High resolution satellite images accessed by NDTV indicate the presence of several frontline Chinese warships, a submarine and fleet support ships docked at Karachi harbour as Beijing and Islamabad kick off their largest ever Naval exercises.
The Sea Guardian-3 exercises come at a time when China has significantly expanded its maritime presence in the waters of the Indian Ocean. This includes the construction of a major base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and also through the sale of several modern platforms to regional Navies, including, most recently, four Type-054 A/P frigates to the Pakistan Navy.
A number of Chinese surveillance and oceanographic survey ships have also been detected in the Indian Ocean over the last year. Earlier this month, a Chinese ocean research ship, the Shi Yan 6, docked in Colombo but not before it sailed north into the Bay Bengal between the Tamil Nadu coastline and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is widely believed that China has been actively charting the waters of the Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal, to enable extensive submarine operations across the region.
The Chinese naval assets docked in Karachi include a Type 039 diesel-electric submarine. While the precise capability of this submarine, including how quiet it is, are closely held Naval secrets, the presence of the boat in the waters of the Arabian Sea, showcase Beijing’s confidence in being able to deploy Naval assets several thousand kilometres away from their homeports.
This is believed to be the eighth time since the Chinese PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) deployed a submarine in the Indian Ocean since 2013.
China is also known to have operated nuclear-powered fast attack submarines in the Indian Ocean. These can, theoretically, remain indefinitely submerged since they do not need to surface other than to replenish supplies onboard. It is unclear if a Chinese nuclear submarine has also been deployed with the Chinese fleet taking part in these exercises.
Sources monitoring the deployment of Chinese warships in the Indian Ocean for the Sea Guardian exercises say the Type-039 submarine and its accompanying support ship were regularly tracked by Navy P8 reconnaissance aircraft after they entered the region through the Malacca straits.
This, sources point out, is a prelude to what may emerge in the future of a greater Chinese presence in the region. “It’s not a question of if but when China decides to deploy a carrier battle group in the Indian Ocean region,” they say. With its existing port facilities, including its first overseas base in Djibouti, berthing an aircraft carrier and its accompanying battle-group will not pose a logistical hurdle.
In April, 2015, the Pakistan government agreed to purchase eight variants of the Type 039 submarines in a deal reportedly worth $5 billion. Four of the submarines were expected to be built by the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works. None of the submarines have been delivered so far.
Vessel YANGCHENGHU a suspected PLA NAVY TYPE 926 Submarine Support Vessel, is currently approaching Karachi, it was tracked from China’s Hainan Naval base & is likely en-route to Pakistan for the upcoming China-Pakistan Joint Naval Drills pic.twitter.com/04vJQY4reF
— Damien Symon (@detresfa_) November 8, 2023
Satellite images with NDTV indicate the presence of a Chinese Type 926 submarine tender docked in Karachi. One of three ships of this class believed to be in service with the Chinese Navy, the Type 926 replenishes submarines and is capable of rescuing a submarine in distress. The presence of this ship is a giveaway to the presence of Chinese submarines in the vicinity.
The Chinese battle-group also includes a Type 52D destroyer, two Type 54 frigates and a Type 903 Replenishment Oiler which enables the warships and submarine to sustain long-range operations.
“Our planners and decision-makers have to squarely face the fact that the Chinese have vital interests in the Indian Ocean – specifically its sea lanes which carry most of China’s energy, trade, raw materials and finished goods. Consequently, we are going to see the increasing presence of PLA Navy (PLAN) in the Indian Ocean; warships as well as submarines. Neither their presence on the high seas, nor their putting into (friendly) ports is something that we can take exception to,” said former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash (retd).
“Over the past two decades, China has created enough maritime footholds, right across the IOR – what was termed a “string of pearls” – but was actually a series of friendly ports financed by China – which could be used by the PLA Navy as and when required. In 2016, China established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, and more will follow – perhaps in Africa.” he said.
In April this year, Navy Chief Admiral R Hari Kumar said that the Indian Navy is ”keeping a watch” on the deployment of Chinese Naval assets to Pakistani Ports. “There is a large presence of Chinese vessels. At any point of time, there are three to six Chinese warships in the India Ocean Region,” he said. China also deploys research vessels in the area.
The process of tracking Chinese Naval assets is a constant effort for the Indian Navy. Chinese vessels sail west to enter the waters of the Indian Ocean through key choke points, the straits of Malacca, Lombok or the Sunda Straits. Indian Navy P-8 maritime reconnaissance aircraft and mission-deployed warships are frequently positioned to intercept Chinese vessels and track their movements for extended periods of time.
In tracking the movement of Chinese warships, India works closely with the United States, a key maritime partner, often for real-time intelligence. Just last week, at the 2+2 dialogue in New Delhi between Foreign and Defence Ministers, both sides ”underlined their strong commitment to safeguarding a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” a veiled reference to China which bases its economic expansion through its Belt and Road Initiative, an international infrastructure development strategy adopted by Beijing in 2013 with the aim of investing in more than 150 countries. Beijing backs the Initiative through an increasingly robust maritime presence, particularly in the Indian Ocean region.
By announcing its investment of more than $500 million in the Colombo Port Terminal being developed by the Adani Group on November 8, Washington has backed Indian efforts to balance Beijing’s growing economic muscle in countries such as Sri Lanka.
Colombo, which has relied heavily on funding from China to fund port and highway projects, has struggled to meet its debt repayment obligations, as in the case of the deep-water Hambantota Port which has been leased to China for 99 years after it became economically unviable for Colombo to operate.
Last year, a Chinese research ship, the Yuan Wang 5, docked at Hambantota despite security concerns raised by India. The ship, it has been reported, was on a mission to track Indian missile tests from Abdul Kalam Island, off the coast of Odisha.