Pakistan, piracy and Indian naval power

November 22, 2008













In what is being seen as one of the biggest projections of Indian naval power since India defeated Pakistan in the 1971 war, an Indian warship has sunk a pirate ship in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian navy is now looking at deploying more warships off Somalia.

In the Asia Times, former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar writes of the possibility of a new Great Game unfolding for control of the sea route in the Indian Ocean.

Pakistan has historical reasons to be sensitive about this new development. It lost control of Bangladesh in 1971, in part because the Indian navy was able to prevent it from shipping supplies and men to what was then East Pakistan.  And it has traditionally been sensitive whenever India has shown signs of flexing its muscles in the broader region — its anxiety about growing Indian influence in Afghanistan being a case in point.

But this time there seems to have been very little reaction in Pakistan, whose navy is also involved in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

India is looking to play a leading role in bringing together countries from the Indian Ocean region to work together to fight piracy, according to this story in the Times of India, working through the so-called Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). “The IONS includes countries as diverse as Oman, Mozambique, Yemen and Egypt to Australia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar,” the newspaper says. “If some countries can provide warships and aircraft, others can chip in with ports and refuelling facilities in the fight against pirates,” it quotes a senior official as saying.

That to me raises an intriguing question. Would Pakistan, which for so long has seen India as a regional bully, now be willing to accept Indian regional leadership in combating problems such as piracy, from which both countries suffer? And what would that mean for future relations between the two countries?

As underlined in this U.S. intelligence study released this week, the global context has changed drastically since the days when Pakistan sought to maintain military parity with India. The National Intelligence Council analysis “Global Trends 2025″ sees China and India joining the United States atop a multipolar world and competing for influence. (see full pdf document here).

Pakistan gets short shrift, presented primarily as a problem rather than the global player it sought to become when it matched India’s nuclear weapons programme with its own. “The future of Pakistan is a wildcard in considering the trajectory of neighbouring Afghanistan,” it says.  Then in a rather chilling line introduced without further explanation, it says “if Pakistan is unable to hold together until 2025, a broader coalescence of Pashtun tribes is likely to emerge and act together to erase the Durand Line (dividing Pakistan and Afghanistan), maximising Pashtun space at the expense of Punjabis in Pakistan and Tajiks and others in Afghanistan.”

When intelligence experts in your supposed ally raise questions about whether your country can hold together, maybe falling under the regional leadership of your supposed enemy does not look so bad? But then again, and to return to the “Great Game” unfolding in the Indian Ocean, the intelligence report also examines the risk of a naval arms race unfolding between India and China as both seek to protect vital energy supplies.

Choosing your friends in a multipolar world is going to become increasingly tricky. For Pakistan, it may turn out to be a matter of survival. Which way is it going to turn? Pakistan’s reaction to India’s role in combatting piracy in the Indian Ocean may provide important clues.

(Reuters photo:  Turkish frigate escorts ship carrying aid to Somalia/Ho New


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