped up attacks on CPEC projects since 2014.
“Gwadar still lacks clean drinking water and electricity, so we cannot expect great economic benefit from it,” Kakar said of the port, where Beijing has already spent more than $150 million and which is seen as a lynchpin of the Chinese investments apparently aimed at linking its western Xingjian region to the Gulf. “This whole belt including Pasni, Ormara, and Gwadar greatly benefits China as a location for a military base.”
Gwadar is downstream from the strait of Hormoz, one of the busiest shipping lanes -- a key route for seaborne oil shipments and a major choking point.
Analysts, however, remain skeptical about the possibility of a Chinese military presence in the country.
Hassan Askari, a specialist on defense affairs, says Beijing’s interest appears to be primarily economic motivated by its interest in decreasing reliance on the South China Sea, a trade route and home to its most important ports that is riddled with territorial disputes and far from its western region.
He says that, for now, CPEC remains an alternative trade and energy corridor linking China to the Middle East and Africa through Pakistan.
“There is no possibility of any [military] bases in Pakistan at the moment,” Askari said. “China might think about it after 15 years or so. But not for now.”
Askari noted that Pakistan is not exclusively reliant on Chinese military hardware and purchases more arms from Western countries.
Former Lieutenant General Talat Masood, another security analyst, says Beijing is unlikely to pursue military bases in Pakistan because its main interests are economic.
“While the bilateral relations between Islamabad and Beijing are strong, Pakistani public and political parties are likely to oppose Chinese military bases in their country,” he said.
In its annual report to U.S. Congress on June 6, the Pentagon noted that yearly Chinese defense spending now surpasses $180 billion. It said Islamabad is already a main customer of the multibillion-dollar Chinese arms industry. Beijing signed an agreement to sell Islamabad eight submarines last year.
Maliha Amirzada is a correspondent for Radio Mashaal.