Recently, Pakistan has taken some unprecedented pro-active measures vis a vis the security of its maritime lanes. Apparently, the changing geopolitical dynamics in the neighborhood have compelled Islamabad to take these sudden measures to maintain its strategic dominance as an important maritime state in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
According to the official documents, foreign warships and nuclear submarines will have to take prior permission before entering Pakistan’s territorial sea limits. And if the sovereignty of the territorial waters is transgressed, the offenders will be tried under Pakistani law.
Likewise, foreign military aircraft will also not be able to pass through the airspace above these territorial waters without acquiring the requisite permit. Due to the country’s central location, these added restrictions could hold implications for the surrounding region in the days ahead.
Here are the background and some of the main factors which push Pakistan to take this significant step.
For starters, securing sea-lanes became necessary at this juncture as Gwadar port has faced growing threats in recent years. Located in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, the port has attained tremendous strategic and symbolic value ever since it became the lynchpin of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), the flagship corridor of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Even before this development, the port had unlimited potential as it has the distinction of being one of the world’s largest deep-water ports.
Prone to constant risks of terrorism, piracy, and illicit trafficking, the security of Gwadar port needs to be made sustainable to protect large-scale foreign investments there and make it the launchpad for Pakistan’s economic recovery in the geo-economic era. Not only that, the whole of Baluchistan and CPEC routes passing through it remain at risk unless the coastline and borders are secured.
Next, in a recent development, Israel and the UAE have normalized their relations and are installing a secret station on Socotra island which is 350 kilometers south of Yemen and in Abu Dhabi’s control. Collecting intelligence across the region, the station will be able to operate from the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to the Gulf of Aden and the Middle East.
Claiming to monitor the movement of Houthi militants in Yemen as well as Iranian naval movements, this surveillance station can also examine sea and air traffic in the southern part of the Red Sea. However, according to political and strategic experts, the Socotra intelligence-gathering base will be used to monitor Iran, China, and Pakistan.
Therefore, it can become a security risk for the Gwadar port. Even though the Socotra spy- station is not operating at full capacity yet, this potential encirclement had to be contained. Recently, an Indian analyst, Haider Abbas, has specifically stated that the Socotra base will be used to keep tabs on Pakistan.
According to him, “This rapidly changing scenario is altering the world situation as never before, as Pakistan which means China, would now be under the Israeli radars. If any sabotage is to happen at Gwadar then Pakistan-China would blame Israel and Gulf-states equally, hence, the relations of Pakistan with Gulf-states is going to be strained forever.”
Covering one more angle, Ibrahim Fraihat, a professor from the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies has observed that, ‘This base can provide critical security services to the US regarding the Chinese economic activity, especially its trade with Europe.” He has also explained that “Trump is engaged in a trade war with China and needs to monitor the Chinese commercial activities.”
In addition, a new geopolitical shift is becoming evident in the Middle East these days. Even before the administration in Washington changes in early January 2021, it is triggering realignments in this region. Ostensibly, the impending Joe Biden presidency has caused Riyadh to reach out to both Turkey and Qatar in the past few weeks.
Expecting a change in Washington’s foreign policy vis a vis the Arab world, these three Middle Eastern states seem more inclined towards reconciliation and new power lobbies might emerge. Therefore, Pakistan needs to be prepared for new friction if there are two opposite camps. No matter how close Islamabad’s relations are with all these regional countries, there is always the chance of getting caught in their crossfire, so to say.
Finally, acquiring modern technology to protect its assets and increasing its naval power is crucial for Pakistan itself as it plans to benefit from a Blue Economy. Ensuring safe navigation of commerce is vital for building geo-economic strength and naval capabilities will have to grow alongside.
After the implementation of the Pakistan Maritime Zones (PMZ) Act 2020, survey and research activities have also been banned and there can be no loading or unloading of any person. If found guilty of contravention, foreign ships can be seized and there may be a five -year imprisonment or heavy fine penalty if found guilty.
All views expressed are of the writer and do not represent that of the sino-sphere.com
Sabena Siddiqui is a foreign affairs journalist and geopolitical analyst with a special focus on the Belt and Road Initiative, the Middle East, and South Asia. On Twitter: @sabena_siddiqi