by Ravi Shankar

The recently concluded naval exercise named “Sea Guardians 2020” between China and Pakistan conducted in the northern Arabian Sea has underscored many contradictions and contrasts in the triangular relationship between India, China and Pakistan. According to the Chinese media, the exercise was meant to consolidate their “all-weather strategic partnership”. The exercise included frigates, destroyers and fast attack crafts along with air and sub-surface assets. The Pakistan-China Maritime Alliance posed a direct threat as the exercise was conducted in proximity to India’s west coast; a critical security area from India’s perspective. 

In January 2019, state-owned media China Daily reported that China’s State Shipbuilding Corporation was building four of its most advanced naval ships for its “all-weather ally,” Pakistan. It also announced that the ships were being equipped with weapon systems for anti-ship, anti-submarine and air-defence equipment to “maintain peace, stability and the balance of power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)”. It was an open assertion by China that Pakistan would be used by China to counter India’s naval power in the Indian Ocean region. 

The Pakistan Navy today appears to be in a state of strategic confusion grappling with vessels and weapon systems of diverse origin and attempting to fashion itself as an appendage of Chinese maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. 

Pakistan Navy Under Chinese Spell

Owing to its close ties with Western powers dating back to the Cold War, Pakistan has traditionally sourced its naval and other military hardware from NATO countries. However, with the turn of the last century, following global outrage over its systematic sponsorship of terrorism, Pakistan got drawn closer and closer into the Chinese orbit. Facing serious capacity constraints, Pakistan bit the bait of concessional loans offered by China and procured frigates, missile boats, missiles, helicopters at terms dictated by Beijing to replace its older Western origin equipment. This had a hidden cost for the navy to bear; forcing it to accept inferior quality hardware and cope with a growing dependency on Chinese companies for repairs and replacement. Repeated malfunctioning of equipment of Chinese origin platforms increased Pakistan’s reliance on Chinese state-owned enterprises which have steadily carved a niche in the business of shipbuilding and defence manufacturing within Pakistan. Overall, strained budgets and the need to play ‘good boy’ to China for monetary and diplomatic support has introduced significant dissonance in Pakistan Navy’s planning and doctrinal thought.

Pakistan Navy is the smallest branch of the military and has been getting a raw deal in budgetary allocations, essentially decided by the Army, which virtually runs the country through its General Head Quarters (GHQ) and the notorious spy agency, Inter Service Intelligence (ISI). Andrew Small, an expert on China, has observed that the China-Pakistan nexus has now grown too strong for this trend to be reversed. This is prominently seen in the maritime domain where Chinese naval vessels and other strategic platforms regularly visit ports of Pakistan and get support for logistics and maintenance. At the recently conducted Raisina Dialogue 2020 at New Delhi, India’s Navy Chief highlighted that the rising presence of Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean is an issue of concern to India. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, violates Indian sovereignty.

Radicalisation of Pakistan Navy 

Pakistan’s gravest security threats are internal, emanating from unchecked home-grown terrorism, corrosive religious radicalisation of military personnel and deep inroads made by the illegal drug trade in Pakistan’s “Milbus” economy. Ayesha Siddiqa, one of the best known experts on the functioning of Pakistan Military and author of “Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military” described the term “Milbus” to refer to “military capital that is used for the personal benefit of the military fraternity, especially the officer cadre, but is neither recorded nor part of the defence budget.” She puts the cost of this Milbus to at least $20 billion.

Evidence indicates that the Pakistan Navy has been affected by all three and the rot has run deep. In 2008, ten terrorists belonging to the UN proscribed terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) used a small fishing harbour near Karachi, which remains under Pakistan Navy’s watchful eye, to set sail for a deadly mission at Mumbai – the “26/11” terror attacks. Investigations by FBI and Indian intelligence agencies revealed a link to the Pakistan Navy. After the interrogation of key conspirators like David Coleman Headley and Abu Hamza brought out that the LeT terrorists were trained in ocean navigation, swimming and sea survival by Pakistan Navy personnel. 

