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 the Pakistan Navy. A grand display of “collective resolve” to comprehensively fight maritime security challenges through shared effort, organized every two years, Exercise AMAN (Peace) is breathtaking in scale and scope. The enduring theme of AMAN has been “Together for Peace”. A multinational wargame, AMAN, aims to ensure security and stability in a critical region of what is known as the “global commons”.
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 aircraft, special operation 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 saw1965 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.
As CPEC matures and commercial trade picks up, the 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?
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 the 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.
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.
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.
The author has widely contributed on maritime security and related issues.