Indian Ocean and our Security

PATRON Lt Gen (Retd) SARDAR F.S. LODI analyses the effect of the Indian Ocean on our security

It was Admiral Alfred T. Mahan (1840-1914) of the United States Navy who is reported to have said that who ever attains maritime supremacy in the Indian Ocean would be a prominent player on the international scene. Admiral Mahan was a great Naval strategic thinker and historian who was in many ways the Naval equivalent of the Army's Clausewitz (General Karl Von Clausewitz of Germany). It was in 1890 that Mahan wrote the famous treatise on 'The influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783' that changed Naval thinking in the United States.

The Indian Ocean is the third largest Ocean in the World with an area of 73,500,000 sq. km or 28,350,500 sq. miles. Its greatest depth is the Java Trench South of Java with a depth of 7725 m or 25,344 ft. It touches Asia in the North, Australia to the East, Antarctica to the South and Africa to the West. Its southern boundary is an arbitrary line drawn from Cape Agulhas on the southern tip of South Africa to South Tasmania in South-East Australia. Unlike the Atlantic and Pacific, most of the Indian Ocean lies south of the Equator. The Indian Ocean forms two large indentations in the Southern coast of Asia, the Arabian Sea in the West and the Bay of Bengal in the East.

Many rivers empty into the Indian Ocean, the major ones being the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers from Mozambique in East Africa; the Shatt al Arab from Iraq into the Persian Gulf; Indus from Pakistan into the Arabian Sea; the Ganges and Brahmaputra from Bangladesh along with the Irrawaddy from Burma into the Bay of Bengal.

The Indian Ocean has played a pivotal role in the history and indeed the destiny of its littoral states in East Africa, Middle East and South and South-East Asia. These states had neither the will nor the sea-faring tradition to dominate the Ocean, which was to their disadvantage in the long run and was to cost them their freedom of manoeuvre, trade and commerce and eventually their freedom.

Historically the peoples of South Asia did not have a great sea-faring background. The sea crossing from India to Sri Lanka was considered a great achievement. The Hindu Brahminic tradition of ancient India led to a prohibition of maritime trade and intercourse, resulting in a form of land isolationism. It was the Arab Muslims with a sea-faring tradition who came by sea and settled in Sindh and established their settlements and community development all along the West coast of India. Later taking advantage of the south-eastern trade winds they ventured further and settled in Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines. Their expansion was in direct proportion to their command of the sea in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Their decline was apparent when their command of the sea started to falter and fail.

It was to a large extent the Arab Muslims along with the Jews and the Parsis from Persia who brought the benefits of maritime trade along with the economic and social progress to a class ridden Brahmin dominated social structure of India. The modern history of India prior to the advent of British rule, is not entirely that of Islamic expansion through force of arms but also the story of maritime trade pursued by a sea-faring people. It was the Islamic expansion and hegemony in the East which was driven by the growth and development of a world economy of the time based in and around the Indian Ocean with India at its centre and the Middle East and China as its two dynamic poles.

With the decline of Arab sea power the Muslim expansion into India continued from Central Asia. Their main strategic concern was defence of land frontiers particularly in the north to prevent further incursions. The sea-coast and the Ocean beyond was ignored, with fatal consequences later on.

It was Admiral Mahan who emphasized this point very well when he said, 'It must however be admitted, and will be seen, that the wise or unwise action of individual men has at certain periods had a great modifying influence upon the growth of Sea Power in the broad sense, which includes not only the military strength afloat, that rules the sea or any part of it by force of arms, but also the peaceful commerce and shipping from which alone a military fleet naturally and healthfully springs, and on which it securely rests'.

With Muslim India's lack of interest in maritime affairs, the Indian Ocean was completely ignored. This paved the way for the European Navies to enter the area. This dominance by the outside maritime powers eventually resulted in the subjugation of all the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and South East Asia, which was to last over the centuries. After independence of these states this foreign dominance of the Indian Ocean is being increasingly challenged by the Indian Navy which has been built-up into a most formidable maritime force.

The great Oceans of the world have at least two or more littoral states with both maritime and economic strength to provide a power-balance. But in the Indian Ocean it is only India among its littoral states which alone has the economic potential, military strength and the political will to dominate this vast expanse of water to the detriment of her small neighbours.

