Chinese and Pakistani troops completed a nine-day naval exercise in the Arabian Sea on Tuesday, against a backdrop of simmering tensions in the Middle East and South Asia. The operation – Sea Guardians 2020 – was the sixth joint naval drill between the two countries and took place in the northern reaches of the waterway and along the Pakistani shoreline. It involved special forces, warships, aerial assets and, for the first time, submarines in a series of live-fire exercises. Tensions have been running high in the region since the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US air strike earlier this month and the increased hostility between India and Pakistan in the disputed region of Kashmir While the US and India were likely to have been keeping a close eye on the exercises – New Delhi deployed an aircraft carrier to monitor events – experts said the operation was largely routine and not intended to stoke tensions. “It was planned well in advance, long before things began escalating in the Middle East,” said Du Youkang, director of the Pakistan Study Centre at Fudan University in Shanghai. Can China be the voice of reason as US, Iran trade missile attacks? James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, agreed, saying the drills should not be seen as a reaction by China to the tensions in the Middle East. “I don’t think it’s an issue of showing more muscle in the region … you have an ongoing cooperation between Pakistan and China and this is part of it,” he said. “Others may read it as a signal, but I don’t think it’s the driving incentive. But the cooperation [between China and Pakistan] will be closely followed by India and the United States.” Nonetheless, Beijing has been expanding its military presence in the Middle East, and last month took part in a four-day exercise with Russian and Iranian forces in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. Dorsey said that the drills coincided with a shift in the security architecture in the region. “Over a period of time, we will see changes, moving from a unipolar, US-centric system to a multipolar arrangement,” he said. “That would most probably include China, as well as Russia, and potentially countries like India. It’s all on the drawing board, but that’s clearly the trend.” Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.