Muhammad Azam Khan
Navies from over 35 countries have teamed up in the North Arabian Sea from 10 to 14 February 17 for Multinational Exercise AMAN-17 being hosted by Pakistan Navy. A grand display of “collective resolve” to comprehensively fight maritime security challenges through shared effort, Organised every two year, Exercise AMAN (Peace) is breathtaking in scale and scope. The enduring theme of AMAN has been “Together for Peace”. A multinational war game AMAN, aims to ensure security and stability in a critical region of what is known as the “global commons”.
Coalitions, alliances, or union of navies are effective means of deterrence and gun boat diplomacy. Coalitions are temporary while alliances are more enduring in nature. Such groupings are based on identical views of nations about nature of challenges and threats. They are meant to apply coercive diplomacy or even use force when needed. The casus belli is an attack on the interests or security of its members.
It all began in March 2007 when the first of its kind AMAN exercise was held. There were then some 28 participating countries. The fifth in the series, AMAN- 17 has drawn an extraordinary number of participating countries. This representation will show in the form of ships with embarked Helicopters, Fixed Wing Aircrafts, Special Operating Forces, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, Marines Teams and Observers. An International Maritime Conference (IMC-17) will precede the two day joint manoeuvres at sea. In the conference, panels of international and local scholars will weigh up contemporary maritime security environment and challenges therein to proffer workable solutions. At sea however it would be different. Refining doctrinal concepts, combat drills against transnational threats and challenges, special operations and interoperability exercises will test the joint skills of navies and professional teams.
The maritime region of interest to Pakistan, i.e.: the western Indian Ocean particularly the North Arabian Sea has usually been in the global spotlight. This was so even during the cold war. It saw 1965 and 1971 Indo–Pak wars, Iran- Iraq war and later day major events like Operation “Enduring Freedom” following 9/11. Over the past 15 years, the region has also witnessed an upsurge in naval coalitions assembled against a stockpile of non-traditional threats. These threats took the form of piracy, trafficking and maritime terrorism. There has also been a steady increase in number of natural disasters, some quite serious like the 2004 tsunami.
Some tectonic developments have however lately started reshaping the regional maritime environment. The region is becoming a receptacle, more of competition and conflict of interests than cooperation. The induction of SSBNs and cutting edge platforms like P8I, an expanding strategic naval alliance between USN-IN, the Logistic Sharing Agreement (a virtual war pact between the United States and India), construction of Indian naval and surveillance bases overseas on Islands (like Seychelles), PLA Navy conducting major naval manoeuvres with Pakistan Navy in the North Arabian Sea in a display of resolve to protect multibillion dollar enterprise CPEC, the approaching uncertainty surrounding the parallel development of ports of Gwadar and Chabahar, P5+1 nuclear agreement, an unprecedented oil glut, all seems to be happening here.
The aforesaid is not to count some other significant events. Pakistan recently tested a 700 km land- sea version of cruise missile, Babur. Not too long ago, India test fired submarine launched Intermediate Range Ballistic missile, K-4. On December 26 last, India tested Agni-V, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). With a strike range of over 5,000 km, Agni V can reach southern parts of China. To ensure adequate stability, Pakistan tested its version of submarine launched cruise missile, Babur III early this January. But all these happenings dwarf when viewed in the backdrop of two momentous developments. Russia has entered the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. And having effectively lost turf in Iraq and Syria, the IS (Da’ish) now threatens to shift focus to maritime domain.
In a historic moment the two avowed cold war rivals – Russia and Pakistan – conducted joint military exercises in September last year. On a previous occasion, in late 2015 a group of Russian Pacific Fleet warships held anti-air defence exercises in the Indian Ocean. These ships also replenished at port Salalah in Oman before returning to home port. In December 2016, PNS Alamgir– a Pakistan navy destroyer – docked at the Russian black sea port of Novorossiysk for a goodwill visit. Upon arrival, the ship was given warm welcome by the Russian Federation navy and officials of the city administration. Following the port visit, PNS Alamgir participated in a bilateral naval exercise with the Russian naval ships.
