NEW DELHI: Pakistani Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi recently expressed concern over what he construed as India’s adoption of “belligerent and aggressive policies” manifesting as “acquisition of advanced naval weapons technology from Western partners”. According to him, these developments will raise the chances of conflict in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).Even an undergraduate student of Geopolitics will hold that the Pakistani Minister’s concerns are not only misinformed, but grossly exaggerated.
It is true that Indian influence in the Indian Ocean Region has grown from strength to strength over the last few decades, both quantitatively, and in terms of the matrix of capabilities it has built for itself. This is attributable to induction of newer, more complex platforms, as well as widening of range of operations and partners in the IOR. However, a key tenet underpinning India’s growth story in the IOR is that India happens to be a responsible democracy, and its vision of itself, and of its neighbours is driven by what Indian PM Narendra Modi articulated in March, 2015 as SAGAR or Security and Growth for all in the Region.
As part of SAGAR, India has continually assisted countries in the IOR with missions such as Exclusive Economic Zone surveillance, Search and Rescue, Hydrographic survey assistance, and other collaborative activities aimed at capability enhancement and capacity building of partner nations thereby enhancing interoperability and synergy. Recent high-level visits by External Affairs Minister Dr S. Jaishankar to Seychelles and UAE, and Gen M.M. Naravane, the Indian Army Chief’s visit to Saudi Arabia and UAE, as well as greater thrust on initiatives such as BIMSTEC, and ASEAN are part of the larger Indian engagement in the region. Likewise, over the last few years, the Indian Navy has also firmly established itself as the Preferred Security Partner in the region, and has undertaken three Covid-related outreach Missions in 2020 to provide food and medical aid; SAGAR-I to five IOR nations, SAGAR-II to four East African nations and SAGAR-III to three South-East Asian nations. More such missions are sure to follow.
Recently, India also embarked on the ‘Vaccine Maitri’ initiative, which means ‘Vaccine friendship’ entailing supply of its indigenously designed and manufactured Covid-19 vaccines to partner countries. The initiative started with countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood—key partner nations in the Indian Ocean—and the outreach very soon extended to countries in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Through its Navy, India today participates in 17 bilateral and 8 multilateral exercises with partner nations. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium or IONS, an Indian initiative started in 2008, is an open and inclusive forum of more than 30 IOR navies today. In fact, the India hosted the IONS Working Group meeting on Information Sharing and Interoperatability from 17-18 Feb 21 at New Delhi, which was attended by 9 partner countries, including Pakistan.
In this regard, Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of the Naval Staff, had stated on the eve of Navy Day (04 Dec) last year that “we are ready to work with like-minded nations in the region”, and that “India is playing a stabilising role in the Indo-Pacific region”. In another context, India’s commitment to peace and stability in the region and commitment to rule-based order—both at land and at sea, as well as preservation of its own interest, have adequately been reflected in the manner in which the prolonged India-China face-off has been maturely diffused and deescalated. Given these on-ground facts, it becomes quite evident that the Pakistani Foreign Ministers’ and the Pakistani government’s concerns are not only ill-founded, but also lacking in any credible logic. Perhaps, something more than general paranoia assails the Pakistani Minister’s remarks.
Pakistan recently concluded its biennial maritime exercise, Aman-21. It would be significant to bring out that even though 40+ countries participated in it, experts from various quarters have cast doubts on the ethical foundation of the Exercise itself, given Pakistan’s longstanding baggage as a prime financier, breeder and exporter of terror in the region.
It would merit attention that compared to India, Pakistan neither has the muscular hardware to position itself as a Blue Water force, nor does it have deep-rooted friendships, such as the recently forged and continually strengthening Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between India, US, Japan and Australia. Also, while Pakistan conducts one odd feel-good exercise in two-years, India’s engagements with other IOR countries is a round-the-clock affair encompassing Fleet Reviews, Security and Joint Exercises, Transfer of hardware and training, High-level visits, and dialogues on a routine basis, all aimed at promoting inclusivity and stability in the region.
In light of these facts, Pakistan’s one-point agenda, perennial paranoia, and its insecurities, arising from its awareness of these disheartening capability asymmetries, are understandable. However, Pakistan must sincerely try to look beyond its understandable paranoia, quit meaningless sabre-rattling, and come to the high-table, firmly believing that while aggression maybe the first reply of the weak, restraint is always the first resort of the strong.