The US pursuance of China containment policy given rise to multiple hostilities in Indian Ocean, mounting Indian acts of breaching sea protocols and campaign against Chinese regional investments, gave birth to a colossal regional risk, which is evident from mid-November (2016) episode of India Submarine detection near Pakistani territorial waters and pushing it away by naval sea guardians.
It’s a high time at high seas, when multi-national navies are engaged in variety of sea based operations particularly to counter piracy and terrorism while regional and extra-regional strategic rivals are head to head to secure sea trade, energy corridors and their strategic interests, which lead both US and China to ensure their or their allies presence in international waters including Indian Ocean.
Chinese military has already announced to step up its naval presence to the Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast particularly to carry out escort missions for her merchant ships. On the other hand, US is already in pacific ocean, encouraging Philippines, Japan and others to take control of South China Sea while preparing India to occupy Indian Ocean.
Recent Indian submarine’s adventure has unveiled those hegemonic designs and intentions regarding the region while it was at a particular time, when Gwadar port development getting pace and Pakistan navy has started building up its strength both at land and sea. Analysts believe that since the countries are not at war the Indian submarine was on an intelligence gathering mission around territorial waters as the date coincided with the first cargo fleet leaving Gwadar port to African continent under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
On 14th November 2016, the date, when an Indian submarine was spotted in international waters near the Pakistani territorial sea jurisdiction, Chinese naval ships were on the way to Karachi, to participate in 4th Pak-China bilateral exercises. Security experts believe that Indian submarine was on course to breach Pakistani territorial sea jurisdiction in complete darkness around 8pm at night, when she was earlier detected by air assets, through periscope feathers, classified and located, with surface units later joining the hunt to track and monitor the hostile vessel.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS), all kind of vessels were given the right of “innocent passage” through sea surface, EEZ or continental shelf, but fishing, polluting, weapons practice, and spying or covert operations are not categorized as “innocent” acts.
Delhi’s aggressive posturing through submarine spying at Pakistan Navy’s radio activity and was gathering intelligence through its electronic support measures (ESM) sensors, a clandestine underwater move to dissuade Pakistan-China buildup and to appease new US partners.
Pakistan has nearly 990 kilometers of long coast line, with 12 nautical miles of “territorial sea” jurisdiction and having extended exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the form of continental shelf enlargement up to 350 nautical miles (“sea bed territory” to 50,000 square kilometers).
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS), all kind of vessels were given the right of “innocent passage” through sea surface, EEZ or continental shelf, but fishing, polluting, weapons practice, and spying or covert operations are not categorized as “innocent” acts. UNCLOS also depicts that submarines and other vessels are required to navigate on the surface and to show their presence clearly with flag.
In case of Indian submarine, it has not followed the international rules and guidelines, a clearly contravening to Pakistan’s EEZ and Continental Shelf’s right of sea bed because submarine was clandestinely cruising adequately deep under-sea and then came to periscope depth to recharge batteries with plans were to move ahead might be into territorial waters.
Question is – what kind of intelligence Indians were intended to gather? Official’s privy to the developments described that Indian Submarine was caught in South of the Pakistani shoreline and about 40 nautical miles away from Ormara, the coastal city of Balochistan and a sensitive tactical naval base, with a robust radar station and approximately right in the middle of strategic ports of Gwadar and Karachi.
Arrival of a hostile enemy in Pakistan’s EEZ was not simply because of historic baggage of two arch rivals, it was the part of bigger agenda to create sea supremacy and overlapped with the US influence and it got pace after Chinese massive investments in regional sea ports and corridors.
China to cater needs of her huge growing population, has paved the alternative routes under the banner of One Belt-One Road (OBOR) theme and grown its military power. The “Sino peaceful rise” cautiously conceived as threat in Washington, Delhi and South China Sea region. During early 2005, the U.S. state department backed consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton’s coined theory of “string of pearls”, was basically to caution regional players of Chinese intrinsic hegemonic designs. These alarm bells rang across Asia while countries allied with the US camp like Australia, Japan, Philippines including India came closer to each other.
