Pakistan test-fired a Nuclear-Capable Submarine Launched Cruise Missile simultaneous with Aman-2021 Naval Drills that commenced off the Karachi coast. As per the statement of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), ‘Pakistan’s Strategic Plans Division (SPD) and National Engineering and Scientific Commission (NESCOM) carried out a test launch of nuclear cruise missile Babur-IA on 11 February 2021, from a ‘Multi Tube Missile Launch Vehicle’. ISPR, the Pakistan military’s media wing had informed that the missile with a range of 450 km, is ‘capable of engaging targets at land and sea with high precision’. The test launch makes it the third test of nuclear-capable missiles carried out over the past three weeks. On 20 January 2021, Islamabad conducted a test of the surface-to-surface ballistic missile Shaheen-III. In early February, it conducted the ‘training launch’ of nuclear-capable ballistic missile Ghaznavi as part of its annual field training exercise. Earlier in January this year, the Pakistan military had also test-fired an extended-range guided Multi-Launch Rocket System (MLRS).

The test launch of the submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) Babur was timed to precede the major multinational naval drill titled ‘Aman-21’ off Karachi, involving ships and delegations from 45 countries. The demonstration of a submarine-based nuclear missile, coinciding with a naval exercise Aman – Urdu word for ‘Peace’ – is in contrast with the lofty theme of the exercise, ‘Together for Peace’. Indeed, Pakistan’s duplicitous policy of unbridled militarization on one hand, and talk of peace on the other, has endured a long lucky run in South Asian politics. Concealment of aggressive machinations behind the veil of peace and pretension of friendship is repeatedly encountered with Pakistan’s tumultuous track record. Since Operation Gibraltar in 1965, when it unsuccessfully tried to wrest Kashmir from India by surreptitious military attacks, to the failed military occupation of mountainous heights by subterfuge in 1999, in the Kargil region in North Kashmir, duplicity has been an unrelenting theme in Pakistan’s behaviour as a nation-state.

The trend continues and manifests in newer ways. “Pakistan PM’s number one goal is peace with everybody,” said Dr Moeed Yusuf, Special Assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on National Security & Strategic Policy Planning, in a recent video posted on his Twitter handle. It would be quite an imaginative stretch of the meaning of ‘Peace’ to include the conduct of a test of a nuclear-capable missile, a day before a naval exercise named after the very word for ‘Peace’ is set to begin. And yet, it’s no surprise given that over the years Pakistan has repeatedly tested Babur SLCM for its French origin Agosta 90-B submarines5.

Indeed, an ISPR press release in 2017 claimed that a successful test launch of Babur SLCM, in January that year, from an ‘underwater, mobile platform’ provided Pakistan with a credible ‘second strike’ capability. It is not clear whether the launch of SLCM Babur on the eve of AMAN-21 is intended to send a message to France, which reportedly has declined to continue assisting Pakistan with up-gradation of French supplied fighter aircraft and submarines, after Prime Minister Imran Khan openly criticised French President Emmanuel Macron over his remarks about Islam in October 2020.

Bowing to pressures from radical Islamist groups in Pakistan, Khan has also agreed to downgrade ties with Paris. The irony will not be lost on the participants of the naval drill, which include a number of Western countries that have long suspected Pakistan’s proliferation record in clandestine transfers of military and nuclear technology.

The large attendance at Karachi for Aman-21 reportedly includes US, Russia and China too, with the exercise purportedly seeking to ‘enhancing interoperability between regional and extra-regional navies thereby acting as a bridge between the regions’. Seasoned observers would argue that interoperability between traditional rivals would seem like a distant dream in an era when US foreign policy seems to be resetting to its conservative mould in Washington under the Biden administration.

Under the shadow of Russia’s growing differences with Europe, and China’s increasing push back against US policies on trade, and key geopolitical issues in the Western Pacific, the repercussions of great power competition would decidedly be felt far and wide. The Indian Ocean, an old arena of such competition, is likely to remain a theatre of the geopolitical contest. China’s growing presence at sea and expansionist policies across land and maritime frontiers have been extended to the Indian Ocean under a collusive arrangement with Pakistan. China’s naval presence in the Indian Ocean, which began as a steady trickle in 2008, with deployments of warships for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, has steadily grown to a permanent presence with at least three to four warships in the region at any given time.

Occasional forays of Chinese submarines in the waters of the Bay and Bengal and the Arabian Sea has also complicated the naval equations in the region. In January 2020, the strategic nexus between China and Pakistan achieved a new milestone when the navies of China and Pakistan completed their sixth bilateral naval exercise, titled ‘Sea Guardians-2020’, in the northern Arabian Sea.

In retrospect, it can be said that the exercise was a clear message to India of the larger dimensions that could be orchestrated when later in the year China mobilised thousands of troops and warfighting machinery in Eastern Ladakh to bring India under pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the tense mobilisation in Ladakh has now begun to ease after sustained talks between India and China, seasoned observers in New Delhi are convinced that the traditional deep strategic convergence between Beijing and Islamabad has reached irreversible proportions. During the border standoff with India, Xi Jinping permitted the People’s Liberation Army, Air Force, to exercise with its Pakistan counterpart in Sindh, Pakistan, where the Joint Fighter aircraft JF-17, co-developed by the two countries, was fielded by Pakistan.

China’s embrace of Pakistan as a military ally has a strong economic compulsion. China has bet heavily on its investments in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), despite the tardy progress of the flagship project, under President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative. Chinese money is sunk deep in Pakistani projects, and China needs Pakistan military’s cooperation to keep the show going. Chinese weapons now constitute nearly 70 per cent of Pakistan’s military imports, and technological cooperation between the two Asian neighbours has solidified in such domains as the development of nuclear weapons, chemical and biological weapons research, missile technology transfers and submarine construction.

Even as Pakistan does China’s bidding, joining hands to increase China’s influence in countries of South Asia, in West Asia and Africa, its own human development indices have suffered. Excessive military spending has robbed the state coffers and left its large and populated provinces struggling for the largesse of the federal government. Reeling from poor economic performance, and stresses imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan appears to be bereft of ideas, and bereft of true friends. It desperately needs a façade of normality and friendliness, which constructs as Aman provide.

Notwithstanding the grandstanding at Manora, Aman-21 is unlikely to sell the rhetoric of ‘Peace’ to the professional multinational audience gathered at Karachi. Most participants understand the underlying motivations behind the theatrics and ostentation in the three-day event, which culminated with drills at sea. Well-meaning counselling of responsible behaviour from well-wishers, albeit behind closed doors, may produce more useful outcomes. In the ultimate analysis, the test of SLCM Babur may just provide Pakistan with the deluding moment of achievement that it always yearns for.

Basing its foreign policy on achieving parity with India, and endeavouring to match New Delhi in most fields and domains, Islamabad has long lost the plot in South Asia’s journey of development. Modification of its imported French conventional submarines for launching nuclear weapons, selling nuclear technology on the black market and reverse engineering western origin weapons with China’s assistance may seem alarming to most responsible states swearing by the rules-based order.

But for Pakistan, rules are more often than not, only a signpost that can be ignored as convenient. On its chequered and excruciating voyage through the shoals of power politics, Islamabad has seldom adhered to the rules or followed waypoints of normative state behaviour. In the Indian Ocean’s geopolitics, the contest for strategic space has got definitely hotter with China’s revisionist calculations resonating with Islamabad’s chimerical ambitions.