China-Pakistan Naval Exercises: A Test for India’s Maritime Security

China-Pakistan’s Sea Guardian-3 maritime exercises in the Northern Arabian Sea have garnered significant interest due to Pakistani hype, with naval commanders presenting the exercises as the first joint maritime patrol between the two nations. The exercises, which have been held twice before, were preceded by annual bilateral exercises between the two navies since 2014.

The recent exercise comes a day after the 2+2 Ministerial dialogue between India and the U.S., where maritime security in the Indo-Pacific was a major topic of discussion. With New Delhi’s decision to become a full member of the Bahrain-based US-led multilateral grouping Combined Maritime Forces, China is believed to signal its strategic intent to counter United States and Indian moves in the Indian Ocean. The exercises are expected to be a significant step in China’s efforts to counter the US and Indian moves in the Indian Ocean.

Pakistan’s navy is undergoing modernisation as a response to the Indian Navy’s growing power and presence in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s naval leadership views the Indian Navy with suspicion, as its sustained growth is a key driver of the navy’s development and asset expansion. The navy is also leery of the Indian Navy’s tendency to besiege Pakistan’s Makran coast during political crises. In 1999 and 2001, the Indian Navy deployed warships in the Northern Arabian Sea, establishing a loose blockade.

In 2019, India positioned a fleet of warships close to Pakistani territorial waters, which the PN saw as an overly aggressive move. Pakistan’s strategic elite perceives a limited conventional war between India and Pakistan as more likely than less likely. Khalid Kidwai, Director General of Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division, believes that Pakistan’s sensitivities are more fraught than India’s, and that Islamabad must use all its strategic tools to target India.

China has completed the delivery of four Type 054A/P guided missile frigates to the Pakistani Navy, and Pakistan is set to acquire eight Yuan-class submarines from China, with four expected by the end of 2024. Turkey has also delivered the first Babur-class corvettes to the Pakistan Navy, and Pakistan and Türkiyé are co-developing the Jinnah-class frigate. The Pakistan Navy (PN) is now more conceptually evolved than before, not solely focused on countering India. Pakistan’s 2018 maritime doctrine describes the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a strategic space where interests of many regional and extra-regional powers intersect, and a cooperative approach is the best way forward. The IOR is critical for the economic and military power balance, requiring the Pakistan navy to position itself as a regional player and security provider.

Pakistan’s naval planners aim to maintain a “threat-free environment” for Pakistan through biennial Aman exercises and Regional Maritime Security Patrols. They are aware that India seeks to exclude Pakistan from collaborative frameworks in the Indian Ocean. Despite being a member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, Pakistan was not invited by India for the group’s 10-year celebrations in 2022. The Pakistan Navy (PN) is investing in partnerships in the Indian Ocean to counteract India’s growing influence. Pakistan’s naval planners want India to seize strategic initiative in the Indian Ocean, but China is seen as the best bet to push back against Indian dominance. China-Pakistan naval engagement is about competitive diplomacy in the Indian Ocean, not power projection in India’s maritime neighbourhood.