In 2006, when the first ever deep sea port idea emerged in Bangladesh, China agreed to invest at Sonadia, a small island offshore of the Cox’s Bazaar coast, to make Dhaka’s dream to reality. After nearly a decade’s hectic and serious negotiations, Bangladesh was all set to award contract to Chinese in July 2014, but failed. Ultimately, the project shelved after Japanese jumped in to have another deep sea port construction idea at Matarbari rather Sonadia.
“[China] never objected to the presence of Indian naval ships in the disputed South China Sea as long as they follow the principles of freedom of navigation, Chinese submarines cross some of sea areas and those crossings are legitimate and legal and follow the international practices”.
Sonadia episode, exposed a weaker Bangladesh before Indo-US pressure, a win-win scenario for US backed Indian Ocean geopolitical strategy and comparatively, a mild defeat of Chinese diplomacy. After such a blow, Beijing has enhanced its investments in Bangladesh’s basic infrastructure including rail-road projects to link Kunming, of Yunnan province with Chittagong, up-gradation of Bengali textile industry; improving facilities at Chittagong port to create a corridor for its own land locked territories.
Under broader 21st Century “Maritime Silk Road” endeavor, beside other initiatives, China is also investing heavily in Sri Lanka. Projects like US$1.4 billion on Hambantota deep sea port, with 15,000 acres of land as industrial zone and proposed creation of Colombo-Kandy-Hambantota economic corridor are also practical steps to include pearls in Chinese string.
On one side, Asia-Pacific region witnessing rise of US naval superiority and preparing allies to challenge Beijing whereas Chinese also preparing to launch Indian Ocean centric fourth naval fleet parallel to intense investments across regions. In this particular scenario, Indian submarine’s detection near Arabian waters also categorized as tit-for-tat to Chinese submarine’s random presence in Malacca and Hormuz straits while Indian animosity towards Pakistan is a multiplier factor.
China has already categorized her submarines presence in the Indian Ocean as legitimate and completely in accordance with international practice. During July 2016, Chinese defence ministry made it clear, “[China] never objected to the presence of Indian naval ships in the disputed South China Sea as long as they follow the principles of freedom of navigation, Chinese submarines cross some of sea areas and those crossings are legitimate and legal and follow the international practices”.
Now only after US backed Indian aggressive posturing across the region, China is pursuing counter strategy by having deployments in the region, regular patrols, joint exercises with regional allies like Pakistan, stretching her military muscles and intensifying allied (Pakistan) naval upsurge to have at least a psychological regional impact.
Variety of international studies are evident that Indo-US anti-submarine warfare collaboration, track and initiate beneath sea activities in the Indian Ocean is fully underway, which is escalating geo-political stress and gave birth to a conflicting situation across the Indo-Pacific region while strategists believe this Indo-US policy could stimulate secret sea activities particularly in Indian Ocean. The sudden sighting of Indian submarine, reportedly Shishumar Class, at the hands of Pakistani sea warriors proved the same sequence of an anti-China strategy with Pakistan an ultimate victim of it.
Regional players have to take this aspect seriously that either they intend to make Indian Ocean region a peaceful economic hub or a war zone?
Under international maritime laws, Pakistan has the legitimate right to claim foreign aircrafts to file their flight plans before transiting over EEZ and any merchant ship or military vessel to have prior notification of their passage through the surface. To convert this approach to reality a high-tech naval force with most modern surface fleet, robust submarine power and naval aviation, hot pursuit of objectives and a vigorous strategic communication is required, to deter multi-faceted threats at sea.
Existing scenario in Indian Ocean suggests that this bigwig quest could turn into a grave conflict, region will witness more rapid arms race and in presence of comparatively weaker regional naval strength; it could hamper regional economic development and undermine interests of small states. Regional players also have to take this aspect seriously that either they intend to make Indian Ocean region a peaceful economic hub or a war zone?