|The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army|
Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, is Chinaís first overseas military base operated by Chinese Peopleís Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Built at a cost of $590 million in 2017, it is strategically situated in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea and guards the approaches to Suez Canal. This base significantly increases Chinaís power projection capabilities in the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean.
To the south of the city of Djibouti are other foreign military bases including of the US, France and Japan. In recent months, there have been reports of Chinese firing lasers from Djibouti to target US pilots flying in the area. PLANs Djibouti base is a well fortified establishment, Chinaís second major military base is coming up at Gwadar in Pakistan albeit it is portrayed as an international commercial port. China Communications Construction Company CCCC Ltd), to which Gwadar has been leased for 49 years has drawn a plan for Gwadar to become the trade and economic hub of South Asia with a GDP per capita of $15,000-10 times that of Pakistanís average. Projects include $5 billion investment into power sector with 15 new power plants, $1 billion invested in to generating 700,000 m3 of fresh water per day through desalination plants, a manmade island, central business district, Pakistanís tallest building all in a tax-free environment where life can be enjoyed whilst avoiding taxes Gwadar will require some 15,800 new homes by 2025, 47,600 by 2030 and 2,54,500 by 2050 according to the new Gwadar Smart City Master Plan.
Two issues should be of concern to India. First is that Pakistan has recently allowed traders of Afghanistan to use Gwadar port, which will be readily accepted especially from Taliban controlled-influence regions. Indiaís trade with Afghanistan through Chabahar remains in limbo because the Chabahar-Zahedan rail link is still incomplete because of US sanctions. Ironically, India has also soured its economic relations with Iran on behest of the US. The second issue closer home is the Gwadar becoming Chinaís second overseas PLAN base after Djibouti on same lines as latter. Already linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Gwadar will give China power projection capabilities in the Indian Ocean as also domination of the Arabian Sea and eastern approaches to the Persian Gulf. In 2017, China announced expansion of its Marines from 20,000 to 1,00,000 for overseas deployment and specifically mentioned Gwadar and Djibouti. Recently, it was announced that Chinese Marines and Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) may get operational in the Indian Ocean in next 3-5 years.
Recent reports in media indicate China is secretly building a naval base at Gwadar. A high security compound has been identified which is presently being used by CCCC Ltd. The secrecy and security arrangements in this facility are quite extensive. In addition to anti-vehicle berms, security fences and a high wall all around, sentry posts and elevated guard towers cover the perimeter between the fence and the inner wall. The guard towers appear to be concrete pill boxes which obviously would be manned by armed guards with automatic weapons. In addition to the high security compound, there are two other sites with blue-roofed buildings that could be barracks for the Chinese Marine Corps garrison, akin to the ones in Djibouti. This base will probably be fortified much more than Djibouti because it is close to the border with Iran and Afghanistan. The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) has been fighting against the continuing China-Pakistan genocide against the Baloch population and China-Pakistan exploiting natural resources of Balochistan. Fighting for an independent state of Balochistan, the BLA has been attacking the Pakistani security forces and Chinese ventures in the region. On November 23, 2018, BLA attacked the Chinese Consulate and on May 11, 2019 targeted the Zaver Pearl-Continental 5-star Hotel, which is another centerpiece of Chinese investment in Gwadar. News reports of January 2018 had also reported that China was constructing a military base in Jiwani (Pakistan) in the Gulf of Jiwani, much closer to the Straits of Hormuz than Gwadar; crow flight distance between Jiwani and Chahabar port of Iran is just 35 km whereas Gwadar is 72 km from Chahabar. More significantly, Jiwani is a large 24 km peninsula jutting out in the sea. Jiwani is envisaged as a joint China-Pakistan naval and airbase base which is just 56 km distance from Gwadar.
Chinese troop presence at Jiwani and Gwadar in conjunction Pakistani ports of Pasni, Omara and Karchi will not only provide control of the entire Pakistani coast to China, the continuum will carry on to Africa. PLA and Pakistani Military officials reportedly met at Jiwani on December 18, 2017. PLA had asked Pakistan to undertake a major upgrade of Jiwani airport so the facility will be able to handle large Chinese military aircraft. Work on the airport improvements was expected to begin in July 2018 with the naval base and airfield occupying almost the entire strategic peninsula. PLA established along the Pakistani coast and in conjunction other existing and planned Chinese establishments in the IOR, pose greater strategic challenges for India and the rest of the world, given China's actions in the South China Sea (SCS) and scant regard to global norms. Our policy makers need to take serious note of these developments.