Maritime cooperation in Indian Ocean region

Kanwar M Javed Iqbal

THERE is no doubt that the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is one of the busiest and most important oceans worldwide. The geo-politics and geo-economics of IOR littoral countries are interconnected to each other due to large scale of population, trade & cultural routes, sea-based economy, coastal tourism and other interests of leading global powers. IOR has tremendous potential for geo-economic activities.

The addition of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has provided new avenues to harness the true potential and alleviate poverty. There is a growing consensus observed at the level of relevant international stakeholders that the geo-politics and geo-economics have diverse dimensions in the region where enhanced cooperation is highly needed. The role of major global powers needs to promote peace and cooperation for which China, Pakistan and Iran need to make extra efforts on security and diplomatic fronts.

Pakistan has to ally itself with forces of regional progress and turn itself into a mega trade corridor. Pakistan has increasingly realized that its future lies in pursuing the common future of this region including Afghanistan, Central Asian Republics, Russia, Iran and China.

It also realizes that perpetual hostility with India is not going to serve any purpose, and the only way to solve the disputes in this region is through a shared vision of prosperity. But, India has a very typical mind-set with its hegemonic designs in the Indian Ocean and is trying to pose itself as a maritime regional power and is interested in holding way over the choke points in the IOR; thus posing security turbulence.

However, Indian wish is not possible owing to the magnitude of China’s military and economic competence. The strategic significance of Gwadar will certainly help China in addressing its current vulnerability of the Malaccan Dilemma. BRI prospects entail the need of Chinese interests to acquire, maintain, safeguard and defend the region if needed.

Pakistani ports and harbours, especially Karachi, Port Qasim and Gwadar, have tremendous significance not only for Pakistan but also for landlocked Afghanistan, Central Asian States, Russia and China. The role of Pakistan in international navigation, the Gwadar Port and the EEZ are very important for its economic development. However, the rise of non-conventional threats near coastal areas of Pakistan hamper its economic and security interests. It is imperative to stabilize the economy for acquiring defence modernization and to deal with non-traditional threats. Pakistan also needs to focus more on naval empowerment.

The uninterrupted threats of terrorism have transnational apprehensions for diplomatic interests of Pakistan. Possible assaults by radical military factions with the assistance of regional powers opposing CPEC on sea ports and coastlines along with dangers of weaponization, human trafficking and drugs smuggling could obstruct global trade activities on coastline of Pakistan.These serious maritime threats not only marginalize national security of Pakistan but also other coastal states of IOR. Collective cooperation and comprehensive maritime security strategy can be an effective way to safeguard national, regional and extra regional interests. International shipping, ports’ facilities and SLOCs need to be secured through safety and security rules and a joint intelligence system.

The contemporary challenges in maritime security transcend national boundaries and regional jurisdictions. Criminal activities on the high seas and maritime terrorism of the present demand greater emphasis on a coordinated and cooperative approach at global level, while keeping in mind national aspirations and perceptions of individual states.

With the high seas being beyond the jurisdiction of any state and covering almost over 90% of the world’s trade through seas, one can imagine the problems involved and a vast frontier of higher degree of vulnerability, which extends to the world’s ports, where huge amounts of cargo are loaded and off-loaded on a daily basis. Extensive global cooperation is the only way to stabilize all such maritime security threats. The formulation of the International Ship and Port Facilities Security Code had been the first and good step towards this endeavour.

Piracy and maritime terrorism remained the predominant threats in IOR. The issue of piracy is assuming threatening dimensions and there are diverse perspectives on counter strategy. Instead of just being reactive in approach, it is pertinent to rethink the problem of privacy to enable the menace be eliminated fully.

The strategic significance of IOR and its obvious vulnerabilities demand much greater attention as its access is controlled by several choke points such as the Bab el Mandeb and the busy straits of Hormuz, Malacca and Sunda. Any disruption of SLOCs would result in disastrous consequences to the security and economy of the world at large. All states thus have a vital stake in preserving the sanctity and security of all maritime traffic, whether in port or crossing the choke points or traversing the high seas. This can be translated into reality only through a well-coordinated and cooperative approach at global scale.

The emerging dangers and new challenges on the high seas and their effects on littoral states vision and strategy need to be examined well. Emerging opportunities for conflict resolution and problem solving in a regional and global context need to be identified and grasped. An effective and well-deliberated response can lead to the goal of peaceful co-existence and economic well-being in IOR.

Keeping in mind the current geo-strategic environment, Maritime Information Sharing is a prime requirement and vital link in terms of global cooperation. Without information exchange, an effective counter challenge can hardly be mounted. Every state, however, should do its bit and it was heartening to learn of the Pakistan Navy’s vigorous efforts towards containing the twin threats of piracy and terrorism in the context of a broader maritime coalition of the willing. The AMAN series of multinational exercises was the right initiative and very much successful in promoting regional cooperation and stability, greater interoperability and displaying a united resolve against terrorism and crimes in maritime domain including piracy.

In a nutshell, the strategic location of Pakistan is ideal for facilitating communications and promoting trade and cooperation in the region. Over the time, Pakistan has shown a very strong commitment to its resolve for formulation and implementation of plans and policies in conformity with international obligations, environmental requirements and technological advancements to make the IOR more peaceful and vibrant in the global context. There is a need to sustain all existing initiatives including the series of AMAN Exercises and energize further its efforts with a strong maritime diplomacy to ensure security, peace and prosperity in the region.
—The writer is Senior Researcher at National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA), Islamabad.

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