The Indian Ocean is the third largest of the world’s oceans. It is surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh to the North; Malay Peninsula, Sunda Islands of Indonesia, and Australia to the East; Antarctica to the South; and Arabian Peninsula and Africa and to the West. In the southwest it joins the Atlantic, and to the East and Southeast its waters mingle with the Pacific. It provides major sea routes – also termed sea lines of communication (SLOC) – connecting the Middle East, Africa, and East Asia with Europe and US.
It was for this reason that even two centuries earlier Alfred Thayer Mahan, who was acknowledged as the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century, had highlighted the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean by asserting, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean will dominate Asia; the destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.” The validity of that assertion came to fore more clearly at least from last century with the increasing importance of Indian Ocean sea routes not only for the competing regional countries but also for many of the world powers. Since then the potential of that rivalry in the region has only been increasing.
And, an almost ‘igniting’ factor has recently been added to that rivalry because of the geopolitical quest of the competing countries/powers to dominate the regional and extra-regional energy (oil and gas) resources as also its supply routes, and to deny those to the rivals. The fact that many of the US’ strategists declared 21st century as ‘energy century’ clearly reflects that aspect of rivalry ingrained with the potential of conflict. Incidentally, in the Asian region, the Indian Ocean also bears the special significance of containing the SLOCs for the heavy maritime traffic of the energy-producing and energy-consuming countries/powers respectively in its western and eastern littorals/regions – thereby further fuelling the chances of conflict. This heightening potential of conflict is obviously a matter of very serious concern for Pakistan, besides other effected countries; necessitating a very careful analytical evaluation of the related aspects/conflict factors, and the policy options for safeguarding own national interests.
In the context of that evaluation, particular cognizance has to be taken of the current global and regional states’ struggle to gain maritime influence in this region. It is also worth noting that by now this competing struggle has also become complex due to the fact that in this region, which contains their economic and strategic interests, the competing stakeholders including US, China, Russia, Pakistan, India, and Iran meet varyingly as partners and rivals. In this scenario in the Indian Ocean region, therefore, it is of significance to have a very clear grasp of two of the related aspects; firstly, the policy/role of the involved powers/countries, like US, China, and India; and secondly, the option(s) for Pakistan to safeguard its own national interests in this ‘mêlée’ of the rival energy politics.
Since the SLOCs in this region are probably the major ‘bone of contention’, it has to be registered that these are so becoming more and more contentious because these include half of the world’s maritime trade and energy supply lines. Besides that, two of the world’s largest energy demanding and fastest growing economies, China and India, belong to this region; and their dependency upon these SLOCs is likely to rise in future. In addition to that, the potential of conflict in this region is further heightening because this region also encloses some of the world’s oil choke points, which have high economic and strategic importance for the competing countries/powers. These include Strait of Hormuz from which passes 35 percent of world petroleum supply, upon which West is highly dependent; Strait of Malacca, upon which almost 80 percent of Chinese trade is dependent; Babb-el-Mandeb; and Lombok Strait.
Prowling and patrolling naval fleets of global powers in the ocean, emerging naval potential of the regional powers, increasing defence budgets – especially naval – to secure their trade and military interests, seem to be creating a perfect model of war of all against all in current geopolitical scenario. The Changing geo-energy and geo-political realities of the region and increasing interdependence of regional and extra-regional powers have turned it into an arena of intense economic, political and military competition.
Whether it is US’ Asia Pivot strategy to increase its troops and naval power in the Indian Ocean and focus more here than on the Pacific, or it is Chinese Strings of Pearls strategy to strengthen friendly relations and have strategic ties with neighbouring states to assure safety of its trade and energy routes, or it is Indian ambitions to have a blue-water navy with the help of friendly states and indigenous developments, their goal is same, that is to maximize power to secure their maritime interests in the region to the exclusion of the competing countries/powers.
In the given scenario, states like Pakistan which do not have any global or even regional domination agenda are left with limited policy options. Pakistan is a crucial littoral state of the Indian Ocean as it is blessed with an area of 240,000 sq km called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Pakistan. It is dependent on these sea routes for over 95% of its trade i.e., around 38 million tons and is likely to reach 91 million tons by 2015; therefore, security of the sea routes is crucial for the economic life of Pakistan. It also has to be kept in the reckoning that secure EEZ not only offers trade routes, but also vast and varied reservoirs of natural resources such as fishing and minerals etc which are considered to be lucrative for the economy of any littoral state.
Pakistan has two major maritime challenges to counter. First challenge is obviously from its traditional adversary India which, in a bid to transform its navy into blue water navy, has designed the induction of nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, frigates and battleships beyond its legitimate needs. Pakistan Navy seems to be alive to the up-and-coming threat. Inauguration of Headquarters of the Naval Strategic Force Command (NSFC) in 2012 is an evidence of Pakistan Navy’s vigilance.
Recently Pakistan took a good move in its strategic policy by handing over operating rights of Gwadar port to its reliable neighbour. Harmony of Pak-China strategic interests is likely to enable Pakistan to counter threats from the regional rival pragmatically. India has endangered regional strategic stability in the Indian Ocean by launching its nuclear submarine program. Pakistan cannot pay India back in the same coin immediately; therefore, to have an alliance is the most viable short term solution. However, it would be irrational to remain dependent solely upon alliance. While alliance is crucial, indigenous capability to complete its nuclear triad is a rational approach to counter Indian threats, so that Pakistan can neutralise threats to its security. Pakistan does not want to get engaged in arms race but it cannot help defending its legitimate interests and maintaining minimum credible deterrence.
The second threat is from the use of maritime routes by non-state actors like terrorists, pirates and miscreants, which demands intense surveillance. Pakistan Navy has played a remarkable role in countering this challenge. It actively contributes to the world peace by persistent deployment of its assets in the US-led coalition Task Force 151 which is tasked with preventing human trafficking, and smuggling of narcotics and weapons through sea routes.
In future this region would possibly face proportional rise in maritime traffic, along with the variety and intensity of threats such as piracy, maritime terrorism, drug and human trafficking, pollution, accidents, possibility of inter-state conflicts. It, therefore, appears more likely that no single power may be able to dominate the Indian Ocean, thereby necessitating a sort of multilateral setup so that conflict may be avoided and balance maintained.