China has a commercial and political interest in developing the port of Gwadar in Pakistan. It is of strategic importance because it will provide Beijing with a port facility connected to China by road and rail that bypasses the Strait of Malacca.
In wartime, that narrow chokepoint between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra could be closed off by the Indian Navy. Gwadar is also believed to be a possible future overseas base for the Chinese Navy, adding to the existing one in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Now new buildings point towards the next phase of China’s development at the port.
Open-source intelligence reveals that a third new site of interest has been constructed in the past few months. Twitter account d-atis, which monitors Asian defence topics and specializes in image intelligence, shared a tweet showing the three sites.
These have characteristic blue-roofed buildings which contrast with existing local building materials and styles. They are seen as a leading indicator of the next stage of port construction.
Construction of the first site, nearest to the port facility, began around May last year. The first of the blue-roofed buildings appeared there in June 2019. Then the blue roofs appeared at the second site, farther north, in September 2019. The land at the third site started to be prepared in January this year and the blue roofs were substantially completed in July.
These latter two sites are nearer to the heavily defended Chinese compound built at the anticipated northern end of the new port
This newest site is behind the local hospital. Construction started in January this year. Its proximity to the hospital raises the question of whether it is pandemic related. It was started over a month before Pakistan registered its first case, however, and it appears to be a separate compound, so it is unlikely that it is a coronavirus related extension.
It has been suggested that these sites are barracks for Chinese military. Given the comparatively low security, this seems unlikely. A more prosaic possibility is that they are accommodation for workers to construct the next phase of the port development. This may include a Chinese naval base.
Chinese investment in the port is part of the wider Belt & Road initiative. It will be connected to China by road, rail and pipelines. This wider project is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and may take until 2030 to fully put in place.
The naval aspect may have an impact, however. If China does indeed base warships or submarines there, possibly as part of a future Indian Ocean Squadron, it could alter the naval balance in the region. For this reason, analysts will be watching the construction of these blue-roofed camps very closely.