While it is Christopher Columbus’ 4,000-mile voyage in 1492 to Bahamas that dominates history books, it is actually the 12,000 miles of voyages of Portuguese sailors from Lisbon to India which are breathtaking in scope, and continue to fascinate students of maritime history. To this day, contours of entrepots (trading posts) in the Indian Ocean, stretching from the Straits of Hormuz to Malacca, have not lost their strategic significance. In the 21st century, the Indian Ocean has assumed extraordinary geo-strategic and geo-political significance as an ‘energy highway’ on water, as more than two-thirds of all traded oil is carried over sea, while less than one-third is transferred through pipelines. Additionally, access to resources in the Indian Ocean, such as rare-earth elements, deep sea mining and fishing, are largely unregulated. This is propelling established maritime powers and others to recalibrate their maritime priorities and enhance national capabilities.
The remarkable economic progress in China, India and other Asian countries, coupled with the emergence of Africa as a continent of growth, and their dependence on Middle East hydrocarbon energy resource, has shifted the ‘centre of gravity’ of global commerce from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. It is, therefore, no surprise that the US, for the first time in over 240 years of its naval history, has planned to station nearly 60 percent of its assets in the Pacific region by the year 2020.
India has emerged as the new strategic partner of the US against China in pursuit of global economic dominance. It is strange that while India has been lamenting militarisation of maritime region by others, it has consistently campaigned to recast the Indian Ocean as ‘India’s Ocean’. The UN has codified peaceful, co-operative and legally defined uses of the oceans for common benefit of all humankind, and any tinkering with that principle can disturb regional peace. India has overblown regional threats of piracy and terrorism to carve out a role for itself as the net security provider for its neighbours. International Maritime Bureau’s (IMB) recent reports suggest a large number of piracy incidents off the coast of West Africa in contrast to just one off the coast of Somalia.
To buttress its intent, the Indian Navy has started stationing more units at different locations and for longer durations as opposed to fewer units on shorter visits in the past. It has used its economic clout to provide maritime assets to some countries, like gifting a 1,300-ton patrol vessel to Mauritius and a promise of 13 more in the years to come. It has successfully exerted pressure on the new government in Sri Lanka to suspend a $1.5 billion Chinese luxury real-estate project in Colombo – the biggest of several Chinese investments in ports and infrastructure
As a result of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘hug diplomacy’ and recent visits to a string of regional countries, India has expanded its oceanic footprint to six different ‘nodal points’. These include the agreement to jointly build an airstrip and a jetty on Assumption Island in Seychelles, a logistic agreement with the US in 2017 which will facilitate the use of its facilities in the Gulf by Indian naval units, a logistic exchange agreement with France in January this year to allow access to the French military facilities at Djibouti, and Reunion, entire operational control of Chabahar, maintenance and logistic support at Dugm and a signal intelligence facility near Ras al Hadd in Oman.
In Iran, Oman and Seychelles, India has gone beyond ‘using’ local facilities to ‘securing’ these facilities, which has had a bearing on Pakistan’s maritime security. For now, India’s plans in Seychelles have hit choppy waters – not because of any superior exterior manoeuvre by Pakistan, but due to the opposition being in majority and the government’s sensitivity to public opinion, which does not want the country to get involved in regional conflicts involving nuclear powers India and China.
India’s operational control of Chabahar, Iran’s only port open to the Indian Ocean and located in close proximity to Gwadar, is a cause for serious concern. Till only recently, India used this port for carrying out sabotage activities in Pakistan when Kulbhushan Jadhav, an active service Indian Navy officer, under a fake Muslim name, operated a spy network. The Iranian foreign minister’s recent clarifications in Islamabad on leasing operational control of Chabahar have left much to be desired. His comparison of Indo-Iran relations as being the same as Pak-Saudi ties is even more perplexing. The only wars which Iran and Saudi Arabia have ever fought are wars of words, whereas India and Pakistan have fought three wars and the present relations between the two countries are at the lowest ebb. Besides, Pakistan has always been mindful of Iranian sensitivities – as is evident from its parliament’s disapproval of sanctioning Pakistani troops for Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are embroiled in a war with each other.
India cites growing Chinese influence in the region as raison d’etre for its expansionist designs in the Indian Ocean. But if a Doklam-style friendly ‘standoff’ is an indicator, any hot Indo-Chinese conflict at sea is highly unlikely. Therefore, it is Pakistan that is going to be affected, as India would want to gain control over the critical sea space encompassed by these ‘nodes’ and gravely threaten Pakistan’s maritime interest. India and the US have plans to sign the Communication and Information Security Memorandum (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Co-operation Agreement (BECA). These allow the US to share sensitive data on targeting and navigation and supply proprietary encrypted communication equipment. The Indian Navy already enjoys an advantage as its units operating at sea are secure against giving away Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) – a vulnerability that Pakistan needs to overcome as soon as possible.
Every country in the world has a sovereign right to enter into agreements with other countries, as long as the agreements are not against a third country. What India is doing in the Indian Ocean is not something Pakistan can be comfortable with. Not much is known about the infrastructure which will be set up in these new founded Indian ‘nuggets’ in the ocean, as they were dubbed by the West in response to Chinese ‘pearls’. Will such facilities be used against Pakistan in the event of hostilities? If so, will Pakistan be within its legitimate rights to take defensive measures in accordance with the international law? These questions are begging for answers.
The writer is a retired vice admiral. Email: tajkhattakymail.com