Later, many serving and former personnel of the Pakistan Navy were found to be involved in the terrorist attacks on its own airbase at “PNS Mehran” in 2011 and attempted hijacking of the frigate “PNS Zulfiqar” at Karachi harbour in 2014. These are among the most telling examples of ‘Samudri Jihad’ of Pakistani terror industry and radicalisation within the force. In Indian Parliament, last year, the Government officially informed the Upper House about the persisting threat of ‘Samudri Jihad’ – “available inputs indicate that the Pakistan based terrorist groups continue to train their cadres for underwater strike capabilities in a bid to infiltrate them into India by sea/water ways”. 

Having been carved out of the erstwhile Royal Indian Navy (RIN), the Pakistan Navy reflected a largely cosmopolitan and progressive culture in the early decades post-independence. It began to change in the 1980s, when Islamization started gaining strong roots across the country during the Presidency of General Zia-ul-Haq. Overt signs of religiosity like keeping long beards and shaving off moustaches, sporting of religious symbols, the invocation of religious chants in official functions and display of a religious messages on ships are now common in Pakistan Navy. 

Narco-Terrorism And Pakistan Navy 

Another factor that assumes a prominent place in the Pakistan Navy’s scheme of things is the political economy of narcotics. Given Pakistan military’s high dependence on drug money for the generation of funds, its navy and maritime security agencies have turned a blind eye to illicit flow of drugs from the Makran coast into the North Arabian Sea, wherefrom they are smuggled to lucrative markets in the region and beyond to Europe and the Far-East. A pattern of Pakistan abetted narcotics trade has emerged across the North Indian Ocean, as has been reported by navies of European countries, Australia and USA, which operate in the region. 

In May 2019, in a major operation, the Indian Coast Guard intercepted a Pakistani boat with narcotics worth of Rs. 600 crore, off Jakhan, on the coast of Gujarat. In January 2020, another boat with five Pakistani nationals was apprehended again, off Gujarat coast, with 35kg of narcotics. Such incidents have been reported in the past from the seas near the Maldives, Sri Lanka and even off the East and South African coasts. In end-December 2019, 13 Pakistani crew members of a dhow were arrested at a Mozambican port on charges of attempting to smuggle over 130 kg of heroin. 

The close links between drug smuggling and Pakistan Navy raise concerns even in the Gulf countries despite Pakistan enjoying varying levels of political clout in the region. The inability to check drug flow from its coast makes the Pakistan Navy’s claims of high maritime domain awareness in the North Arabian Sea hollow and disingenuous. The deep links between narcotics and terrorism and `drug deals for covert operations’ run by Pakistani military establishments, are facts that are well-documented by the US since early 1990s.

Pakistan Navy’s Reliance On Propaganda 

In the wake of Balakot air strike by the Indian Air Force, on 27 February 2019, the Indian Navy had adopted an aggressive-defence posture in the Arabian Sea to deter any misadventure by the Pakistan Navy. Reportedly, Pakistani patrol aircraft were routinely detected and tracked by Indian naval vessels at sea but Pakistani naval ships preferred to remain close to the coast for fear of revealing their positions to Indian Navy. In keeping with its propagandist traditions, the Pakistani Navy claimed that it had “detected and blocked” a Kalvari class Indian submarine “from entering Pakistani waters”.

The claim was not followed up with any further facts or details, giving credence to the criticism that it was a hoax. Recalling the long stand-off between the naval forces at sea after the Balakot strike, India’s then Naval Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had said, “The asymmetry between the armed forces is the maximum between the Pakistan and Indian Navies. It rests entirely in our favour; if push comes to shove, we would have decimated the Pakistan Navy”.

Propaganda, however cleverly cast and calibrated, can work only to a point. Pakistan needs to take stock of the ‘how and whither’ of its directionless naval strategy. In trying to do too many things at the same time and Pakistan playing a ‘Rentier State’ to Chinese interests, the Pakistan Navy runs the risk of losing its way on the high seas. The use of conventional force for a sub-conventional response by Indian armed forces post-Uri and Pulwama terror attacks has shattered the false sense of security that the Pakistan security establishment had of a ‘limited’ domain-specific response. With the Indian Army and Air Force already have shown this capability, perhaps next time it will be the Navy that delivers the riposte to any misadventures by Pakistan even in the sub-conventional domain.