Gwadar Port and Chinese dual use facilities

Gwadar Port and Chinese dual use facilities


28 | 08 | 2023


PLAN's military capacity and its expansion outwards are not able to go at the same pace as China's economic expansion across the world

En la imagen

View of Gwadar Port in 2018 [Xinhua]

Chinese maritime ambitions have been a cause of concern among many Western and non-Western nations for some time now. One of the most recent reports addressing Chinese maritime ambitions and port investments concluded that “China is shopping […] At the top of its wish list would be permanent, secure military installations with support, logistics and repair infrastructure. The ports themselves would be deep water and secure; in countries with which China enjoys good relations; and ideally near strategic choke points.” One of the most relevant examples of such ambitions is found in the Port of Gwadar, located in Pakistan. For years, concerns have been expressed over the fact that China could decide to use many of its foreign ports as naval bases for the PLA Navy (PLAN).

The commercial and (potential) military value held by the Port of Gwadar is better understood through the concept of China's “strategic strongpoints,” which makes reference to certain foreign ports with high strategic value, whose terminals and commercial zones are operated by Chinese firms. These strongpoints enable the Chinese Government to strengthen commercial, diplomatic and economic ties with the host country, allowing the latter to make use of the facilities as well. Most importantly, these ports have the potential to be used for military purposes, predominantly during wartime

The following brief addresses the potential for dual use of the Port of Gwadar based on its activities and the wider context of Chinese maritime ambitions in the Indo-Pacific region. With such analysis, it is able to grasp what are the characteristics of Chinese foreign ports that allow them to be used for both commercial and military purposes.

Port of Gwadar

The port of Gwadar is located in the South of Pakistan, relatively close to the border with Iran. Its first stages became operational in 2008, but the port hasn't seen regular commercial service since then. While it is primarily used for local artisanal fishing at the moment, it is intended that the population there will be eventually displaced to host all kinds of commercial activity. With the continuous growth of Chinese maritime commerce and naval activity, this particular port has gathered the attention of many analysts due to its strategic location. Chinese analysts view it as a top choice for establishing a new overseas strategic strongpoint, owing to its prime geographic location and strong Sino-Pakistani ties. Not only does it allow the PRC to strengthen its cooperation with Pakistan, but it also provides it with an alternative access to the Arabian Sea in case the Strait of Malacca is blocked. As ascertained by Drazen Jorgic, “Beijing and Islamabad see Gwadar as the future jewel in the crown of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to build a new ‘Silk Road’ of land and maritime trade routes across more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa.”

According to China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI)'s Isaac Kardon, Connor Kennedy and Peter Dutton, there are several traits in common between the most relevant strongpoints operated by China in the region. The first is their strategic geographical location. Most, if not all, ports are located at geographically vital locations, close to important sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and providing access to important bodies of water. Second, management coordination. They are a product a high-level coordination between state-owned enterprises, Chinese party officials, and other private firms. Third, they have a comprehensive commercial scope. They are part of a wider strategy followed by the government which encompasses the parallel development of rail, road, and pipeline infrastructure to support its Belt and Road Initiative. Lastly, the potential for military use. Ports are equipped dual-use functions which enable them to support military activity in case it was required, with vast storage facilities that could be used to store weapons, and piers which can support large PLAN vessels—including aircraft carriers.

Gwadar lies around 400 km east of the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow corridor that connects all countries in the Persian Gulf with the global markets, and through which the 40 % of China's imported oil transits. Additionally, Gwadar serves as an exit to the in-land commercial route that China has from its western part in Xinjiang Region, through Pakistan, down to the port in the Indian Ocean. In other words, it is the so-called Chinese “exit to the [Arabian] sea.” A corridor that in the future may serve as a brilliant geopolitical tool for China to maintain its control over the region. A key element of its importance, however, is it being the entry point from the Middle East region for the energy flows to China.

