- Strategic implications of Pakistan’s coastal development
By Arshad Rahim
At the time of independence Gwadar had been under the suzerainty of the sultanate of Muscat and Oman since 1784. Soon after independence its potential as a port was pointed out by a naval officer Commander Jackson serving in the Directorate of Ports and Shipping as its Director. In 1954, at the request of the Government of Pakistan, the US Geological Survey engaged the firm Worth Condrick to carry out a survey of Pakistan’s coast. The firm confirmed the feasibility of development of Gwadar as a deep sea port long before its purchase from the Sultan of Oman on 7 September 1958. Its development, however, had to wait a long time because of the huge investment required not only of the port but also the supporting infrastructure across the entire stretch of the difficult and barren terrain of Balochistan.
The initiative for the development of Gwadar into a deep-water port eventually came from China at the turn of the twentieth century. China felt that Gwadar would provide the shortest route of access to sea not only to the less developed Western region of China but also through it to Central Asian states and Russia. It would also enable China to circumvent the Straits of Malacca through which the entire sea traffic to China from the west is routed and whose vulnerability in passage through the straits has been a major Chinese concern.
Construction of the port commenced in 2002 and on completion of the first Phase in 2007 it was leased to Port of Singapore Authority (PSA) for 40 years. The lease was, however, terminated in 2013 with the consent of the firm and the construction and operation of the port was reverted back to the Chinese government. Since then it is being operated by the state-owned firm China’s Overseas Port Holding Company.
In early twenty-first century Various ideas concerning Asian mainland’s access to sea floating were tied up by China in a breathtaking proposal of global significance titled ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, announced by China’s paramount leader Xi Jinping in September and October 2013 in visits to Kazakhstan and Indonesia. The primary object of this initiative is to create a ‘unified large market’. To that end it initially aims to redress the infrastructure gaps in less developed areas of the belt through massive investments in highways, railways, power and many other sectors. With the most important leg CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor) of this Chinese mega project resting on Gwadar its development along with relevant infrastructure received a big boost in 2015.
Pakistan’s Strategic Concerns
After the 1971 war Pakistan’s Navy underwent a major reorganisation. This involved shifting of Naval Headquarters to Islamabad, setting up of Naval Air Arm, and development of coastal defence infrastructure including a full-fledged naval base at Ormara.
The development of Gwadar port and a Naval Base at Ormara has significantly improved Pakistan’s overall strategic posture with respect to the perennial Indian threat by providing it the much-needed strategic depth. An alternate communication line running along the entire north-south stretch of Pakistan west of river Indus offsets to a large extent the adverse effects of the vulnerability of Pakistan’s communication lines running close to its eastern border.
The layout of the coastal infrastructure has improved manifold the maritime defence posture of Pakistan. It has enhanced the interception capability of Pakistan Navy and increased the vulnerability of Indian warships and submarines operating along Pakistan’s coast. For instance, the Indian Osa missile boats would not have been launch and get away with a missile attack on Pakistan Navy ships had they been operating from Ormara instead of Karachi in the 1971 war. Similarly, Pakistan’s ability of detection of Indian submarines deployed for interdiction of shipping traffic along the coast has significantly improved. In recent years Indian submarines have been detected south of Ormara at least on two occasions in 2016 and 2019 and forced to leave Pakistan’s waters. The second incident was soon after the shooting down of two Indian warplanes in February in Azad Kashmir when tensions were high and the forces of the two countries on high alert. On this Occasion an Indian submarine operating south of Ormara with hostile intent was detected, tracked, localised and forced to withdraw.
The development of Gwadar port and a Naval Base at Ormara has significantly improved Pakistan’s overall strategic posture with respect to the perennial Indian threat by providing it the much-needed strategic depth
The most important but historically and currently the most contentious leg of the Belt and Road initiative is the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which rests on Gwadar port which is an equally vital and sensitive sea-land transition centre of the mega project. India’s involvement in malicious activities in Balochistan to undermine this project have now been confirmed by an inadvertent leak in the Indian press by an ex-member of RAW and also implicit in the recent judgement of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case filed by India.
Keeping in view the Indian meddling in Balochistan and with Gwadar feeding the most important strip (CPEC) of Belt and Road Initiative through the province across the vast Asian mainland to Europe and beyond, it is imperative for Pakistan to ensure the security of communication lines feeding Gwadar over land and sea. Security of Gwadar Port and the relevant sea lines of communications is one of the primary tasks of Pakistan Navy.
It is of course true that Pakistan Navy faces an adversary several times larger in size and capability in the north Arabian Sea. However, over the years the Pakistan Navy has evolved into a small but balanced, well trained, and competent force. With plans based on a sound strategy and advantages accruing on account of a vastly improved coastal setup, it is capable of giving a befitting response to any challenge posed by the Indian Navy and accomplishing its assigned mission in case of hostilities.
The writer is a retired commodore of Pakistan Navy.