The first of four multi-purpose frigates Pakistan has acquired from China is under construction, sources from both sides recently announced.
The new vessels are said to be an export version of the Type 054A, the Chinese navy’s most advanced guided-missile frigate. In the words of the Pakistani navy, they will help ramp up the country’s ability to maintain the balance of power in the Arabian Sea.
But naval experts, particularly in the Indian camp, dispute that claim.
State-owned China State Shipbuilding Corporation said in late December that it had started building the Type 054AP frigate at the Hudong-Zhonghua shipyard in Shanghai. It has been reported that the four warships should be delivered to Pakistan by 2021.
Though the Type 054A is able to conduct anti-ship, anti-submarine and air-defense missions, retired Indian Commodore Abhay Kumar Singh expressed doubts that its incorporation into the Pakistani fleet would pose a credible threat to India.
“The acquisition of the Type 054A will not be an addition to the force level of Pakistan’s navy. Rather, it will be the replacement of the older British Type 21 frigates,” Singh told Asia Times.
Pakistan’s major combatants include four Type 21s, one Perry-class frigate and four F-22P Zulfiquar-class frigates, a variant of China’s Type 053H3 platform. He noted that apart from the Chinese-built vessels, all the others must be replaced.
Disparity with India
Singh, a research fellow at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, suggested that Pakistan’s recent withdrawal from the counter-piracy Combined Task Force 151 had more to do with the operational availability of its ships than the purported reasons of geopolitical differences with the United States.
“Notwithstanding rhetorical assertion in the media, the acquisition of the Type 054A will not alter the existing balance of power in the northern Arabian Sea, which remains in India’s favor,” Singh argued. “The Indian navy’s Western Fleet is more than twice as large as the Pakistani navy at present, and is likely to grow in the future.”
The retired Indian official acknowledged that the Type 054A would certainly enhance the capability of the Pakistani naval forces. However, he pointed out that such a platform was roughly comparable to India’s Talwar-class frigate, and “the Western Fleet has six ships of this class in service, with four more on order.”
Pakistan is working hard to modernize its navy. Aside from the four new frigates, China is reported to be building eight submarines for the Pakistani navy, while Turkey will realize four MILGEM corvettes for it. Turkish shipbuilder STM also delivered to Pakistan a navy fleet tanker in 2016 and will upgrade two of its three Agosta 90B-class submarines.
For Ben Ho, a naval analyst with the Military Studies Programme at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Pakistan will struggle to close the gap in naval strength with India.
“When the Type 054A frigate comes into service, it will be the most capable warship in Pakistan’s arsenal,” he said. “However, while the new vessel offers a significant step-up in capabilities compared to existing Pakistani surface combatants, it will not offset to a significant degree the regional naval balance, which is heavily in India’s favor presently and in the foreseeable future.”
Ho insisted that India’s surface fleet so far outmatched that of its western neighbor in terms of numbers and quality. “The Indian navy has one aircraft carrier, with another on sea trials, while Pakistan has none,” he said. “The Indians also possess several stealth guided-missile destroyers of the Kolkata-class and Visakhapatnam-class, which dwarf the Type 054A capability.”
In his view, such a disparity is “virtually insurmountable.” That leads him to believe the Type 054A was arguably procured not as an attempt to change the subcontinent’s conventional naval balance of power, but to bolster the Pakistani navy’s capabilities in operations short of war such as naval diplomacy, anti-piracy and routine patrol missions.
Joint patrols with China?
Pakistan has admitted that the new frigates will support operations to secure international shipping lanes. Given the increasingly close relationship between Beijing and Islamabad, and the growing presence of Chinese warships in the western side of the Indian Ocean, regular joint Sino-Pakistani patrols across the region could become a reality in the future.
According to Singh, strategic cooperation between China and Pakistan has significant geopolitical logic and its strengthening is a reasonable expectation. He said that given the strategic imperative of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key component of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative, naval coordination between the two parties was bound to grow.
Still, as China now has a military base in Djibouti, and is said to be considering a new naval facility in Pakistan, most likely in Gwadar, “joint Sino-Pakistani patrols in the Indian Ocean could not be ruled out in the near future,” Singh stressed.
Ho also thinks the CPEC and Gwadar port are the drivers of naval collaboration between China and Pakistan. “We can expect such cooperation to intensify in the near future, as the much-talked-about CPEC takes shape,” he said. “Gwadar port is a key node of this infrastructure project and China is believed to be eyeing it or the nearby port of Jiwani as a potential naval base.”
The Singapore-based analyst explained that stronger naval ties between the two “iron brothers” could come in the form of more exercises of greater complexity and duration, and these drills would likely focus on the protection of trade routes around Gwadar, as well as the northern Arabian Sea.
“At this stage, and for the near future, regular joint patrols are unlikely to materialize as it could result in significant pushback, and this comports with Beijing’s ‘cabbage strategy’ of making only incremental advances in the geostrategic sphere,” Ho said.
However, this state of affairs could change if the Chinese were to establish a base at Gwadar. “Should that happen, Task Force 88 of the Pakistani navy, which is entrusted with the seaward security of Gwadar, could have an integral Chinese component,” Ho suggested.
He added that as China had sent the Type 054A to the western Indian Ocean for anti-piracy and non-combatant evacuation missions, and such operational patterns were likely to persist, the Pakistani navy’s deployment of such frigates would increase its interoperability with its Chinese counterpart.