Since its independence in 1947, Pakistan has struggled to defend itself against belligerent neighbours to its east and west, leading to recurring turmoil and conflict. Multiple wars and standoffs with India, the Afghan “jihad” against the erstwhile Soviet Union and persistent unrest in Balochistan backed by external elements pushed Pakistan into a rigid continental policymaking paradigm. Pakistan’s outlook toward the region may not have been continental by design, but its continuation poses long-term threats in terms of reaping geoeconomic benefits.
The US-led “War on Terror” pushed Pakistan’s then military leadership into a predicament where it was forced to take sides. Consequently, assisting and aiding the US and international forces also brought the Pakistan Army into the driver’s seat within security policymaking, while sister services followed suit. The agreement for Pakistan and the US to cooperate within the frameworks of ground and airlines of communications was based on a decision in 2001 by the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, (Army) General Pervez Musharraf.
With the exit of US and allied troops from Afghanistan and the emergence of a new government in the federation, Pakistani officials must seize the opportunity to lay the foundations for maritime policymaking by gradually moving away from the continued focus on territorial defence and internal security to an integrated approach that is mindful of both geopolitical developments and geoeconomic ambitions (a holistic and balanced approach proffered in the 2022-2026 National Security Policy of Pakistan). Pakistan is not obliged toward focused US and NATO military assistance in Afghanistan. The burden is now for the diplomatic apparatus in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to carry by itself. In the region at large, the US and certain European powers are enhancing partnerships with India, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and Israel.
Pakistan has to eventually accept the hard reality that its geostrategic appeal to the traditional transatlantic powers has waned considerably, replaced by the lustre of India’s assertive political and military leadership, particularly it’s potential as a regional watchdog against perceived Chinese expansionism. Integrated operations in the maritime domain are the bedrock of this evolving paradigm in which offensive air power and air defence play supporting roles for the navy. At the same time, the utility of land forces becomes further obsolete with the rise of smart weapons and improvements in Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) assets.
Pakistani officials must seize the opportunity to lay the foundations for maritime policymaking by gradually moving away from the continued focus on territorial defence and internal security to an integrated approach that is mindful of both geopolitical developments and geoeconomic ambitions.
With no further need to become a “frontline state” anymore, Pakistan needs to expand space for fresh maritime policymaking to reap long-term economic dividends from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Incidentally, the administration of President Joseph Biden did not make any high-level overtures to Pakistan’s political leadership during Imran Khan’s premiership, and the situation is likely to remain constant under Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. It is reasonable to expect that senior state and defence department officials will continue engaging on and off with the Pakistani leadership to sustain bilateral ties.
At the other end of the spectrum, China had been frustrated by inconsistent regulatory and tax practices alongside governance issues in the Imran Khan-led government of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI); the slow pace of work had irked Chinese investors. The return of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) might even prove “better” for CPEC. However, foreign interference in the internal affairs of China viz Taiwan and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis occupies significant space in Chinese diplomacy; thus, the onus of restoring bilateral geoeconomic relations with Beijing lies on Islamabad. While Pakistan’s political leadership will need to put its house in order, it will have to institute some radical arrangements to make up for the lost time.
Time and again, it has been stressed that CPEC, as an extension of the BRI, does not start from Gwadar itself but the maritime routes used by commercial companies to enter and leave Pakistani waters. Pakistan’s internal security arrangements cannot avert threats to Sea Lines of Communications (SLOCs), which are essential to trade in the contemporary geostrategic environment. Pakistan’s maritime security woes viz CPEC stem almost exclusively from India’s growing investments in naval aviation. The raising of a new (second) frontline squadron of Boeing P8I Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA), military infrastructure in Mauritius, partnership with Indian Ocean Region (IOR) island countries and additional defence pacts with Gulf Arab countries (UAE and Oman) will enable Indian Navy to achieve maritime dominance in the Western Indian Ocean region. In a future conflict scenario, India’s naval forces can interdict commercial ships going toward Pakistan from afar, thus nullifying Pakistan’s integrity as a link between Asia and Europe. Military blockade of commercial shipping will remain on the cards.
In its 2015 Maritime Security Strategy, the Indian Navy elucidates its concept of SLOC Interdiction to include “strategic leverage”, which would also hinder efforts “for movement of commodities required by his national strategy”. These ambiguous statements leave room to speculate that there is accommodation for interdiction of commercial vessels under CPEC. One of the SLOC interdiction plans included the “extent of dependence of the adversary” on “specific sea routes for his conduct of maritime operations and trade”.
These and related concerns were elaborated in a paper by Dr Yen Chiang Chang and Mehran Idris Khan of Shandong University, China:
“The significance of the maritime security is vital in a sense that all the economic activities under CPEC are going to be placed through a unique route connecting China to the Arabian Sea, the Middle East and opening it to the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the marine development, as well as maritime security of Pakistan, is the topmost priority for both the Chinese officials and Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (hereinafter PMSA) to ensure the safety of international trade through the Gwadar Port. The challenges include not only human trafficking and piracy issues but also to accord CPEC regulations both at the national and the international levels. It can be said that if fuel is life for the industry and economy, then CPEC along with its strategic exposure to the Middle East as well as the Indian Ocean may be regarded as the blood to Chinese economic growth in the future.”
