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Pakistan’s maritime compulsions

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By S. M. Hali

Pakistan’s maritime compulsions are myriad; its geostrategic location, the blue water navy ambitions of its eastern neighbour, the presence of international naval forces in its vicinity and the onset of piracy add to the challenges. With a 960 kilometers’ long coastline stretching to 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 95% of its trade and 100% of its oil imports being transported via the sea route, make the maritime sector the bedrock of its national economy. The close proximity to the Strait of Hormuz, the lifeline of the world’s energy needs, with more than 17 million barrels of crude oil passing every day, makes Pakistan’s location extremely sensitive. With growing strains in US-Iran relations and Iran’s threats of blocking the Strait of Hormuz, Pakistan’s commanding situation at the mouth of the energy highway enhance its importance.

Indian aspirations for achieving the status of a blue water navy in pursuit of its global power aims, has prompted it to induct a nuclear submarine from Russia, build its own nuclear subs, and acquire aircraft carriers as well as frigates and destroyers. This massive buildup in its own backyard, make it imperative for Pakistan to take stock of its maritime compulsions. 

Renowned naval strategists like Alfred Thayer Mahan have predicted that the Indian Ocean is an area where much of the economic and strategic dynamics of the 21st century will be played out. Its importance in the world order as well as international economy, security and stability has steadily increased after the end of the cold war. The region today is an arena of contemporary geopolitics as through its turbulent waters the highest tonnage of goods in the world with nearly 65 percent of the world’s known oil and 35 percent of the gas located in the Indian Ocean littoral passes. Russian as well as Central Asian States continue vying to reach the Indian Ocean’s warm waters. The war in Afghanistan makes it a hotbed for maritime operations by various international navies. The new US Strategic Guidance 2012 has linked US economy and security to developments in the Indian Ocean elevating India to the position of a long-term strategic partner serving “as a  regional anchor” in the region. Indo-US collusion in the Indian Ocean has made Pakistan and China wary of the semi-hostile overtures of the duo. One of the aims of the presence of the US naval forces in the Indian Ocean is to deny China the freedom of movement in the region. 

Additionally, the non-traditional and asymmetric challenges of maritime terrorism, piracy, narco-arms and human trafficking remain rampant in the region that further complicates its security matrix. The advent of the Somali pirates has made the waters of Indian Ocean highly susceptible to looting attacks and holding crew-members for ransom.

All these compulsions make it imperative for Pakistan to delineate its cardinals and maintain and develop a balanced navy, aspiring to provide safe and secure environment for maritime economic activities in the north Arabian Sea and deter any would be aggressors.

With this mission statement, Pakistan Navy (PN) is continuing to develop a trained and motivated human resource to man and operate a potent navy capable of defending Pakistan’s maritime interests, promote strong ties with its allies and contribute in nation building particularly in the coastal areas. Since 2004, PN is participating in multi-national coalition Task Force 150 and is an integral part of multinationals Task Force 151 to combat Somali piracy. In the realm of defence diplomacy, PN supports foreign policy objectives through regular exercises with foreign navies and participates in flag showing in various international ports. PN has come to the beck and call of Pakistan and international theatres of operations affected by natural calamities like floods, cyclones, tsunamis and other disasters.

In its endeavours towards nation building, PN has set up hospitals and educational institutions in the coastal region as well as played its due role in developing ports. Gwadar Deep-Water Port, in the close proximity of the Gulf is one such enterprise, which can contribute to Pakistan’s economy. However a shard of controversy has marred it. PN, which had legally acquired a 584 acre tract of land at Shambha Ismail near Gwadar, has been asked to vacate it. According to official sources, PN is willing to do so in national interest, provided it is allotted alternate real estate.

The maritime compulsions of Pakistan make it imperative to pay full attention to its naval assets and take cognizance of the threats to its sea lines of communication.

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