In this handout picture from the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) on November 13, 2015, the vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, Fan Changlong and Pakistan army head Raheel Sharif (right) salute after laying a wreath at Yadgar-e-Shuhada in Rawalpindi. Photo via AFP

The Pentagon’s assessment this week that Pakistan may be set to host a Chinese military base is likely to have caused more of a commotion in New Delhi than in Islamabad. The fact is that Pakistan has provided strategic defense facilities to China for some time; indeed, such provision is key to the US$57 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Sources privy to the facts of Pakistan’s defense arrangements told Asia Times that China’s military has long made use of  facilities in Pakistan in return for helping to deliver the latter’s maiden  JF-17 Thunder fighter jet, its Burraq armed drones and custom AIP-equipped submarines.

The Pentagon’s Annual Defense Department Report, released on Tuesday, said that “China most likely will seek to establish additional military bases in countries with which it has a longstanding friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan.” China was quick to repudiate the US assertions, labelling them, on Wednesday, “irresponsible remarks about China’s national defense development.”  A foreign ministry spokesperson said: “The friendly cooperation between China and Pakistan does not target any third party.”

A military expert at the School of International Studies in Singapore told Britain’s Telegraph newspaper he would not be surprised if China did build an official military base in Pakistan. “The Chinese have helped to build a sizable deep-water port in Gwadar, and Chinese submarines have already been spotted in the port of Karachi,” he said, adding that “even without an actual base, Pakistan provides considerable support to a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region and is thus part of an important ‘network of access’ for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.”

There has been no official reaction on the report from Islamabad – Pakistan’s political and military establishment neither denied nor confirmed the US assessment. Political figures approached by Asia Times also declined to make any comment. However, several said they disapproved of China’s military expansionist designs and warned any such efforts would be counterproductive to the peace and security of the region. They said that in the past there had been strong political opposition to providing bases for US and NATO forces and anticipated the government would have a tough time if it chose to accommodate China in this way.

“Even without an actual base, Pakistan provides considerable support to a growing Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean Region and is thus part of an important ‘network of access’ for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy”

The Pentagon claims are likely to irk India, which already looks askance on China’s Belt and Road project and has been suspicious of Sino-Pakistani cooperation. “The strategic Sino-Pak alliance and the ever-increasing defense cooperation between the two countries has worried New Delhi,” noted the Russian newspaper Vzglyad, adding that “the planned opening of China’s military bases in Pakistan is actually an expansion of Chinese military presence surrounding India.” The newspaper said New Delhi was worried about military maneuvering on its doorstep resulting in aggression towards India. 

Islamabad considers China an “all-weather friend” and in recent years the countries have grown closer thanks to CPEC, a Beijing-funded mega infrastructure and energy project that will link western China with Pakistan’s Arabian Sea port of Gwadar. Defense cooperation has also increased, as symbolized by the 90-strong Chinese contingent which participated in the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23. In May last year, Pakistan’s former army chief, Gen. Raheel Sharif, paid an official visit to China, meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing to foster a “military-to-military relationship.”

This relationship is not new: there has been a degree of military exchange between the countries’ armed forces since the 1970s. However defense agreements between the Armed Forces of Pakistan and the People’s Liberation Army have certainly strengthened it in recent years and, for now at last, it shows little sign of weakening.

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