By Azhar Ahmad 

jun 04, 2014

Going MaritimeOn May 14-15, 2014, Pakistan Navy organized an international maritime seminar in Lahore. The seminar was held at the newly-constructed building of the Pakistan Navy War College at Walton, and jointly managed and sponsored by the Navy War College as well as the National Centre for Maritime Policy Research. Besides maritime experts from Pakistan and neighbouring countries, a large number of persons from the civil society, academia and students of local universities attended the event. The highlight of the seminar was the presence of Punjab Chief Minister Mian Shahbaz Sharif as Chief Guest for the inaugural session. Other sessions were presided over by the Defence Secretary, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, serving and retired senior naval officers. The Chief of the Naval Staff remained present throughout the proceedings of the seminar.

The importance accorded to the subject can be gauged by the presence of senior dignitaries. The attendance of people from all walks of life, particulae students, indicates an awakening of society to a hitherto neglected but important area. The Chrly thief Guest appeared well versed with the subject and very eloquently summarized th nee need and potential to invest in the maritime sector in his extempore remarks.

Geographically, Pakistan is a maritime country blessed with 960 km. of coastline, an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of 240,000 sq. km. and a continental shelf offering an additional 50,000 sq. km. Despite a tremendously rich coast and a huge mass of water at its disposal, Pakistan has not been able to make the best of its maritime prowess. The word maritime encompasses all that is related to the sea or its uses, e.g., ports and harbours, merchant marine, ocean economic resources and naval forces.

Management of these maritime assets in the best possible manner, in the interest of the country and its people, is the realm of the maritime strategy. The political, economic and technological environment prevailing in a county, have a direct bearing on its maritime strategy. In short, maritime strategy uses the sea to exploit its resources and geography to the advantage of a littoral. For a country like Pakistan with such a vast coast and geo-strategic location, it is imperative to have a vibrant and effective maritime strategy to make the best use of this enormously beneficial resource.

The Law of the Sea provides an opportunity to all coastal states to exploit and benefit from a large area of EEZ and Continental Shelf. The availability of modern technology also helps in exploring the hidden treasures of the seas. Rights over areas of sea, and access to technology have made it easier even for the developing nations to protect their interests and build up their economies. Access to the ocean wealth lying in the sea has enhanced the importance of all the elements of maritime power. Pakistan has substantial maritime resources and interests. However, the lack of insight in understanding the importance of these strategic gifts and poor or non-existent strategy to exploit these resources is the major obstacle in the development of the maritime sector.

Pakistan’s coastline extends from Sir Creek on the Indian border to Gwatar Bay on the Iranian border. It comprises numerous natural bays and centuries-old ports. Yet, the entire coastline, except around Karachi, remains under-developed and scarcely inhabited, while majority of the world’s population is concentrated around port cities. Pakistan, since its creation, has depended solely on Karachi port for its security and commercial needs. Port Bin Qasim that started functioning in the 1980s is essentially an extension of Karachi port due to its proximity and, therefore, does not present a viable alternative. Gwadar port project offers a useful alternative, but the progress on the project has remained slow so far.

Pakistan’s merchant fleet, which consisted of more than 70 ships in the early seventies, has been reduced to only nine, carrying less than 10 per cent of the country’s trade. While Pakistani ship owners own fleets registered in other countries, there is not a single privately registered ship operating in Pakistan. Due to dependence on ‘Flag of Convenience’ vessels, Pakistan is losing enormous foreign exchange, exacerbated by the fact that these vessels may not be available during tension or war.

Pakistan also figures poorly in exploitation of its ocean resources. Fishery, which has provided sustenance to majority of coastal population for centuries, remains dependent on age-old traditional methods and obsolete, poorly equipped crafts. Pakistani fishermen generally rely on small boats and launches which remain close to the coast and are not operable in rough weather. Most of the fish catch from the EEZ is, therefore, carried by foreign fishing vessels. Pakistan has one of Asia’s largest mangrove forests, which are fast depleting due to negligence.

There is little progress in the offshore exploration for hydrocarbons and minerals. There are also no survey crafts available to study the nature and potential of ocean resource. The country has an old shipyard which once built ships on order even for foreign customers, but that remains in an adverse condition due to poor management and inconsistent policies. Recently, the navy has provided some respite to the shipyard by providing orders to build naval crafts. However, much effort is required to upgrade the shipyard and attract commercial orders. Gadani ship-breaking yard was once the largest in the world, but has been taken over by its rivals in India, Bangladesh and China. Pakistan Navy, which is the custodian of the country’s maritime power, has also remained neglected and continues to struggle for the attention of the rulers.

This brief resume of the maritime sector of Pakistan is enough to highlight the plight of this sector. It is obvious that geographic contiguity to the sea does not make a nation maritime. It is the understanding of the maritime potential, the maritime outlook and tradition that make a nation maritime. History is witness to the fact that nations which neglected their maritime power often remained at the mercy of others. Pakistan’s state of awareness and exploitation of its maritime sector, i.e., its maritime strategy and its implementation, need serious review. Therefore, more efforts are required to enhance the understanding of maritime affairs among the masses and, more importantly, among the decision makers.

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