The way forward for Pakistan is to focus on maritime environment
A look at the world history catalogue will make us aware that political hegemony across continents was attained by empires only when they were able to demonstrate their control and dominance of the maritime world. The modern world in particular has been an arena of power contestation between sea-faring nations. The rise of various European colonial empires owed a lot to their advancement in the naval domain.
Pakistan is fortunate being blessed with an amply long shoreline that boasts a geography where a plethora of seaports can be constructed. The country’s location at the crossroads of Central Asia, Middle East and South Asia provides it with a unique level of political and symbolic capital. Since the whole Central Asia and its surrounding Eurasian landmass remains landlocked, their nearest points of connection with the maritime world are either within Pakistan or Iran. The maritime traffic from Iran, however, must cross the Strait of Hormuz in order to enter the Indian Ocean. Political tensions in the broader Persian/Arabian Gulf region can impinge upon the freedom of navigation within the strait, with economic sanctions over Iran only complicating these matters further. For sure, Pakistan has its own set of problems, but its seashores don’t have to factor in a maritime choke point.
Despite this, Pakistan has lagged behind in giving due importance to its maritime domain and taking much needed steps for the further development of its economic and security aspects. Pakistan’s net trade volume in 2018 was $84 billion and about 90 percent of this trade was carried out through the sea. This shows that Pakistan’s economy is a sea-dependent one and if the maritime security environment deteriorates it will directly impact upon Pakistan’s economic output. The political options that decision makers can exercise to alleviate such a crisis will be severely restricted. It also shows us the importance of developing a blue water doctrine and the development par excellence of formidable security infrastructure both within the sea and along the coast.
When it comes to Pakistan, political hotspots are situated far inland and for many of its decision makers the seashore remains a distant existence. This mindset has further pushed for an obsession with land-based political and security orientations. Pakistan’s political spectrum has never understood its geopolitical significance and the fact that the country’s maritime frontier is a politically neutral one.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Pakistan, political hotspots are situated far inland and for many of its decision makers the seashore remains a distant existence. This mindset has further pushed for an obsession with land-based political and security orientations. Pakistan’s political spectrum has never understood its geopolitical significance and the fact that the country’s maritime frontier is a politically neutral one.
On land, owing to the inherent political realities, the odds are heavily staked against the country and there remains no viability of substituting the maritime linkages. Pakistan’s relationship with India has been historically adversarial and with the Indian annulment of the special status of Kashmir bilateral ties have touched their lowest ebb. On the western frontier, Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan has always been a complicated affair and other than the few years of Taliban regime in Kabul, the Afghan theater has been a constant source of threat for Pakistan’s national security. Pakistan’s relationship with Iran was extremely cordial before 1979 but since the Islamic Revolution the nature of bilateral ties has been at best uneasy. Only with China, Pakistan’s relations have been positive, and the two countries have become strategic partners with the initiation of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, although still the pivot point of this new economic project remains the seaport of Gwadar. Even if the situation in Afghanistan improves and Pakistan becomes a hub of transit trade to Afghanistan and broader Central Asia, the constant political blockage of Pakistan’s eastern border compels it to focus further on the maritime front.
The continuation of a disastrous governance regime even within a city like Karachi often heralded as the backbone of country’s economy gives us a good picture regarding the state of apathy exhibited toward country’s coastal townships.
On the naval front, it is only in the last couple of years that a significant modernization process shelved in 2010, has been restarted which will eventually equip the Pakistan Navy with capabilities to be a medium-sized blue water force and also eventually enable it to proceed further with indigenous production of warships.
The ruling elites finally have begun to pay attention to Pakistan’s maritime environment and the modernization of naval capabilities and development of maritime infrastructure and awareness indicates a movement in the right direction. However, long-term strategic objectives can only be realized when the political and economic policies and discourse are also focused on the maritime domain.
*Umar Karim is a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on the evolution of Saudi Arabia’s strategic outlook, the Saudi-Iran tussle, conflict in Syria, and the geopolitics of Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Twitter: @UmarKarim89