Oceanic waters: A strategic imperative
UNFORTUNATELY, the discussion on maritime domain is often ignored in the academia and national discourse of Pakistan; however, the world is acting otherwise.
The recent US Navy Warship’s Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation in the Taiwan Strait, Russia’s new Maritime Doctrine signed in St Petersburg, China’s naval modernization and shifting of strategic consciousness towards waters elicit the geostrategic importance of maritime domain.
Given that the oceans hold an abundance of water and constitute more than two thirds of the earth’s surface, the importance of seas to a country’s wealth has not diminished since ancient times.
Sea provides opportunities for a state to exploit economic, military, environmental and political domains.
To put it differently, maritime domain is an essential tool for leading powers to influence geopolitics at a distance.
Crucially, oceans are like arteries of the world trade as more than 90% of trade passes through them.
No one can deny the importance of the maritime domain in a country’s economic development.
Moreover, the changing concept of security from military to economy forced the states to focus on geo-economics.
Maritime shipping is crucial for the sustenance of the world trade and goods supplies. It is also indispensable for our daily life as the products one uses in its daily life are transported via sea.
Importantly, maritime transportation is cheaper than other modes of transportation. For instance, Professor Azhar Ahmad in his book “Gwadar: Balance in Transition” presented an interesting comparison of the relative costs of other modes of transportation beside maritime transportation: rail, road and air transportation cost 10 times, 45 times and 163 times more than the maritime transportation respectively.
It reflects the great dependence of the world trade on maritime domain. Famous American naval specialist, Alfred Thayer Mahan, underscores the pivotal role of the navy in the maintenance of maritime commerce and sustenance of the state’s economic growth given that who control strategic chokepoints controls world trade and ultimately dominates the world.
Interestingly, moreover, the change in power polarity has also increased the significance of the maritime domain.
The maritime domain has been used by great powers to project their power and increase their sphere of influence at distance.
In the contemporary era, states are employing every possible mean to increase their power.
The maritime domain is one of viable means that can exponentially supplement the overall national power of a state.
During the Peloponnesian War, the distribution, mobility and agility of Athens maritime power provided more strategic options relative to Sparta but they could not utilize those options in a longer run.
Similarly, British naval supremacy and the presence of the US naval forces in different regions provided them with opportunities to exert power and increase area of influence.
China has also realized that maritime domain is important in order to play greater role in the security architecture of the world.
Maritime domain provides favourable circumstances to coastal states. For instances, John Mearsheimer in his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics” discussed one of the very important advantages enjoy by coastal states that waters make insular states much less vulnerable to invasion as compared to continental states.
History is evident to the fact that continental states have been invaded across land more often relative to across water.
Command of the commons provides a state with an opportunity to increase its sphere of influence.
Furthermore, waters provide a strategic depth for littoral and archipelagic states as it offers mobility, agility and combativeness.
Moreover, a ship-based missile system offers Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence (ABMD) for adjacent land masses.
Additionally, oceanic waters provide the best and safest route to move forces, equipment and other goods to critical areas in the time of emergency.
The countries having control or more influence on maritime trade routes or chokepoints always gain a strategic advantage relative to other states in global politics.
Five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council are all major naval powers.
It is sufficient to say that the maritime domain supplements global power and advances geopolitical interests.
The maritime domain is not restricted to economic and military spheres, it also encompasses other sectors which were ignored in the maritime discourses for long.
Most importantly, the political importance of the sea cannot be ignored. The political importance of anything is dependent on the economic and military weight of it.
The indispensable economic and military importance of waters underscores the inevitability of the political significance of waters.
Littoral and archipelagic states tend to have greater say and influence in the sphere of international trade, on policies regarding Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC), allocation of tariffs and quotas, and rules for shipping and naval activities.
Moreover, the sea provides opportunities for littoral and archipelagic states to promote cultural, commercial, and scientific contacts.
The sea also gives political leverage to littoral states relative to landlocked countries. Sadly, policy makers in Pakistan have ignored this very important realm and succumbed to sea-blindness.
It is more disappointing that a very little portion was accredited to the maritime domain in the National Security Policy of Pakistan 2022 and substantial elements were missing in the document.
Policy makers of Pakistan need to pay serious attention towards maritime domain to advance its national interests and deter threats.
It is also pertinent to underscore the importance of the maritime domain for the sustenance of daily life.
Waters are vital for human development as a viable source of resources and as a means of transportation, information exchange, and strategic policies.
—The writer is a journalist and freelance contributor.