The Sino-Pakistan relations assure Chinese energy imports coming through Gwadar as an alternative to the Malacca Dilemma, viewed by some as a potential threat to Chinese national security. This concept refers to the reliance by China on the shipments that arrive through the Malacca Strait, a region between the Sumatra Island and the Malayan Peninsula that has Singapore to the east. Due to Singapore's closer ties with India and the US, China fears its energy supplies could be blocked. This would lead to a significant drawback in its economic evolution and growth.

Gwadar is another example, among the many in existence, which showcase Chinese reliance on its commercial activity as a means to attain a degree of national security. It shows the growing obsession of China for commercial growth, a focus that has in turn led China to deeply tighten its relations with Pakistan. In the words of Hu Jintao back in 2006 in an address at Islamabad, China is “deeply touched by the outpouring of brotherly affection of the Pakistani people. In the words of one Pakistani friend, such friendship is ‘higher than the Himalayas, deeper than the Indian Ocean and sweeter than honey.’” Additional references to the high importance of Gwadar for China can be found in Xi Jinping´s 2015 visit to Pakistan, where he stated the port was one of the four pillars of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and pledged a Chinese investment of $46 million over the following 15-year period.

Gwadar is an asset for China, but one that still remains to be properly operated. It is linked to the transport infrastructure that the Chinese Government intends to build in Pakistan, and for now, China seems to be more involved in expanding its network of ports in Africa. But while that corridor is widely discussed as if it was operational, very little modern infrastructure has been built to date. This has raised concerns over the potential military use that China could give to it.

En la imagen

Gwadar Port Project [CPEC]

Gwadar's potential for military use

The low level of commercial activity that the port has had over the last decade has led some observers to argue that the port is on the verge of becoming another “naval base in China's string of pearls across the Indian Ocean.” Yet, to date, the only military activity the port has seen has been of Chinese-built vessels, although not from the PLAN but from the Pakistani Navy. Thus, the development of the port until it can become an important asset for Beijing will still take some time, given the existing lack of infrastructure to support activity in the port.

The potential of Chinese foreign ports in general, and Gwadar in particular, to be used for military purposes lies in the characteristics of their infrastructure, useful for both commercial and military activity. In terms of physical capacity, Gwadar's facilities can support the largest vessels of the PLA Navy, including the Type 075 amphibious-assault ship, the Type 071 Landing platform dock, and even the large aircraft carriers. Thus, the case of Gwadar proves that China builds its foreign ports keeping in mind the option of them being used by its PLAN vessels, thus making its facilities big enough to serve for such purposes in the future.

It has been suggested that Gwadar would not have any utility in a wartime scenario due to the lack of political commitment between both Chinese and Pakistani authorities to provide with military support. More precisely, host countries could refuse Chinese military use of these ports in a wartime scenario, fearing they may be considered belligerents as well. Isaac Kardon and Wendy Leutert argue that “if armed conflict were to occur, China may not have access to port facilities in states seeking to maintain neutrality,” including the case of Gwadar. Thus, the problem is not that Chinese-built ships can't fit in the port, but that many host countries would be reluctant to allow the PLAN to use their ports as naval bases. But China could nevertheless decide to use its facilities for PLAN vessels in a peacetime scenario. As ascertained in a report by the China Maritime Studies Institute, “if the infrastructure projects mature, Gwadar could become a key peacetime replenishment or transfer point for PLA equipment and personnel. Prepositioning parts, supplies, and other materials at Gwadar would be a productive use of the port and airfield facilities.”

Nevertheless, there have been some Chinese statements which indicate that China has the intention to use Gwadar as a base for the PLA Navy sooner or later. Several years ago, an anonymous officer was quoted saying “the food is already on the plate; we can eat it whenever we want to.” This opens up the debate over dual-use Chinese facilities abroad, and whether China is developing such network of ports with a hidden intention of turning them into naval bases when desired.

The logic behind dual use

Chinese ports are usually established close to important SLOCs and strategic chokepoints vital for commerce in the region, but also with relevance for military operations. Although the PLAN does only have one base abroad (Djibouti), a Chinese analyst quoted by Kardon and Leutert argues that “wherever Chinese interests go, our security boundary must also go.” According these authors, this means that, in practice, all Chinese-operated ports are envisioned for dual-use functions. “Commercial port facilities enable considerable military logistics and intelligence capabilities in peacetime. In addition, the global scale and distribution of PRC firms' network of ports abroad establish a degree of Party-state control over China's commercial and military supply chains.” Furthermore, logistics and intelligence capabilities enable the PLAN to project its power far from its national coasts during peacetime.

