Tapping Pakistan’s Maritime Potential(Abridged Version)

It is not uncommon for analysts to bemoan our alleged sea blindness, a term reportedly coined and popularized by Professor  Eric Grove. The hype surrounding Gwadar has ensured that one maritime entity at least has been catapulted into the forefront of the public consciousness. But seen in the broader context of a blue water economy, is that all there is to it? Strategically located along the northern shores of the Arabian Sea and blessed with a 1000km long shoreline, Pakistan possesses all the credentials of evolving into a significant maritime power. The first step towards realizing our aspirations is to identify rather than ignore the artificial barriers standing in its way.

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Tapping Pakistan’s Maritime Potential

It is heartening to see the vital subject of the maritime economy gain some recognition in our national planning discourse as my presence here shows. After all, it was barely an year ago that a member of the Planning Comission had confided in a meeting that none of the 13 indicators that the Commission had identified for zooming in incorporated anything even remotely connected with any maritime activity.  I still won’t start off my talk, as is generally the norm when discussing maritime matters, by decrying our so-called sea blindness, a term reportedly coined by Professor Eric Grove. The hype surrounding Gwadar has ensured that one maritime entity at least has been catapulted into the forefront of the public consciousness. But seen in the broader context of a blue water economy, is that all there is to it? Strategically located along the northern reaches of the Arabian Sea and blessed with a 1000 km long shoreline, Pakistan possesses all the credentials of evolving into a significant maritime power. My presentation today revolves around circumventing the artificial barriers standing in the way of realising our aspirations.

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Primed for Disaster – Gadani’s Ship-Breaking Industry

On completion of their operational lives, all ships need to be disposed off, and the most beneficial way of doing so, in theory at least, is to send them for recycling where it’s machinery, equipment and hull can all be reutilised in one way or another, without adversely impacting the environment. In practice though the process is environmentally unsound and labour exploitative, as the industry has by now gravitated towards countries with low labour costs, weak regulatory mechanisms and lax standards of enforcement.

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The Indus Delta’s Perrenial Perils

The most significant feature of Pakistan’s coastline is not the hammerhead of Gwadar jutting out majestically into the sea but the Indus Delta region covering the entire south western swathe of the coast.  This topographical landmark is prominent from an ecological angle also as around 25 creeks drain into its 150 km wide mouth, with the port city of Karachi continuously intruding into its western extremity.

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A Floating Testament to Pak-Turkey Naval Collaboration

The expected launch of an indigenously-constructed Fleet Tanker at the Karachi Shipyard & Engineering Works Ltd on 19 August 2016 marks a significant milestone in the history of Pak-Turkey defence collaboration. These two countries have always enjoyed the most fraternal of ties and under its overarching warmth, cooperation at the military, and more particularly the naval, level has continued to blossom. The first time this relationship got formalised was under the Turco-Pak treaty of 1954, which inter alia also dealt with the vital subject of defence collaboration. The Pakistan-Turkey Military Consultative Group(MCG) was subsequently set up in 1988 to give a physical boost to the process.
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Pak-US Ties – An Uneasy Alliance

Since Pakistan’s emergence on the world map, Pak-US ties have been characterised more by mutual dependence than shared interests as is the norm. America to its credit has always made its concerns clear: Soviet Union being its favourite bugbear till the end of the Cold War and the deceptively ambiguous war on terror thereafter. Though Pakistan officially tows the same line, its commitment is diffused by the singular prism, that of India, through which it views all its assessments.
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The Chabahar-Gwadar Conundrum

The prevailing sense of elation about the supposedly ultra-bright prospects of the Gwadar-CPEC projects has in recent times been dampened by news about the expected rise of  an adjoining port, a mere 70 kms away across the border in Iran. The signing of a trilateral MOU between India, Iran and Afghanistan to facilitate Indo-Afghan trade through Chabahar has added to the speculation. It is thus important to analyse such conjectures before they fully embed themselves  in our collective consciousness and thereby mislead the country into a knee jerk response with potentially disastrous consequences.
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Safeguarding the Vital Links in Sea Trade

Nothing encapsulates, and perhaps embodies, the spirit of globalisation better than world trade, most of which is carried out via the medium of the sea. Maritime trade can thus be said to be the pivot around which the global economy as well as our collective social well-being actually revolves. The enormous natural resources on land, coupled with a matching industrial capacity for value-addition, are not worth much were it not for a corresponding ability to trade freely over a terrain which, despite being used for common benefit, is still vulnerable to hybrid criminal threats.
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Combating Traditional and Non-traditional Threats at Sea

Navies all over the world, by virtue of the peculiar characteristics they are endowed with, play a significant role at all times in preserving the sanctity of the nation’s shores. Nontraditional challenges at sea like piracy, terrorism, poaching, narco-smuggling, gunrunning, human trafficking and environmental degradation have not only attained prominence, but tend to crop up in areas where they face the least resistance, thereby prompting the need for constant vigilance. Like in all illegal activities, there are fabulous sums of money to be made, which attracts all manner of criminal elements and even criminal enterprises in its fold. The involvement of organized crime in turn raises the bar for ruthlessness and violence at sea.
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Gwadar in Focus

Gwadar has had a turbulent yet lonely history. Though it has been visited, and even nominally managed at times, by the Macedonians, the Ummayad Arabs, the Omanis and even the British, it managed to retain its own identity till the turn of the last century. It goes to the credit of the inhabitants that they didn’t permit the Portuguese to establish a foothold there in the late sixteenth century, at a time when the latter’s grip on the maritime trade of the entire Indian Ocean region was virtually uncontested. Gwadar’s modern history can however be traced to the sanctuary given there to Sultan Said when he had lost out on a power struggle with his brother for the throne of Muscat across the Strait. Though the Sultan eventually managed to wrest control of Muscat 14 years later in 1797, he never really let go of Gwadar and continued to exercise jurisdiction there through an appointed Wali. Imprints of the Omani slave trade are still visible.
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About Me

I am a retired Rear Admiral of the Pakistan Navy who has done a three-year post retirement stint as the Director General of the National Centre for Maritime Policy Resarch housed at the Bahria University Karachi Campus.

During my eventful 38-year long naval career, I had the good fortune to command two destroyers as well as the 25th Destroyer Squadron. I also served as the Flag Officer Sea Training. I did my Principal Warfare Officer’s course from SMOPS, HMS Dryad, UK in 1979, my staff course from the Royal Naval Staff College at Greenwich,UK, in 1983-84 and my war course from the National Defence College, Islamabad, in 1998-99.