The Indian Ocean is the new arena for geopolitical contestation between major powers. The US in its geopolitical contest with China has expanded the scope of its Indo-Pacific strategy to include the Western Indian Ocean and is investing heavily in India’s maritime defence and security to make it assume the role of a ‘net security provider’ in the Indian Ocean region (IOR).
China relies heavily on trade through the Indian Ocean and its strong commitment to the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative’s flagship project China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a manifestation of it.
This Chinese goal aligns well with Pakistan’s vision to become the hub of regional trade and connectivity, in an era of the increasing dependence of growing economies on energy resources of the western Indian Ocean.
Geo-Strategic importance of Western Indian Ocean
Geo-strategically, the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) is one of the most significant bodies of water, owing to its waterways transporting over 70 per cent of the global oil supplies and large presence of extra-regional forces The United States, United Kingdom, China and now even Russia have their military bases in the Indian Ocean.
The petroleum exports through the IO to Asia, through the Red Sea and Suez Canal, and around the Horn are the areas whose security will have the greatest single impact on the global economy in the coming years. China, India, South Korea and Japan rely heavily on these trade routes for their energy supplies.
These are busy waterways where on average 3,000 ships visit Pakistani ports and around 45,000 ships pass close to the Pakistan coast every year. Furthermore, with the CPEC projects gaining momentum, the maritime security concerns in these waterways have become an immediate concern for the PN.
With the shifting sands of Indian Ocean geopolitics and strengthening of new strategic partnerships in Pakistan’s neighbourhood, Pakistan Navy’s (PN) stake at maintaining good order at sea and securing peace in WIO- which it considers its area of immediate influence- has multiplied manifold.
Pakistan’s strategic concerns include the increased military coordination activities between the US and India in the WIO, under the Indo-Pacific strategy and the concerted effort by India to undermine; the success of the CPEC project politically and the potential of Gwader port as an economic hub.
China has a major stake in the maritime security in this region and its naval presence serves as an important element in maintaining the regional balance of power and promoting maritime security in the Indian Ocean region.
Pakistan’s naval diplomacy
The AMAN exercises 2021, held this February, with participation from the navies of 45 states, including significant participation from Indian Ocean littorals as well as major powers, demonstrated PN’s inclusive approach to maritime security.
In early February, India also sought a one-day meet between the Defence ministers of the Indian Ocean Region states, which was attended by some 18 countries out of the 28 invited, with some states represented through their embassies in New Delhi.
In comparison, the widespread participation in AMAN exercises by major maritime powers and littorals is a success of Pakistan’s naval diplomacy.
PN’s effort to use this opportunity to bring the global nations together rather than being drawn into the emerging strategic alliance politics in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is a responsible move as depicted in the motto of “Together for Peace”.
This year’s exercise (being the 7th such joint venture) had participation from both Russia and the NATO countries as well as from China and the United States. The last time Russian and NATO naval forces took part in a joint exercise was a decade ago in 2011 at the Bold Monarch.
The purpose of Aman exercises
The AMAN exercises aim at promoting military cooperation between the participating countries, enhancing greater interoperability among the global navies; displayed in their united resolve against terrorism and crimes in the maritime domain including piracy and trafficking.
The exercises play a pivotal role in non-traditional maritime threats. The shared knowledge and skill enhance interoperability between participants, which bears fruit in the form of a well-connected and stable sea body with enhanced cooperation between all stakeholders.
They also reflect on the field of maritime diplomacy, aimed at reinforcing regional maritime security and cooperation between partner nations.
The exercises have two phases; i.e. a harbour phase and a sea phase. The harbour phase includes an International Maritime Conference, organized by the National Institute of Maritime Affairs (NIMA) under the auspices of the Pakistan Navy.
This year’s theme of the conference was ‘Development of Blue Economy Under a Secure and Sustainable Environment: A Shared Future for Western Indian Ocean Region’.
It provides a common forum for information sharing, mutual understanding and identifying areas of common interest between participating navies and helps develop and practice response tactics, techniques and procedures against asymmetric and traditional threats.
Based on this concept, the exercise seeks to develop and practice Response Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (RTTP) for maritime infrastructure, assets and forces against traditional and non-traditional threats.
Pakistan Navy’s role in enhancing maritime security
Pakistan Navy has been actively participating in all regional and international efforts and initiatives taken for maintaining good order and cooperation at high seas, including multinational exercises, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) efforts.
It has participated in US-led Combined task Forces CTF-150 and CTF-151 as well as assumed its command multiple times.
PN is a member of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and an observer in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) and uses its participation to represent its maritime perspective in these forums.
Responding to the evolving regional dynamics in WIO; Pakistan Navy instituted the Regional Maritime Security Patrols (RSMP) in 2018, with an aim to maintain a robust security posture in critical areas and choke points of the IOR.
It entails forward deployment of the ships as well as cooperation with regional navies overtime to leverage deterrence and help in responding to potential or emerging maritime threats with strategic autonomy.
As stated by Pakistan’s Naval Chief, “Pakistan Navy will continue to play an active role in enhancing regional maritime security individually and in collaboration with partner navies.”
In the current era of geopolitical rivalries and maritime contest, the 7th series of AMAN exercises demonstrated the potential for cooperation between major powers, Indian Ocean littorals and Pakistan.
The aim is to make WIO safer from piracy, human trafficking and terrorism, maintain good order at sea through greater interoperability in combatting nontraditional maritime threats, generating a shared vision of maritime security and in turn enhance the opportunity for mutual trade to realize Pakistan’s vision of being a regional conduit for energy and trade.
Saima Aman Sial is a Senior Research Officer in the Center for International Strategic Studies Islamabad. She tweets as @Saima_sial.