PAKISTAN – AN EQUALISER TO INDO CHINA MARITIME COMPETITION

(Written by: Abid Latif Sindhu)

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Bits of broken pottery are usually found ashore at many places all along the littoral states of Indian Ocean. This depicts the history, revealing itself for any carbon testing to reach a conclusion; IOR (Indian Ocean region) is a single contiguous region since centuries.

Sea is the place where future is invented in ebb and flow of waves riding the concentric circles of time. A nation, who knows the importance of this and has a maritime bent, is only likely to survive the coming vagaries of 21st century. It is just the beginning of this century and many countries are already out of competition. 21st century has also reinvented the Mahan; soon his mural will be made on every rock in the ocean. In Indian ocean this all started with china’s Malacca dilemma and contestation of line dash-o-nine, India’s fear of string of pearls, USA’s pivot of Asia and Pakistan’s coming out of sea blindness through the lens of Gawader. India thinks itself as the net security provider in IOR with blue water navy and a huge seaboard. Pakistan navy is also no more brown water force, it is well acclaimed regional navy and is growing with every passing day (anti piracy operations of Pakistan navy deep in international waters had gained quite an accolades from all and sundry). In any future Sino-Indian rivalry in Indian Ocean, Pakistan will be the key factor and Pakistan navy the equaliser. In naval war the steps to engagements are surveillance, classification of threat, localisation of the target for the kill chain and targeting with suitable weapon delivery. Pakistani naval fleet is designed to achieve same as a lean and smart machine. If the coming rivalry opens up here, India will definitely have few surprises in the brown waters quickly turning blue. What’s the Sino-Indian rivalry is all about as far as the maritime manifestation is concerned? This is very important to understand. There are three main players, playing the roulette, China, India and USA. China offered India to join BRI being a natural partner to this regional and trans-regional arrangement, India not only refused rather started countering the initiative, even as late as 2019 China wanted India to join, then came the abrogation of article 370 and 35A which made both China and Pakistan apprehensive to Indian intentions beyond the red lines. This triggered the Ladakh crisis and the start of rivalry in IOR as a consequence.

General Bipin Rawat has said that other options are on the table if dialogue fails with China on ladakh. These other options are to hit where India thinks that it is strong. This is IOR, specially the seaboard defended by Pakistan navy. If situation deteriorates, a naval war in Arabian Sea is not really out of question. China’s declaring of maritime arc from Persian gulf through strait of Malacca to sea of Japan as the new maritime silk route has already unhinged the strategic thinkers of USA, who strongly believe that USA cannot allow any one power or coalition to dominate the Eurasian land mass(Mackinder laughing). Mearshemier the biggest realist scholar has already said that ” China is single most threat to USA”. This brings USA here, west of Andaman -Nicobars and the nine degree channel. Indian navy with its 290 ships and 16 submarines will be a potent threat but Pakistan navy is ready with half the size to act as the David to take on the goliath.

The professionalism, training and the history of combat with India stands testimonial that big brother will be soon in for surprises. The 496 ships (all type) of Chinese navy with 2 aircraft carriers will not be a bystander if USA moves its naval assets in IOR. The term super power is going to be redefined as now the peer competition will be in the domains and spheres known as global commons. The high sea, atmosphere, Antarctica and space were the global commons as the world knows; China has redefined the two others, the internet with digital/cyber space and the inflow and out flow of rare earth metals. So we might be seeing the emergence of first global power of the world soon. No one except India wants to be at the wrong side of the history, not even United States. Any maritime power has to have a potent geography, maritime bent of its leaders, ship building capacity, size of seafaring population, significant ports, merchant vessels and a strong navy. Pakistan has all of it now less the enhancement of merchant vessels. The recent maritime policy given by the government amply covers this aspect as well. Indian Ocean is known for three things, one its choke points, like Malacca, Sunda and Lombok straits on the eastern side, the six degree and nine degree channels between Andaman and Nicobar islands. Strait of Hormaz, Bab-ul-mandeb, Suez Canal and the Mozambique channel on the western side. Second, its suitability for submarines due to temperature, pressure profile and salinity, this is known as an opaque sea, thirdly, the volume of trade, over 120000 ships cross IOR in a year. There are a number of French and British colonial islands in Indian Ocean which also makes them interesting players in any future competition. USA’s naval bases are the Djibouti, Diego Garcia and Bahrain (CENTCOM). Indian naval bases are at Visakhapatnam, east coast Mumbai, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India is making another base at Lakshadweep Islands near Western Ghats. Since 1992 India is conducting the naval exercises with USA with the name of “Malabar”. The name itself depicts that which part of Indian Ocean, India is interested in, the Western Ghats and beyond, obviously towards Persian Gulf and Africa. Japan also later on joined the Malabar exercises along with Australia, thereby making this annual naval exercise a precursor to the formation of QUAD which is the geo- strategic alignment of states concerned with China’s potential challenge to their interests.

These four states of QUAD have to understand that in a world of admitted rivalry and peer competition, balance of power is necessary but not sufficient, what is required is an architecture of growth and progress in all the domains, commons and global commons, the way China is doing. Balance of power in 21st century is half woven quilt, like an American mackintosh it will never cover you all. As China- India competition is expanding into Indian Ocean, therefore all three, Pakistan, China and India is more maritime focused than in the past. The manifestation of this is the weakening of Indian alliance system by China through making the entire littorals, the strategic partner one way or the other. Therefore the illusion of India being net security provider has gone in thin air. China has become Mahan’s state (both in real and allegorical way), trying to reach out to the oceans from all sides. One, a land sea corridor under way from China-Myanmar-Indian Ocean, second, mainland China to South- China-Sea, third, the jewel of crown, Gawader-Gilgit-Xinjiang. Pakistan navy’s modernization plan is very vibrant, based on the principle of agility and outreach, the latest entry of frigate 054 is a force multiplier. It being the four dimensional force is giving whole hog protection to Gawader , while conducting day to day sea dominance operations in its territorial waters. Spotting an Indian submarine and then letting it go was a message that balance of power is not necessary as a mere number game, other vectors are much more important than the Indian arithmetic. General Bipin Rawat can pick his monocle and see if there are more options on the table under the deck prism, if not , take a gig and come along.

Spotting an Indian submarine and then letting it go was a message that balance of power is not necessary as a mere number game, other vectors are much more important than the Indian arithmetic

The writer is a Ph.D. scholar, freelance contributor and a cofounder of an upcoming security related think tank. He can be reached at sindhulatif @gmail.com and tweets @Abid_Latif55

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