The Indian Ocean covers an area of 73,556,000 square kilometres, and is the third largest ocean in the world. It is rimmed by three continents; Africa, Asia and Australia, and it forms the connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, where the global economic and political powerhouses lie, rendering it a highly significant geostrategic location. Indian Ocean also has its significance because of the fact that 65 % of the world’s oil, 35 % natural gas as well as sources of numerous other manufactured goods and raw materials are located in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean. It is also significant for global security and economy because of important trade routes and choke points.
Within the Indian Ocean, Arabian Sea has a central position whereby it straddles the routes for all important energy supplies and access to the important choke points of Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz to the West and approach to the Bay of Bengal and Malacca Strait to the east. Besides the energy supplies, global trade of other commodities and raw materials also passes through the Arabian Sea. Moreover, it provides the shortest access to the sea to the landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. Its importance has increased manifold with the start of CPEC project to facilitate Chinese exports and energy imports through Pakistani ports, especially that of Gwadar.
The peace and security in the Indian Ocean is threatened by competition for dominance, presence and access to its waters, menace of piracy, regional rivalries and conflicts and the threat of terrorism. Pakistan is directly or indirectly affected by all these aspects. Pakistan took a proactive approach to the emerging security situation in the post 9/11 scenario and it has enhanced in its scope since then to cover the aspect of piracy by Somali based pirates.
Anti-terrorism operations are complicated by and are interlinked with the smuggling and drug and human trafficking. Pakistan, through Pakistan Navy, has taken a leading role in coalition Task Forces against the terrorism and piracy and has commanded both the Task Forces several times. Besides participation in these operations, Pakistan Navy took steps to enhance collaborative maritime security by introducing AMAN series of exercises which were enthusiastically welcomed by the powers present in the region. PN has been holding AMAN exercises regularly to demonstrate its resolve for improving maritime security collaboration in the region.
Pakistan has an undeniably important geo-strategic location, sitting at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, a route for world’s 72 percent oil supplies and other global trade. As mentioned earlier, it also provides the shortest sea access to the land locked Afghanistan and CARs, as well as Chinese western regions. Pakistan itself is is highly dependent on maritime trade. Over 95% of Pakistan’s trade is through the sea and 290,000 sq km of its EEZ and Continental Shelf are rich in living and non-living resources which need to be protected and managed for sustainable exploitation.
Pakistan’s stakes in the maritime arena are therefore high which are impacted by multifaceted threats and challenges. Most important are the emerging Indo-US strategic partnership, increased Chinese interest and presence in the region, Indo-Iran and Indo-Gulf cooperation and the continued threat of terrorism and piracy, which although has been contained to some extent. Whereas US remains the dominant nuclear power in the region, its European allies also maintain significant presence. This decades old presence is now being further complicated because of Indian ambitions and nuclearisation to which Pakistan’s response has so far been measured yet firm.
This complex milieu and intertwined interests and strategic concerns require a careful and continued look to chart the future course of action and responses.