Indian Ocean Region: Challenges & strategies

Sardar Masood Khan

THE Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is undergoing a rapid transformation because of three factors: China’s rise as the second largest economy in the world and its launch of the transcontinental mega-venture called the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (OBOR); the United States’ (unfinished) pivot or rebalance to Asia (‘unfinished’ because the US strategy is in transition at the moment); and ascent of several emerging economies of the littoral states, including India, Indonesia, Pakistan and others. In coming decades, their will be exponential economic activity in and through the Indian Ocean and one would see the region’s rapid militarisation. The projected time period of this conference – 2030 and beyond – is too long and therefore it is difficult to fully fathom the turbulence and risks that lie ahead.
Within that overall context, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor assumes special significance. India fears that the OBOR, undergirded by CPEC, could consign it to the margins of both land and maritime Asia. These developments also scupper Indian hypothesis that the Indian Ocean should remain its exclusive maritime front yard both economically and militarily. India has believed that it owns and dominates the Indian Ocean and that the United States’ naval presence at Diego Garcia is largely symbolic, leaving pretty much to India to patrol the high seas from the Gulf of Aden to the Malacca Strait. It only grudgingly recognizes the role and presence of other navies, including Pakistan’s.
The changes in the IOR propel India to invest even more heavily in its conventional and strategic military capabilities and to establish its presence in South China Sea. In the coming years, Indian Navy would grow rapidly. China has already entered into the IOR. In 2008, it dispatched its flotilla for UN Security Council-mandated anti-piracy operations off the Gulf of Aden. Since then, China has sent 25 escort missions to the region comprising missile frigates, supply ships, ship-borne helicopters, special combat soldiers, seamen and officers and carried out humanitarian and sea lane security operations. In the process, it has escorted 6,000 ships and rescued or assisted 60 Chinese and foreign ships.
Besides the US, China and India, Australia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, France and the United Kingdom will have a role in the Indian Ocean, in varying degrees. The IOR is going to become very crowded but one would expect Australia, Japan, Indonesia, and Iran to be more active than others. China would enter into the Indian Ocean slowly and steadily but in a self-effacing manner so that it is not perceived as an extra-regional power. But its real competition will be with the United States’ world class navy, which China could outcompete in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, in the next two decades. Until that time, China would meticulously avoid gratuitous projection of its blue water strengths, though it has demonstrated them amply and credibly. Make no mistake: China is set on the path of launching a robust blue water navy.
The U.S.-India defence partnership, supplemented by their Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, enables India to acquire U.S. made “long-range patrol aircraft and drones, maritime helicopters, aircraft carrier technology and anti-submarine gear.”India argues that it needsall of this in part to counter Chinese built bases from Myanmar to Pakistan to Djibouti. The IOR will deal with existing and new threats. These include piracy, terrorism, proxy wars and spying. All these threats would require new capabilities for war fighting and opposing asymmetric warfare. No less serious is the heating up of the Indian Ocean. Its increasing heat content threatens biodiversity in waters and the seabed. Many small island states fear extinction. Against this backdrop, Pakistan should focus on ten priorities.
First, by opting for the Gwadar Port and CPEC, Pakistan has chosen to become a regional economic hub and a major maritime power. There is no going back. In this regard, it has three fundamental and simultaneous responsibilities: to complete CPEC projects on time and take them to the next higher stage, to build national consensus behind them, and to eliminate terrorism. Pakistan is successfully moving in all these directions. Second, Pakistan will have larger naval presence in IOR; and that demands, for general maritime security, a stronger Pakistan Navy for protection of the sea lanes carrying Pakistan’s as well as international merchandize. This task would require more naval assets and related infrastructure. While China would be there to safeguard its own interests in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean, Pakistan, which up to now has been largely oriented as a land and air power, would have to build its conventional and strategic naval muscle proportionately.