The one time thinking on the former USSR striving to gain access to “warm waters of the Indian Ocean and the Middle East” now lies buried deep in the dungeon of history. Under Putin, Russia is mightily inserting itself in the global order to regain past glory. Moscow stealing U.S elections through hacking of sensitive information to favour Republican, Donald Trump is a consequential example. It is now a serious emerging contender for power in Asia including Middle and Far East. And like it or not Russia is here to stay. Russian Navy is expected to frequent the western Indian Ocean more than ever in living memory. Ditto for China.
As CPEC matures and commercial trade picks up, PLA navy is projected to increase its presence in the Indian Ocean. Not only that, cooperation between PLA navy and Pakistan Navy will expand powerfully. The recent signing of contract for purchase of eight Yuan (Hangor) class submarines by Pakistan Navy and ongoing negotiations for corvettes as well as other platforms point to the expanding strategic relationship between the two navies- and why not?
The international order and along with it the destiny of nations in larger Asia seems to have come full circle. A phenomenally rising China and an assertive Russia have in effect stymied United States global economic and military ascendancy. A new “multi-polar” international order has returned within 25 years of a “unipolar” world that began in 1991.
With Modi government bent on disturbing the maritime order in the region and USN cosying up to IN in an unprecedented manner, Pakistan and China have little choice. China’s “Blue Book” maintains that country’s interests in the Indian Ocean are driven simply by “commercial” objectives. But Beijing’s “Blue Book” also warns that the Indian Ocean could end up “as an ocean of conflict and trouble” if countries like India, the U.S. and China failed to engage with each other more constructively as their interests begin to overlap.
There is now incontrovertible evidence that points to India’s involvement in promoting violence in Balochistan with the sole intent to stall CPEC. Islamabad recently presented a special dossier to the United Nations Secretary General on RAW activities inside Pakistan. Also included in the dossier is the sudden presence of Indian submarine in Pakistani waters – duly picked up by Pakistan Navy. The incident coincided with setting of sail by first convoy of China’s commercial ships from Gwadar on November 14 last year.
Be that as it may, Pakistan navy has raised a Special naval Task Force to protect and safeguard Gwadar port. The newly instituted special Task Force will include ships, fast attack craft, drones and surveillance assets to guard the port as well as adjoining sea.
When the warships from the United States navy’s 5th Fleet fired the first salvos of missiles into Afghanistan in October 2001 it only seemed to herald the initiation of operation “Enduring Freedom”, the beginning of an era of “unipolarity” and “unilateralism”. Some fifteen years later, the region has emerged as the battle ground for major power contest in the twenty first century. Amidst increasing economic stakes and expanding strategic naval alliances, new battle lines are being drawn. With issues like piracy and terrorism shrinking and receding into the background, the traditional military threats have resurged once again.
In the foreseeable future both, China and Russia are likely to increase their “political footprint” in the western Indian Ocean. The region will witness a struggle for balance of power. India and the United States will mutually endeavour to block China and Pakistan from advancing their commercial and maritime interests in the Indian Ocean.
As during the cold war, the balance of power is not purported to avoid crises or even wars. “When working properly, it is meant to limit both the ability of states to dominate others and the scope of conflicts. Its goal is not peace so much as stability and moderation”, thus argues Henry Kissinger the 93 year old accomplished foreign policy wizard and American Nobel prize laureate.
To all intents and purposes, the much talked about Indian cold-start doctrine redeveloped to Proactive operations is now dead. The recent statement by Indian Army Chief Bapin Rawat in a wide ranging interview acknowledging the existence of army’s cold start strategy has more political undertones than substance. The security establishment in Pakistan must not gamble away the country’s precious resources in crafting counter strategy against an issue that remained frozen in time even in the wake of major incidents in India. The focus instead must be to invest in the economic and military dimensions of the national maritime sector with renewed vigour. This is where the future prosperity and security of Pakistan resides. And it is here that major clash of interest between local and other powers will come to pass.
The enormous multinational participation in AMAN is a living testimony of Pakistan’s immutable resolve for peace and security in a sea expanse crucial to global stability. In no small measure, the large-scale exercise also negates the impression that Pakistan is drifting into international isolation, a cliché so often voiced by its eastern neighbour.