Growing Assertiveness Of Pakistan Navy And Regional Maritime Tensions

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Context

Pakistan conducted an international naval exercise AMAN-13 in the North Arabian Sea from March 4 to 8. It was the fourth drill in this series that began in 2007. Reportedly, 24 countries attended the opening ceremony. The American destroyer USS William P. Lawrence was amongst the ships taking part along with vessels from Australia, China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Turkey, UAE, Britain, and Italy.

On the other hand, countries participating as observers were: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Brazil, Canada, Egypt, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Maldives, Myanmar, Nigeria, North Sudan, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Tanzania, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine.

Speaking at the opening ceremony of this multinational exercise, Pakistan Fleet Commander Rear Admiral Hasham bin Siddique stated, “AMAN-13 will be instrumental in enhancing tactical and operational readiness amongst its participating navies.”

AMAN-13 was projected to be a routine exercise focused on combating piracy, terrorism, and the protection of shipping lanes and trade flows. However, a deeper look reveals a newfound assertiveness, momentum, and significance behind these drills. AMAN-13 and similar exercises being conducted by other states are reflective of the broader tensions around Iran’s nuclear program, a situation of Syria, and island disputes in the South China Sea.

Analysis

Regional and Global Maritime Tensions

Underneath the island disputes in the South China Sea are the tussles for the balance of naval power in the Pacific Ocean. While the defense budgets of European nations and the US are decreasing, that of China is only increasing. Furthermore, the naval forces of states like India and Japan are rapidly growing.

Pakistan’s neighbor Iran regularly conducts naval drills to showcase its preparedness and to counter any plans to attack its nuclear installations. Moreover, the country has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz if there is such a strike. In December 2012, the alarm was raised when Israeli media reported on the presence of a Pakistan’s nuclear-armed naval ship Shamsheer at Port Sudan. According to news, the vessel was to rendezvous with two Iranian vessels and conduct maneuvers on the Red Sea.

However, the joint operation was reportedly averted under pressure from US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Iranian and Pakistani ships had shown up in Sudan after the October 2012 attack on an arms depot in Port Khartoum. The strike was allegedly carried out by Israel, claiming the depot was being used to store Iranian arms that were being shipped onwards to Gaza via Sinai in Egypt.

Soon afterward, in January 2013 Naval Special Forces from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia participated in a tenth joint naval exercise under Naseem Al Bahr. Earlier, in November 2012, Pakistan Navy Ship Shamsheer and P-3C Orion aircraft participated in a Turkish exercise Mavi Baline-12.

While Pakistan was busy with AMAN-13, Pakistan’s neighbor to the east, India concluded its largest naval exercise TROPEX 13 on March 1. In the recent past, India has carried out a number of such drills with the naval forces of other states that included US, Japan, and Australia. One does not have to be much creative to imagine some of the scenarios being practiced, especially in the post-Mumbai incident environment.

A Balancing Act

The recent controversy in Pakistan over the setting up of US ‘Tactical Command and Operations Center’ at the Jinnah International Airport Karachi may be linked to this lingering risk. As Pakistan-India ties improve, the extremist groups may attempt to pull-off another Mumbai style event. A US based website has claimed the tactical command center is meant to monitor Karachi and the entire coastal belt to control smuggling. The center may also be linked to the withdrawal of coalition equipment from Afghanistan.

Iran may be equally worried about this development. The downing of RQ-170 Sentinel drone in December 2011 had demonstrated the multiple purposes such assets can play. The drone reportedly flew out of Pakistan or Afghanistan to conduct surveillance over Iran. The Sentinel was also used in the operation to go after Osama bin Laden.

The increasing assertiveness of Pakistan Navy has ironically been matched by growing targeting of its assets that deal with surveillance and maritime security. This lends further proof to the fact that the agenda of TTP is more sophisticated than a rag-tag group of mercenaries can intellectually come up with or financially back. For example, in the 2011 assault on Mehran naval aviation base in Karachi, 2 P-3C Orion anti-submarine, and maritime surveillance aircrafts were destroyed. However, it should be noted that after the incident, US had offered to replace the destroyed planes. In the August 2012 strike at the Minhas airbase in Kamra, TTP targeted one of the key components of Pakistan’s airborne early warning system, Saab 2000. The advanced plane is capable of detecting high and low flying objects over a long range of about 450 kilometers, to include on the surface of the sea. On the other hand, Pakistan’s coastal line stretches about 960 kilometers.

Conclusion

While the schedules for such drills are decided much in advance, the timing of AMAN-13 was peculiar. It took place when Pakistan just handed over the Gwadar port to a Chinese government-owned firm. The country has also decided to move ahead with the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project, while Iran announced its plans to develop an oil refinery at the Gwadar port. These developments are deeply worrisome moves for India and US.

On the other hand, the presence of China, US, and other pacific nations in the exercise, serve to calm the waters of mistrust between these countries. Through these naval maneuvers, Pakistan is playing an instrumental role in reducing tensions between China and other nations of the Orient. At the same time, such drills reduce apprehensions regarding Pakistan-China cooperation.

Moreover, it signals that while India regularly conducts naval exercises with Japan, US, and Australia, it does not necessarily mean Pakistan is isolated. Pakistan’s Navy has its role to play in the region because of its strategic location. Nonetheless, as it relates to economic and security cooperation with Iran, Pakistan will continue to confront pressure from the West as well as the Arab nations.