Gulp. Pakistan may be about to offer a naval base to... China

NBC News dropped a bit of a bombshell last night coming from a place which has (fortunately) not been in the news as much of late. Pakistan. Usually when that country pops up in the headlines it’s something to do with Afghanistan, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the long running mess in that neck of the woods, but this time it’s all about China. It turns out that there is a very real possibility that Pakistan may be offering the Chinese a naval base on their coast as part of an expanded Chinese trade route deal worth hundreds of billions of dollars. The Chinese are denying it at this point, but our intelligence agencies seem to believe it’s something which may be happening sooner rather than later.

Nuclear-armed Pakistan is a key ally of the United States — but the relationship is far from untroubled. And one of Washington’s main geopolitical rivals appears ready to step in.

The Pentagon is warning that the Islamic republic may soon house a Chinese military base.

A report released earlier this month suggested that Beijing would likely turn to countries such as Pakistan as it seeks to project its economic and military power abroad.

The Pentagon didn’t provide a time frame for such a move. However, a senior Pakistani diplomat confirmed to NBC News that his country invited China to build a naval facility on its territory back in 2011.

Where would such a base be located if this happened? Putting one in Karachi would likely be a bit too provocative for everyone to stomach, but you could definitely see them setting up shop in Gwadar. There’s already a thriving, well established maritime port there with plenty of commercial Chinese interests involved. And if you look at a map of the region you’ll notice that Gwadar is pretty much spitting distance from Iran.

It’s worth remembering why this is important and how it could take an already complicated and shaky relationship of ours and turn it on its head. Keep in mind that Pakistan is an ally of ours but they are an ally of convenience. They are a nuclear power which really doesn’t want any major problems with Washington, but they’re an Islamic state which has never seen eye to eye with us. They’re supposed to be helping us fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, but they’ve had “rogue” troops attacking Americans too often to ignore. They also mysteriously “failed to notice” that bin Laden was living right under their noses for years. Our intelligence agents remind us that the alleged initial offer of a naval base for China was made right after we took out OBL in that raid. Coincidence? Maybe, but…

Then there’s the India factor. India is our ally (just as Pakistan supposedly is) but those two countries are bitter rivals, both armed with nukes. There’s a pretty good article from just a couple of months ago at The National Interest about why the prospect of nuclear war between those two nations is not only possible, but it should terrify you. As long as we’re their only strong ally with a large military presence in the region Pakistan can afford to play both sides of the fence. But if the United States is moving toward exiting Afghanistan (which we must do sooner or later) it’s not hard to picture Pakistan warming up to China as an ally who is both more ideologically compatible and also not a big fan of India.

Pakistan is also run by people who shouldn’t engender a huge amount of trust in the west. Nawaz Sharif has a “colorful” background to put it mildly. Since his return to power in 2013 it has been widely noted that he’s been a bit too cozy with people such as infamous Afghanistan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Also, dissidents in Pakistan have had a bad habit of disappearing or turning up dead, such as rights activist Sabeen Mahmud. Add that to suspicions that he’s been playing fast and loose with the tax rolls and doing quite well for himself and there are plenty of questions.

As I said above, Pakistan has been an ally of convenience at best and they remain a dangerous power in that part of the world. Handing China a naval base located at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman with direct access to the Arabian Sea would be a destabilizing event in a number of ways. And our relations with all of the players in that region have become increasingly “complicated” over the past decade. Somebody needs to ride herd on these developments because the implications could be significant.