And the simmering Indo-Pacific cauldron


“I am ashamed of what is going on in India today.” This is how the celebrated Indian Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy described the prevalent conditions in her native country early this month. Ms Roy returned her national award she won in 1989. In doing so, she joined the ranks of over twenty other Bollywood actors and scores of Indian artists, scientists and historians who have given back their national awards in recent days as a mark of protest against rising violence, religious intolerance and vicious attacks on minorities in India. While this illustrates India’s developing domestic political turf, externally New Delhi is working with single minded obsession to subvert China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). “The plot is part of India’s broader strategy to contain China,” maintained Pakistan’s Secretary of National Security Division at a seminar held recently in Islamabad.

In this sinister Indian strategy, a power-hungry diplomacy for the Indian Ocean and enterprising role of the Indian Navy are hand and glove. Indeed, with Gwadar port as its lynchpin, CPEC counterbalances Indian plans of exploiting Chinese weakness in the Indian Ocean that rests in blocking the Strait of Malacca. Lately, however, the unprecedented bigotry let loose by Modi government suffered a serious setback. Thanks to the voters in the impoverished Indian state of Bihar, BJP was dealt a crippling defeat in local elections. It was a compelling indictment and rejection of the incendiary path adopted by New Delhi.

Further to the east, the United States is locked in some recklessly bellicose actions against China in the South China Sea. These come under the pretext of “freedom of navigation” exercises conducted close to the controversial Islands claimed by several Far Eastern states. Late last month after a US warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of Beijing’s man made Islands of Spratly archipelago, China’s naval chief warned his US counterpart. “A minor incident could spark a war in the South China Sea if the United States did not stop its provocative acts,” said Admiral Wu Shengli. Ignoring that, the US Secretary of State only upped the ante when days later he boarded the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt operating close to the disputed Island in the South China Sea.

Amidst such tumultuous developments in two different maritime theatres of the Indian and the Pacific Oceans, both in global spotlight today, Pakistan Navy’s large scale exercise SEASPARK 2015 opened in the North Arabian Sea early this month. With an overarching objective to test war preparedness of Pakistan Navy, the exercise concurrently aimed to augment interoperability with Pakistan Army and Air Force. All operational units of Pakistan Navy including ships, submarines, aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, Special Forces, Pakistan Marines as well as elements of Pakistan Maritime Security Agency, Pakistan Air Force and Pakistan Army participated in the three-week long exercise.

Conducted in the North Arabian Sea (western Indian Ocean), SEASPARK validated operational plans and assessed war readiness of the Navy across the entire spectrum of threats and challenges. Responses were weighed up against conventional, sub-conventional, cyber and information threats. Seaward defence of the coast and reaction to non-traditional challenges was too tested. The former embraces entire coastal belt of Pakistan. It also includes Sir Creek, the disputed territory where navies of Pakistan and India often seize fishermen with their vessels for violating respective territorial boundary. Due to complex terrain, battalions of Pakistan Marines are deployed to defend this maritime province composed mainly of marshes, swamps and unpredictable waterways.

SEASPARK saw Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Zakaullah undertake whirlwind tours of frontlines to see firsthand the level of preparedness of Pakistan Navy. These visits covered coastal areas from Gwadar, Pasni, Ormara along the coast of Makran in Balochistan to Sir Creek in Sindh. At all these places, the naval chief received operational briefings by on spot commanders. And while at Gwadar, Admiral Zakaullah was unequivocal in expressing his resolve to ensure protection of Gwadar by the Navy against all kinds of sub-conventional or asymmetric threats. He was further unmistakable in reiterating that providing a safe and secure environment both, on land and at sea was essential for smooth functioning of Gwadar port as well as to accrue desired socio-economic advantages of CPEC.

While at sea during the exercise, Chief of the Naval Staff was joined by Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sohail Amin for an operational view of the fleet units engaged in SEASPARK. The two witnessed joint operations between units of Pakistan Navy and Pakistan Air Force. It was a spectacular demonstration, a flawless integration amongst the combat units of the two services. Included in the operational validation was the pivotal role of PAF’s airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C) in the command and control construct of the operations. The crowning point of the exercise was however naval fire power demonstration on 14 November. In a stunning exhibition of combat potential, surface and air units of Pakistan Navy fired anti-ship missiles which hit the targets in the North Arabian Sea with deadly precision. The firings reaffirmed range, lethality and accuracy of these weapon systems.

The coast of Pakistan and adjoining ocean area lies at the junction of important regions and critical international trade routes. As part of the western Indian Ocean, the North Arabian Sea is a principal ‘conveyor belt’ trading oil and coal to larger region and beyond. The Strait of Hormuz just next to Pakistan’s western fringes of Makran coast is the world’s most important chokepoint with an oil flow of 17 million barrels per day in 2013, about 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil.

The work to complete the western alignment of the CPEC is currently in full drive. Completion of a dual carriageway is expected in December 2016. The maturing of the project will effectively elevate the status of Gwadar port as a major trading and transshipment hub in the region. With commercial activity going up, this will lift the strategic value of the bordering Makran coast.

Nearly seventy percent of global trade transit is today carried through the Indo-Pacific. The Indian Ocean has become one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, not solely because of the oil its shores pump for the world but for host of other reasons. In 2011, a total of 142 political conflicts were recorded in the region. This represented more than a third of the 388 conflicts worldwide, including 12 of the world’s 20 wars, as well as an additional eight limited wars. The unrest in Middle East, P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran, India’s overdrive to hold sway in Indian Ocean and its island territories over and above CPEC has pushed the region into a fresh era of geo-politics.

Pakistan Navy has come a long way over the past decade. It has emerged as a reckonable force with wide international recognition. The Navy is today regarded as support vehicle for security and stability in the western Indian Ocean. It also stands as the sole bulwark to the overambitious designs of New Delhi in the region. But while its area and operational responsibilities have greatly multiplied over the past decade, a paltry 10 percent share from annual defence budget is apportioned to the service.

The Indian Ocean region is in a state of geo-political fluidity with new alliances and security partnerships on the cards. Pakistan’s strategic and security community needs to appreciate that rapid changes are taking place in Indo-Pacific region. More and more countries are adjusting national policies that will allow them to turn towards the sea, duly off-loading long held landward obsessions in the process. The country’s future economic security resides in the maritime domain and coastal areas of Pakistan. CPEC is projected to further step up commercial activity in the region. It also holds promise to deliver limitless socio-economic bounties for Balochistan and rest of the country. To fully safeguard national maritime interests against a vast range of internal and external challenges, a profound investment in Pakistan Navy is an indispensable need of the times.