The present Indian Naval strength, their development plans, composition of the various carrier groups and fleets and their basis is far beyond their legitimate defence needs particularly when there is no apparent maritime threat to India. The Indian Navy it seems, is primarily designed to project her power and influence much beyond her frontiers. India has not hesitated to use her maritime muscles. The operations against Maldives conducted a few years back was carried out swiftly and efficiently demonstrating their Naval capability and the strategic air lift from Agra. A large scale military operation was also carried out in Sri Lanka. Both ostensibly in support of the island nations.

In Pakistan it is often forgotten that, 'The seaboard of a country is one of its frontiers' and has to be adequately guarded for the security and well-being of the country. Also, the easier the access offered by the frontier to the region beyond, in this case the sea, the greater will be the tendency and the requirement of a people toward intercourse with the rest of the world through it. Resulting in increased trade and commerce on which the economy and eventual prosperity of a nation depends.

The principal conditions affecting the Sea Power of nations are primarily their geographical position, their size and extent of coastline; the quantity of their sea-borne trade and the threat to it; maritime ambitions of their neighbours; and finally the number and determination of their population and the understanding and resolve of their leaders and government.

Pakistan's large coastline and good harbours are ideal for sea-borne trade and commerce which is at present carried out mostly in foreign ships. This is detrimental to our economic and security interests and should be rectified at the earliest by acquiring more shipping ourselves or in collaboration with our Muslim neighbours. Without it Pakistan would be placing itself deliberately in the disadvantageous position of a land-locked state.

97 per cent of our trade is sea-borne since there is no infrastructure for trade across our land borders with India, Iran or Afghanistan. The highway to China can easily be blocked by India, and is accessible only to China and now for limited purposes to the Central Asian States. The continuing unrest in Afghanistan precludes the use of this ancient trade route to Central Asia. The land passage through Iran is vulnerable and cannot be sustained for long. Consequently our economic dependence on the sea route for trade and commerce is of cardinal importance for our very survival as an independent sovereign nation.

Our sea routes which includes merchant ships and shipping lanes have therefore to be developed further with some urgency for the nation's well-being and future prosperity. This sea-borne trade so vital for us has also to be protected against the growing maritime threat from a large and constantly expanding Indian Navy.

The maritime preponderance of India and her hegemonistic designs, makes her small neighbours - all the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, somewhat nervous. Pakistan has fought three wars with India and two border conflicts short of war. During this period the Pakistan Navy along with its elite submarine arm has managed to keep the northern half of the Arabian Sea free of Indian Naval ships which were forced to pull back into the safety of their harbours. But presently owing to a growing imbalance between the two navies, it is strongly feared that the on-going security environment in the Indian Ocean is not conducive to long-lasting peace and security of the littoral states.

Some years back the Australian government published a white paper which recognized and highlighted the threat posed by the large Indian Navy and its possible future plans and ambitions. The Malaysians are alive to the situation and have quietly embarked on Naval expansion including the acquisition of submarines. The Burmese government is planning a naval base along its coast in the Bay of Bengal to offset the large Indian Naval presence at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands. In the Persian Gulf, the Iranians have a viable submarine arm in the making. Smaller states with large ethnic Indian populations are showing muted signs of nervousness and have therefore effectively put themselves under the American umbrella.

Although inherently we are a land power but with over 450 miles of coastline we are also a sea-fearing nation and therefore cannot ignore the sea and all the advantages that flow from it. At present our twin sea ports of Karachi and Bin Qasim through which most of our imports and exports flow have to be effectively protected by our Navy against a blockade by the Indian Navy in peace and war. Pakistan Navy has also to protect the sea-lanes leading to our sea-ports from the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, so that cargo ships and oil tankers continue to play on these routes as they did during the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971, unmolested by our aggressive neighbour - India.

There is no getting away from the fact that the Indian Navy, which plans for three carrier groups, and nuclear submarines supported by long range naval reconnaissance aircraft, projects an entirely different image than what the Indian government would have the World believe. Add to these the short and long range missile development programme continuing apace, specially from launch platforms underwater and on the surface, then the worst fears of India's small neighbours is clearly understood along with the uncertain future of the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, that India is planning to dominate to her advantage.

By acquiring reckonable sea power, India has been able to achieve two aims. First, other powers now understand that trade will not cross the Indian Ocean against a hostile Indian Navy. World political and economic powers being attracted by India's vast market potential and trade prospects, therefore, find it increasingly profitable to befriend India inspite of her gruesome human rights record particularly in Indian-held Kashmir. This is done in some cases at the cost of Pakistan. Secondly, a naval power of such magnitude provides India ample force to seriously effect the sea-borne trade of Pakistan and other Muslim countries in the region.

