CPEC is not a mere transit route or corridor for Pakistan. It has the potential to become robust engine of our future growth. It could inject enduring vitality into our ailing economy thus, a game changer as being called by all and sundry. Pakistan is situated astride world’s most important trade routes including energy highways. About 95% of global trade and 100% oil transportation are seaborne because it costs fraction of what otherwise could incur on movement of freight. It approximately costs 10 times lesser than rail, 45 times than road and 163 times than air. CPEC takes start from western China and passes through Pakistan and beyond into Indian Ocean.
It will afford China shortest and round the year access to Africa and Middle East thus, by its implications, forms a magic ingredient of its one road, one belt initiative. To USA, it is a serious setback to their policy of Asia Pivot, aimed at containment of China and Russia because it gives access to China to areas where at present, US has the ascendency. To India, it is a tranquilizing dream. It will shatter their vaulting ambition of regional power beyond measure. To UEA, a major cut in their virtual monopoly over trade in gulf. To Iran, a serious case of ambivalence. For Afghanistan a bugbear because this is the place from where most of anti CPEC schemes would be unleashed. In realpolitik, an undertaking of such proportions seldom sees smooth sailing. CPEC is no exception.
The Gwadar sea port is heart of whole CPEC project. The success of CPEC hinges on safe and secure environments along its entire length as well as in Indian Ocean in general and Arabian Sea in particular. It is an imperative because cargo is money and money is coward by essence. It does not mount a truck or ship which is uncertain to make it to the destination. It also does not move in a convoy or packet under security cover. It moves independently thus, this makes an overall safe and secure environments a prerequisite. Peaceful maritime environments are its major part.
The full spectrum of maritime security involves conventional and asymmetrical threats. These consist of coastal and port security, vessel’s security, security of sea lanes, challenges of piracy, human trafficking and smuggling, drugs trafficking, pollution and threats born of cyber and info domains. Primarily maritime threat to Gwader port and sea lanes emanate from India because it considers Indian Ocean its exclusive preserve. It is embedded in their psyche that whosoever controls Indian Ocean, controls Asia. Though name of Indian Ocean is after them but in no way it lends validation to their misplaced claim because it is bound by two continents. Its renaming as Afro – Asian Ocean seems more logical to give right kind of sense of ownership to its all littoral states.
Against such mindset including geopolitical and geo-economics dynamics of CEPEC in region, possibility of Indian threat is actual than imagined. Indian naval expansion and build up are clear pointers. A foiled attempt of Indian Navy submarine to enter territorial waters of Pakistan in recent past, is another glimpse. US’s support to Indian hegemonic designs in region is a dimension of other kind. Though ostensibly US has shown support to CPEC but in reality, it is becoming increasingly anxious about growing proximity between Pakistan and China in backdrop of fast emerging CPEC a reality. US has signed Logistic Exchange Memorandum between with India for essential logistic supplies for its Armed Forces at Indian ports and airports. Such measures also tend to prompt India to flex its muscles in Indian Ocean.
As opposed to Indian recognition of importance of sea, Pakistan fell into sea blindness. Resultantly, a considerable imbalance between naval strength of both countries emerged however, in changed environments, a quick realization dawned. Now sea positivity exists than ever and efforts are afoot at service level as well as national level to balance the equation between threat and response. Besides seeking more resources, Pakistan Navy was quick to make most of its assets available for the task with maximum effectiveness because procurement/ production, induction and operationalization take time. It is a splendid effort, deserving praise and acclaim.
Pakistan Navy has adopted multipronged approach to meet the challenge of maritime security. The security of Gwader port has been beefed up by employing a purpose built task force; TF 88 which is said to be equipped with drones, aerial surveillance and missile boats. It conducts security patrols and coastal exercises. It is making concerted efforts to enhance maritime domain awareness and engage regional and extra regional Navies in collaborative relationship to improve interoperability for betterment of mutual pursuits. Due to peculiar nature of maritime security, mutual collaboration is a must. No nation has sufficient wherewithal to deal requisites of maritime security alone.
India is rapidly modernizing and expanding its naval fleet. In order to maintain operational numbers, especially in comparison to India, Pakistan Navy has engaged China and Turkey for provision of more submarines and vessels etc. Eight multipurpose submarines are under production with Chinese technical cooperation. A landmarked agreement has been inked with Turkey under which Pakistan will build new multipurpose war vessels through joint venture. Pakistan and Turkey have also signed a letter of intent on four MLGEM ADA – class corvettes projects. The Chinese presence at Gwadar will also contribute meaningfully in maintenance of safe and secure maritime environments in our area of interest.
— The writer, retired Lt Col, is freelance columnist based in Islamabad.