“CPEC has enough potential to transmute Pakistan into a trade hub that would categorically induce some sentiments in the regional enemies and competitors, particularly in India to halt it. Indian experts have been focussing on two imperative political and military ideas since long. The first one is, whoever commands the Indian Ocean will also command entire Asia. Secondly, extra-regional influences should be kept out as Indian Ocean lies around its backyard [sic].”
While the authors highlighted joint maritime security ventures undertaken between both countries, Pakistan’s geoeconomic potential in this context is hampered because of three broad factors: (1) Vision, (2) Authority and (3) Capacity.
In terms of vision, Pakistan’s leadership has become accustomed to acting as a frontline state for extra-regional actors with no serious consideration for domestically-formulated grand strategy. Given that Pakistan’s politico-socio-economic woes coupled with incomplete government tenures harmed prospects of policy continuity and original thinking. Perhaps the two major issues in this regard are the lack of political vision and unwillingness to implement nationwide civil service reforms to cater for a proper, post-colonial developmental mindset. Intellectual timidity due to domestic politicking nourishes strategic myopia prevalent within concerned institutions. Consider the 2018 Maritime Doctrine of Pakistan, in which the broader Western Indian Ocean is perceived as an “extended area of interest” while the North Arabian Sea remains the “primary area of interest”. The interlink between Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Maritime Silk Route (MSR) should have prompted a doctrinal rethink since CPEC’s success is directly linked to security incidents as far away as the waters off East Africa.
As far as authority is concerned, it is high time to reorganise Pakistan’s higher defence organisations. This should have been considered on war footing post the US and allied drawdown from Afghanistan in 2021. The two decades post 9/11 empowered land forces to dominate the overall geostrategic posturing of Pakistan and should now be re-evaluated thoroughly.
At the outset, the rotational chairmanship of Joint Staff Headquarters among the tri-services should be resumed on a priority basis. Precious years wasted due to internal security (terrorism) woes and political crises (including unimpressive results by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs, i.e. MoMA) necessitate a thorough makeover. This can be achieved by either:
Option 1: Appointing a full-time National Maritime Security Coordinator (NMSC) in the National Security Division (NSD) while following in India’s footsteps.
Option 2: Elevating naval chiefs to Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) for at least two consecutive terms, and the rotational headships among all services can be resumed thenceforth. In view of Pakistan’s institutional dynamics, this can be a welcome step, but its effectiveness in terms of tri-service policy synchronisation cannot be ensured. Another issue is the probable lack of appetite among dominant land forces to revert to pre-9/11 dispositions.
Option 3: Appointing a retired flag officer (navy) as National Security Adviser (NSA); the likelihood of this ever happening is next to zero. Pakistan’s tryst with NSAs (military and civilian) has unfortunately never facilitated a consensus among competing political parties because they are viewed more as party loyalists than subject-matter experts.
Option 4: Constitution of a higher defence reorganisation (not restructuring) board by the Chief Executive through which the Pakistan Armed Forces can be better oriented to prepare for future wars in shifting geostrategic alignments (India-GCC-Israel-Quad on the one hand and China-Iran-Russia interplay on the other). This would require monumental policy changes, which would, as discussed earlier, most likely lead to a great difference of opinion among institutions.
Option 5: Appointing a Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Maritime Security. This particular technocrat’s functions will not overlap with those of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and MoMA, nor would they be involved in day-to-day department matters. Instead, this office-bearer would be empowered to devise maritime policies and subsequently inspire top-down changes in the organisational cultures prevailing within MoD, MoMA, MoFA, Ministry of Commerce, etc. Their role would be more of advisory and coordination to synchronise efforts toward national maritime security by patching systemic grey areas. In this instance also, the rational choice of a nominee would be the retired Flag Officer of the Pakistan Navy.
In lieu of Pakistan’s woeful economic condition, a coalition of multiple parties in the federation whose future remains uncertain and lack of resources to allocate heavy budgets for new ideas, Option 5 would appear the preferred course of action (largely as a stopgap arrangement). However, the incumbent Chief Executive, known for micromanaging administrative functions or delegating them strictly to his favourite secretaries, would need to empower the Special Adviser with the space to manoeuvre freely and engage openly with concerned stakeholders within the domestic system and externally.
Finally, with regard to capacity, the Pakistan Armed Forces had already initiated measures for exclusive protection of CPEC. The Army established a Special Security Division, the Air Force operationalised Bholari Air Force Base, while the Navy established its dedicated Task Force-88. From a strictly naval perspective, while efforts are underway to fulfil objectives outlined in Vision 2030, the 2017 Naval Air Arm Vision was timidly made in view of budgetary constraints. Circumstances now and in the long-term future demand the acquisition of high-end MPAs for enhanced patrolling and reconnaissance; using converted jets will not meet operational requirements.
The dimensions of maritime security pertain not only to the military but also to food security, commerce, climate change and foreign affairs and the once-famous CPEC Authority. Therefore, while federal ministers and services chiefs will be occupied in their silos to fulfil their end objectives, the Special Adviser’s umbrella could foster coordination that could make up for precious time lost in the completion of national projects related to maritime security, including those that are part of the CPEC.
Pakistan’s geoeconomic prosperity is intrinsically linked to the success of CPEC/BRI. To reap sufficient dividends in the long-term, it is imperative that the country transition from continental to maritime policymaking through a top-down approach. Political parties will need to build consensus on this undeniable fact by “agreeing to agree”.