July 13, 2024

China’s goal in supplying stealth submarines to its long-time ally Pakistan may be to distract India in the race for dominance over the Indian Ocean, says analyst Syed Fazl-e-Haider.

KARACHI, Pakistan: Pakistan’s acquisition of the first of eight advanced Hangor-class submarines from China will alter the balance of power in the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea to Beijing’s benefit.

The launching ceremony of the first Hangor-class submarine China developed for Pakistan was held in Wuhan in April. The two countries signed the contract for the submarines in 2015 when Chinese President Xi Jinping was on a visit to Pakistan. Under the deal, four of the submarines will be built in China and the other four in Pakistan.

Equipped with air-independent propulsion (AIP) technology, the submarines give Pakistan a strategic edge over its arch-rival India, which has no such stealth submarines.

The AIP system allows non-nuclear submarines to operate without the need for atmospheric oxygen. Submarines equipped with the AIP system are almost noiseless, making them stealthier than nuclear attack submarines.

Beijing’s goal in supplying stealth submarines to its long-time ally Pakistan may be to distract India in the race for dominance over the Indian Ocean. India has been projected by the US and its Western allies as a counterweight to the rising power of China.

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China’s ambition of becoming a global maritime power depends on its increased military presence in the Indian Ocean, which contains important shipping lanes for oil and goods. In the opened its first overseas military base in Djibouti on the northwestern fringe of the Indian Ocean. 

China considers a stronger Pakistan navy key in addressing its security challenges in the Indian Ocean region In 2022, the Pakistan Navy instated Tughril, its most advanced warship, into service. Built at the Shanghai Shipyard and armed with surface-to-air missiles and supersonic surface-to-surface missiles, Tughril is a versatile vessel capable of undertaking multiple missions.

In the same year, Pakistan acquired Taimur, the second of four powerful guided-missile warships, from China. Built in Shanghai, Taimur expands the geographical reach of Pakistan’s naval forces. 

China’s partnership with Pakistan gives it a foothold in the Indian Ocean, which has raised security concerns in New Delhi. Like China, India is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean for the transportation of crude oil and goods.

More broadly, India perceives China’s investments into naval bases and ports across Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives as an encirclement of the Indian Ocean maritime domain. In 2022, India protested the docking of a Chinese research vessel at Hambantota in Sri Lanka, fearing that the ship could surveil India’s defence capabilities.

By arming the Pakistan Navy with stealth submarines, China may trigger further naval competition between Pakistan and India. Because the latter is part of the Quad, namely Australia, Japan and the US, geopolitical rivalry may intensify in the Indian Ocean.


By growing its strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean, China also expands maritime routes for its energy supplies. Eighty per cent of China’s oil has to pass through the Strait of Malacca – a narrow waterway between Indonesia and Malaysia that lies east of the Indian Ocean.

Chinese-run Gwadar Port on Pakistan’s southwest coast could be China’s trump card in securing its interests in the Indian Ocean. Strategically located near the Strait of Hormuz, a key shipping lane, Gwadar Port allows China to bypass any potential blockade in the Strait of Malacca through the Arabian Sea.

China is simultaneously strengthening Pakistan’s naval muscle and developing the country’s Gwadar Port. Critics see these steps as China’s long-term investments that would pay strategic dividends in future.

The US Pentagon has identified Gwadar as a possible location for a future Chinese military base. With a naval presence in Gwadar, China could conduct regular patrols in the Arabian Sea.

China’s longstanding strategic relationship with Pakistan poses new challenges to competitors in the race for dominance over the Indian Ocean.

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