Third, Pakistan’s full spectrum deterrence will not be complete without a triad vis-a-vis India, including a symmetric and credible naval component. The stronger a country’s economy, the stronger security cover it would need to protect and sustain it. Pakistan has a narrow window to build its naval capabilities. The opportunity will shrink if we think that this task belongs to the distant future. Fourth, the precipitation of espionage networks around Pakistan’s coastline and the mainland would thicken. More vigilance and cooperation with friendly countries will be required to combat this threat.
Fifth, a comprehensive mapping and oceanographic survey of our maritime sector and marine resources should be expedited to develop Pakistan’s coastal economy so that it can support the mega-project of CPEC. The National Institute of Oceanography should be activated and this kind of effort should be co-led by Pakistan Navy, with the full support of the concerned ministries and parliament. We have to think of Pakistan’s coastal economies supplementing and augmenting the land-based economy; and of weaving together the entire coast encompassing Gadani, Ormara, Pasni, and Jiwani. Pakistan’s exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles has expanded to 350 nautical miles after a UN Commission expanded its continental shelf limit by 50,000 square kilometers. Exploitation of the EEZ will deliver huge dividends; but for that technological capacity and managerial skills are required. I understand from the CNS that work in all these areas is under way. Sixth, since 95% of Pakistan’s freight trade is seaborne, it is necessary to equip Karachi and Bin Qasim ports, and overtime Gwadar, with modern technology, enhance their dredging capacity, and improve their management to make them competitive regionally. This work is already being done in collaboration with China but it needs more emphasis, and a newer result-oriented approach.
Seventh, in anticipation of its enhanced economic role in the region and taking advantage of CPEC, Pakistan should start working on two supplementary corridors connecting it to West Asia and an Africa. The West Asian corridor could go via Iran to Central Asia and Moscow and via Iran to Turkey to Europe; and the second corridor would pass through or around the Gulf region and penetrate into Africa. Africa, in particular, is an upcoming continent and holds immense promise for Pakistan and should be hospitable to it. Eighth, Pakistan should further strengthen its all-weather friendship and strategic cooperative partnership with China. It should simultaneously develop and maintain good relations with the U.S., Russia and Europe and littoral states in the Indian Ocean. Instead of a unilinear approach, it should pursue a multi-angular foreign policy to reduce competition and confrontation and promote cooperation in Indian Ocean.
Ninth, Pakistan’s universities, business schools and general schooling systems should be re-designed to equip them with contemporary and evolving scientific and technological tools and corporate competencies to make the human resource compatible with the changing role of Pakistan and the region. Tenth, interoperability and close coordination are a must to meet the new challenges. Instead of operating in silos, systems should create shard spaces; and Pakistani institutions should move from a culture of adjacency to synergy.
The Jammu and Kashmir dispute will cast its shadow in the strategic and commercial realms of the IOR. If this issue is not resolved peacefully, in accordance with the aspirations of the Kashmiri people, it would remain a trigger for volatility in the region and a potent driver of conflict. The bilateral talks, despite the sincere and persistent efforts of Pakistan, have proved to be unproductive because of India’s intransigence. We urge the United Nations – its Security Council and the Secretary General – to take a proactive stance to help resolve this longstanding issue in pursuance of the Charter obligations to avert a serious threat to peace and security. The foremost priority right now for the international community and UN bodies, especially the Human Rights Council, is to intercede to end massive human rights violations in the Indian Occupied Kashmir. Diplomacy is the need of the hour.
Finally, the IOR is not all about war and strife. It is a catalyst for peace and prosperity; cooperation, collaboration and connectivity; and stability and security. It is the collective responsibility of nations to use the Indian Ocean for nurturing and promoting global commons. Pakistan can play its role in this regard; but to do that that it will have to cast away its old mindset of failure or bravado. Pakistan’s economy, CPEC, and state are turning a corner. The people should also adjust Pakistan’s self image accordingly.
— The writer is the President of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and renowned diplomat.