ISLAMABAD — A nine-day Sino-Pakistani naval exercise commenced in Pakistan’s port of Karachi on Monday with the arrival of a Chinese naval task group from its South Sea Fleet. Sea Guardians 2020 is the sixth in the bilateral series, which, according to the Pakistan Navy, will focus on “augmenting interoperability and strategic cooperation.”

The exercise will include a range of drills to share “professional experiences on contemporary and non-traditional threats at sea” to improve regional security cooperation, plus promote a “safe and sustainable maritime environment.”

While stating the exercise aims to “enhance the capabilities of the two navies to jointly cope with maritime terrorism and crime,” China’s military media branch stressed it had “nothing to do with the regional situation and is not target[ing] at any third party.”

This was likely an attempt to reassure India that the drills were unrelated to the tension between rivals India and Pakistan.

However, India will certainly have noted that Sea Guardians included warlike air defense systems, anti-missile technology, anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and live-fire and joint marine training drills.

Sidharth Kaushal, a research fellow specializing in sea power at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said “India has generally regarded Chinese exercises and naval activity in the Indian Ocean with apprehension.” Consequently, New Delhi has invested in countering China’s naval presence.

“The Indian Navy’s efforts over the past decade to improve its situational awareness in the region and to upgrade the capabilities of tri-service command in Andaman and Nicobar reflects a growing consensus that the [Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy] will be a challenger in the [Indian Ocean region] in the foreseeable future,” Kaushal said.

Chinese advantage

The commander of the Pakistan Navy fleet, Vice Adm. Asif Khaliq, described the Sea Guardians series as “the basis for the two navies to test and improve their technical and tactical capabilities.” China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, also compared the exercise to the bilateral land-based Warrior exercise, and the considerably larger air-based Shaheen (Falcon) exercise.

Author, analyst and former Australian defense attache to Islamabad Brian Cloughley told Defense News that China’s participation in such drills is meant to strengthen the country’s regional aims.

“Beijing thinks long term, and having Pakistan as an ally in the Indian Ocean is a big plus in its plans to secure trade routes and increase its regional influence. The [Pakistan Navy] is an important part of its overall strategy, and it can be expected that there will be further exercises, probably developing in size and scope,” Cloughley said.

Mansoor Ahmed, a senior fellow at the Center for International Strategic Studies in Islamabad, pointed to anti-submarine warfare, or ASW, capabilities as a focus amid Indo-Pakistani tension, given the potential for escalation involving sea-based strategic forces.

“India is hugely expanding its ASW capabilities, especially with platforms such as the P-8I and MH-60R [aircraft], which in addition to numerous bilateral and multilateral ASW exercises aimed at countering Chinese submarines specifically, will be readily applicable to countering Pakistan’s future submarine forces,” Ahmed said.

He also highlighted India’s massive numerical advantage allowing it to concentrate both surface and sub-surface force, and any future conflict will be one of attrition that may occur early in a conflict. If including loss of a Pakistani deterrent submarine, it will lower Islamabad’s nuclear threshold.

What ships were in attendance?

Chinese ships participating in Sea Guardians included the Type 052D destroyer Yinchuan, the Type 054A frigate Yuncheng, a sizable contingent of special forces, replenishment vessel Weishanhu, and Type 926 submarine support ship Liugong Island.

Pakistan contributed a pair of F-22P frigates and a pair of fast-attack craft, plus special forces.

Analysts consider China’s latest destroyers, such as the Type 055 and Type 052D, noteworthy comparable with their Western counterpart

Rather than build more Chinese-origin F-22Ps, Pakistan has ordered four modified Type 054A/P frigates that are currently under construction in China. The four ships will reportedly be equipped with CM-302 supersonic anti-ship missiles.

Though the actual lethality of supersonic anti-ship missiles is under debate, Kaushal believes if the Type 054A/P frigates are equipped with the CM-302, "this would improve Pakistan’s capacity to achieve sea denial in wartime.”

“While still operating at a naval disadvantage vis-a-vis India, as a primarily land-oriented power Pakistan needs to deny the sea in a conflict as opposed to using it per se” he said. “By contrast, India needs sea command if its Navy wishes to project power from the sea and contribute to a joint campaign.”

Consequently, he believes supersonic anti-ship missiles “would complicate the deployment of Indian naval forces near Pakistani shores and force them to operate from farther out, making it more difficult for the Indian Navy to replicate wartime successes such as the 1971 raid on Karachi.”

“Although I would not go so far as to say this changes the overall strategic balance between the two countries, it does enhance Pakistan’s ability to achieve sea denial near its own coastline,” he added.

Though officially there was no submarine taking part in Sea Guardians, the presence of China’s submarine support ship may be related to Pakistan’s requirement for such a vessel. However, Pakistan Navy spokesman Rear Adm. Arshid Javed would not confirm this.

Turkish firm STM hopes to interest Pakistan in a submarine rescue mothership design, following the construction of a tanker for the Pakistan Navy in Karachi.

Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.

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