The general region where the week-long exercise (11-17 November) takes place has witnessed past naval battles between India and Pakistan
N Sathiya Moorthy Firstpost 18 November 2023
The near-simultaneous naval exercises between China and Pakistan in the northern Arabian Sea and those involving Russia and Myanmar off the Andamans carry a message for India. True, Russia and Myanmar are not unfriendly towards India just now, but the other two are. However, in times of geo-strategic, geo-political crises of the kind the US-initiated Indo-Pacific, Quad and AUKUS predicate, New Delhi could be staring at probabilities that it had not counted as possibilities in the past.
News reports speak about the Government of India maintaining whatever close watch is possible on the Sino-Pakistan exercise. The general region where the week-long exercise (11-17 November) takes place has witnessed past naval battles between India and Pakistan. The last one was the ‘Bangladesh War’ (1971), which was also the last full-fledged war between the two nations. The ‘Kargil War’ in 1999 was limited to the Himalayan heights and did not transcend to become a full-fledged war. Nor did it involve the navies of the two countries.
In the case of the India-China imbroglio, their navies were not involved in the past. That includes the 1962 war, in which India lost territory and pride, not necessarily in that order. Later-day military engagements, including the Galwan episode in June 2020, did not blow out into a full-fledged war, either. Hence, the navy and even their air force were not involved.
Externalising internal troubles
This raises the question of why Sino-Pakistan exercises now, how, and where. In the normal course, the belief was that reeling under an unprecedented economic crisis, Pakistan would not do anything as adventurous as engaging with the Chinese adversary of its invisible American underwriter in the IMF, which seems to be the country’s sole hope for recovery. Even such a recovery is going to take years, if not decades.
It is tempting to compare India’s economic recovery of the early nineties with those that neighbours like Pakistan and Sri Lanka hope for. The major difference is that India was strapped for cash at the time but was not lagging behind for other resources, including human resources. The socialist model had provided a strong techno-economic base. Natural resources, like minerals, were abundant. By breathing fresh air into policy-making, the country could transform itself almost overnight into what it is today: the world’s fifth-largest economy, racing to become the third before the decade ends.
Pakistan cannot boast of such fundamentals. The nation spent its formative years and decades externalising its internal troubles, real and imaginary. When India was going through phases of nation-building in social and economic terms, by focusing nation-building near-exclusively on ‘Kashmir-centric’ India-baiting and wars, Pakistan lost the energy and initiative it too had inherited at Independence and Partition. There is, of course, a lesson in it for India, too: never ever rationalise nation-building through foreign and security policies that also deviate from the realities on the ground, nearer home.
Today, post-9/11, post-Afghanistan, the US has been moving increasingly away from Pakistan in the past couple of decades. It is now doubtful if Washington exercises the same quantum of goodwill or pressure on Islamabad as it used to. Definitely, the reverse is not happening. Gone are the days when the US, and hence much of the rest of the West, did not take India’s accusations about Pakistan developing a nuclear bomb seriously. India’s Pokhran-II tests exposed the West for what they were worth, as it was followed by Pakistan testing its undeclared nuclear capability and weapons capability all at once at Chagai, only weeks after Pokhran-II, in 1998.
Today, the US has strong relations with India, much more than it was with Pakistan any time during the hay days of relations, dating back to the fifties, so to say. In contrast, Pakistan has become a ‘pariah state’ for the American policymaker, especially on matters of cross-border terrorism against India, another area where Washington has pretended to be blind to Indian concerns and evidence in the past.
This one is not about the India-Pakistan-US triangle. Instead, it is about how a Pakistan estranged from the US and also feels used since the days of the erstwhile Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and even earlier could act or react in the present-day circumstances. China and Pakistan have a strong multi-layered relationship going all along, and in the Pakistan-American estrangement, Beijing seems to be staring at a geo-strategic opportunity.
For one thing, India’s north-western region is the happening place in geo-strategic terms, maybe more than the South-East Asian waters, as often believed. The unresolved US-Iran crisis, coupled with the Ukraine War, and now the turmoil in the Gulf may have made the northern Arabian Sea more volatile than understood or acknowledged. No one is predicting anything just now along the Gulf-Arab coastline than at present, but as nations, China and Pakistan are literally testing the waters and seemingly preparing themselves for any eventuality, over which they have to be cautious first and then try and exploit in geo-strategic and geo-political terms.
Beginning or the end?
The deep-sea port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea is in Pakistan but is in the possession of China, just as Hambantota in Sri Lanka. On record, that is the end or beginning point (whichever way you look at it) of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The details of the Gwadar Port agreement, or that on CPEC, are not known to the outside world. It is hence unknown if Pakistan has given China the right to defend their business interests militarily if external elements were to disturb trade through Gwadar Port. Can and will China and Pakistan together launch military operations to ‘protect’ their bilateral trade and maritime routes, as if to ‘enforce at sea’, as the rest of the world is telling Beijing to do in the South China Sea, on the other wing of India?
For India, the US’ de-hyphenation of Pakistan from its India relations may have consequences, especially after Washington refused to step in to save that nation from the economic abyss that it is finding itself in over the past several months. India has nothing to fear from such delinking in terms of security and defence of the nation, as has been proven in the three major wars it has fought with Pakistan since 1948 and the smaller one in Kargil in 1999.
Even without it, India is well-secured from Chinese naval forays in the south of the nation. Yes, China is present at Hambantota. It has many more projects running in Sri Lanka. Its so-called research vessels are visiting Sri Lanka now and again. After one each last year and this, a third one is expected early next year. It remains to be seen if, like on the past two ‘voyages’, the government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe pulls a fast one on the Indian neighbour (which has legit security concerns) and also on the US having geo-strategic dominance across the world—or is perceived to be so, as yet.
Yet, India is relatively secure in those parts. The Indian Navy has been doing a credible and creditable job of manning the ocean. Then, you have the US military base in Diego Garcia and the French Reunion Island, apart from India’s own tri-services command jutting out on the Andamans and a near-similar establishment on the Lakshadweep islands. Then there are the other two Quad nations, namely, Australia and Japan. In a way, an India-adversarial naval vessel, including a carrier group, with declared or even suspected war intentions may feel entrapped in these waters.
The same cannot be said of the northern Arabian Sea off Pakistan’s coast, at least until proved otherwise. It could be more so if China were to enter the scene directly in these waters alongside Pakistan or provide the so-called logistics and technical support to the Pakistan Navy from behind, from being on-hand at Gwadar, which could have consequences. It may not mean that the Indian Navy cannot cope, surmount, and show up its superiority one more time, but it could be more prolonged than imagined from past experience.
Of course, there is also Pakistan’s own nuclear bomb and attendant threats, which Pervez Musharraf flagged during the Kargil War. On the occasion, he declared that he would not hesitate to employ ‘tactical nuclear weapons’ if the Indian troops crossed into Pakistani territory—on the ground, of course. At that time, the US had greater command over Pakistan than possibly at present. China now may have that kind of hold over Pakistan and may be as serious as the US and the rest of the world in telling Islamabad not to press the nuclear button—and also succeed in convincing the other.
(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)