Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the ship type of China’s Linyi, which is a frigate.
ISLAMABAD — China and Pakistan on Friday wrapped up their largest bilateral naval exercise to date, marking the first time Pakistan hosted such an advanced Chinese destroyer for training.
The Sea Guardians event is the latest in series of joint maritime exercises that began in 2014, but this is the third time it took on that title. The drills take place annually, and the two countries alternate as hosts. The sea phase this month off Pakistan’s port city of Karachi.
The exercise, which ran Nov. 11-17, aimed to demonstrate China and Pakistan’s common aim to safeguard their shared economic corridor — a key part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative — according to Senior Capt. Qi Jian of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, who spoke during a media briefing before the drills.
Officials at the briefing also noted the exercise would help strengthen Sino-Pakistan relations and explore new avenues for naval cooperation.
The Chinese contingent included the Type 052DL destroyer Zibo, the latest version of the design that reportedly features anti-stealth capabilities, and a Song-class submarine. This is the first time Pakistan hosted such an advanced Chinese destroyer for an exercise.
Other Chinese submarines have visited Pakistan. In 2015, a Type 039A/Type 041 Yuan diesel-electric sub docked in Karachi, followed by a Type 093 Shang nuclear-powered attack boat in 2017.
The rest of the Chinese fleet attending this month’s exercise included the two Type 054A frigates Jingzhou and Linyi, the submarine support ship and replenishment vessel Qiandaohua, helicopters, and a marine detachment.
One element of the exercise began Nov. 14 with Chinese vessels and the Pakistani Type 054A/P frigate Shahjahan sailing out of Karachi.
The Chinese frigate Linyi and the Pakistani F-22P frigate Saif appear to have undertaken separate joint maritime drills.
Other elements of the Pakistan Navy participating in the exercise included Azmat-class missile boats and aircraft. The head of the Pakistan Navy’s media branch, Commodore Syed Rizwan Khalid, said no Pakistani submarine attended, noting that “for the safety of participating units, normally only one submarine participates in an exercise.”
Command of the flotilla rotated to each ship, with onboard observers monitoring the organization and implementation of the drills.
Khalid told Defense News the drills “simulated [a] multi-threat environment.” The training — for visit, board, search and seizure missions; air defense; anti-surface warfare; joint anti-submarine warfare; countermine operations; and special operations — helped “further enhance maritime cooperation and defense relations through mutual exchange of maritime experience and interoperability between the two navies.”
“Both navies have been regularly participating in this series of exercises, and interoperability between both the navies has significantly matured to undertake full-spectrum maritime operations together in the Arabian Sea,” he added.
The India factor
Frank O’Donnell, a South Asia expert with the Stimson Center think tank, said this month’s Sea Guardians event reemphasized “Chinese commitment to modernizing Pakistan’s Navy and expanding its presence in the Indian Ocean.”
India’s Navy, he told Defense News, was “reportedly tracking all the Chinese ships involved in the exercise, but it will be especially concerned by the Chinese selection of a Type 052 guided-missile destroyer and Type 039 diesel-electric attack submarine to participate.”
“These ship classes are often key elements of [anti-access/area denial] strategies, which has long been Pakistan’s naval approach towards India. China-Pakistan operations involving these vessels will strengthen Pakistan’s capabilities toward expanding its A2/AD envelope against India,” O’Donnell said.
While the Song-class boat may not be China’s most advanced submarine, O’Donnell said its presence likely concerned India, as did the value it provided to Pakistan.
“In particular the Type 039 — as a predecessor class to the eight Type 041s, which Pakistan is acquiring from China, and which will likely be tasked with dual nuclear and conventional strike missions — will give Pakistan additional experience of effectively operating with a submarine very similar to the ones it is inducting,” he said.
Usman Ansari is the Pakistan correspondent for Defense News.