However, in spite of this, the use of these foreign ports in wartime scenarios is not as likely to happen in the short to medium term, given that in many cases host nations would be reluctant to permit their use out of fear they may be also considered as belligerents in such a conflict. If armed conflict were to occur, China may not have access to port facilities in states seeking to maintain neutrality,” add Kardon and Leutert. Thus, Chinese ports provide a restricted form of power projection: they enable the PLA to operate with growing scope and scale in peacetime but provide a limited combat support function in wartime. “Rather than raise international threat perceptions with overt shows of military presence, the PLA may opt to embed plainclothes personnel into PRC firms and use nominally commercial warehousing, communications, and other equipment to quietly meet military needs.”

Public Chinese laws, such as the National Defense Mobilization Law from 2010, or the National Defense Transportation Law from 2017, are indicative of strong willingness to give these civilian assets a defense-related employment. The former describes the importance of combining both peacetime and wartime production, and even mandates that “any organization or individual has the obligation to accept the expropriation of civil resources in accordance with the law.” The latter specifies that its purpose is to strengthen “the construction of national defense transportation, promoting the development of military and civilian integration in the transportation field, and guaranteeing smooth progress of national defense activities.”

The fusion of civil and military is done on a sequential basis, with the primary objective of preparing the port for military utilization without raising suspicion or inviting resistance. Beijing looks for ports with terminals that can support PLA vessels of considerable size, including its Type 075 Amphibious Assault ships, and even its aircraft carriers. Then, develops an adjacent region with commercial buildings, industrial parks, free trade zones and power plants. With this adjacent system supported by the port's activity, the port is in turn sustained by the activity along such region. Co-locating other support industries such as communications, shipbuilding and transport logistics, the entire system then boosts the military utility of the port, which is ready to host PLAN surface combatants.

Although the lack of reliable public sources and information makes it hard to conclude whether the Chinese government directs commercial companies to acquire commercial port assets with an explicit intention of using them for military purposes, it is clear that Beijing and Party leaders are aware of the fact that security is required to sustain economic development at the scale of the BRI. Former State Councilor Yang Jiechi stated“a tree cannot grow tall or bear fruit in a barren land torn apart by the flames of war,” and many PLAN officers have complained over the fact that Chinese companies working at these ports have not been able to meet the appropriate defense requirements for them.

Thus, it is clear that Beijing is pursuing a policy of port projects in the Indo-Pacific region with a dual-use functionality, while periodically claiming the opposite, which will allow for an expansion of its economic influence in the short term and could eventually be adapted for military use in the long run. In order to support its commercial growth and activity in the region, it tasks the PLAN with the mission of protecting its commerce, building port infrastructure with the capacity to host PLAN vessels.


As with most of Chinese foreign ports, Gwadar does not yet have the capacity to be provided with the capacity for military use, although it has dual-use commercial facilities which could provide for it in the future. The main point behind this is that the PLAN's military capacity and its expansion outwards are not able to go at the same pace as Chinese economic expansion across the world. Furthermore, Beijing is still a continental power facing constant risks in the waters closer to home and would not benefit from additional military outposts that expand its influence beyond the continent.

But as its commercial expansion grows, so does China's need to secure its international shipping and most critical outposts. Thus, most of these ports, including Gwadar, are equipped with infrastructure capable of fitting the PLAN's largest vessels, and are already providing Beijing the chance to make periodic visits and port calls for replenishment and resupply. Together with this suitability of their commercial infrastructure, Chinese public laws bind firms operating the ports to accept the expropriation of its facilities for military use whenever it is required. Thus, although the evidence shows that military use of these facilities in the future would be only as a means to secure its shipping across the most important SLOCs, China is indirectly laying the grounds for a strong network of military facilities across the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.