India is also trying to blatantly expand her domination in the Indian Ocean to her self-perceived sphere of influence. Which extends to Malaysia and Indonesia in the South-East and Aden-Socotra in the West, running south to Seychelles and further south to Mauritius. This would cover the whole Indian Ocean. Australia owns the Cocos (Keeling) Islands situated in the Indian Ocean about 1400 miles north-west of the mainland of Australia. To its north-west, another 1600 miles, is the British Indian Ocean Territory, consisting of the Chagos Archipelago (oil Islands) of which Diego Garcia with a major airstrip is the southern-most island. Diego Garcia was used by the United States B-52 strategic bombers as a base during the Gulf War. Diego Garcia is about 1200 miles south of India.

The Arabs were a great sea-faring nation when they expanded their trade and influence much beyond their frontiers. They crossed the Mediterranean to occupy Europe. As Admiral Mahan says, 'circumstances have caused the Mediterranean Sea to play a greater part in the history of the world, both in a commercial and a military point of view, than any other sheet of water of the same size'. The Muslims lost Western Europe and many centuries later Eastern Europe as well when they lost command of the seas and the freedom to sail the Mediterranean. The Sea was to play a pivotal role in the decline of the Muslim world as it has played in the destiny of other great empires. Have the Muslims learnt some lessons from this decline. It is doubtful as the Muslim countries including Pakistan are apt to ignore a viable and credible maritime defence.

A naval historian had this to say about Spain, 'In the course of history the Netherlands, Naples, Sicily, Minorca, Havana, Manila and Jamaica were wrenched away at one time or another from the Spanish empire without a shipping. In short while Spain's maritime impotence may have been primarily a symptom of her general decay, it became a marked factor in precipitating her into the abyss from which she has not yet wholly emerged'.

As regards the development of sea power it is not the total number of square miles which a country contains, but the length of its coast-line and the character of its harbours that are to be considered. It is said that the extent of a sea-coast is a source of strength or weakness according as the population is large or small. 'A country is in this like a fortress, the garrison must be proportionate to the population'.

Added to this is the EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). In case of Pakistan it is one third of our land mass. This has to be adequately guarded for renewable (fish) and the non-renewable (oil and minerals) resources of the Sea. If these are not guarded by our Naval forces they are not likely to be available to us and would in all likelihood be exploited by the strong maritime power in our vicinity.

Pakistan is a developing country with limited resources but is being compelled to spend a fair amount of her earnings on maintaining a viable defence, owing to the plans and intentions of our large and aggressive neighbour. The country is located in a hostile neighbourhood and has been the victim of aggression on five different occasions. In the last encounter Pakistan was split asunder by the military might of our neighbour while the United Nations stood by helpless, as no national interests of the major world powers were involved. All this conflict and confrontation in South Asia is primarily because of India's belligerent attitude towards her small neighbours. This stance is now being projected into the Indian Ocean to the utter regret of all concerned. It must be realised that the burden of defence for all the countries of South Asia including India is damaging their economic and social progress. This burden will decidedly increase as India aggressively surges into the Indian Ocean in the 21st Century. Genuine efforts should be made to curtail defence expenditure of all the states in South Asia. An arbitrary move to reduce defence expenditure in Pakistan as some are suggesting would be foolhardy and unacceptable to be people for obvious reasons.

Pakistan has one main sea-port of Karachi, with a secondary one at Bin Qasim next door. Both using by and large the same infrastructure. There are plans to build other ports along the coast further west, but this effort is hampered owing to paucity of funds. The port of Gwadar west of Karachi is being developed as a deep sea-port but will take some time, to complete and develop its potential. Its strategic location at the mouth of the Persian Gulf should be of some significant interest to all those nations whose economic and strategic interests require safe trading routes in and out of the Persian Gulf.

Pakistan itself must trade to stay alive and prosper, therefore her ports and sea lines of communications must remain open and secure to ensure her survival and development. These are at present open to interruption by the growing maritime power of India, which must be curbed to maintain peace in the area.

Pakistan is primarily a land-based power but she is also an important littoral state of the Indian Ocean. She cannot survive as a sovereign independent state by ignoring the sea as some land-oriented military thinkers seem to advocate. She must take an active part in the Indian Ocean strategy by projecting her 'military strength afloat', in maintaining viable and credible Naval forces capable of safeguarding the nations vital interests during peace and war.