The new Silk Road and the sea
The tales of the old Silk Road have captured the imagination of people across the world for centuries. A network of trade routes connecting east and west has linked ancient China with the wider world to trade in silks, spices, and other exotic commodities throughout recorded history. However, the term ‘Silk Road’ or ‘Silk Route’ did not come into common usage until coined by the German, Ferdinand von Richthofen, who made seven expeditions to China from 1868 to 1872.
The trade routes, a network of roads and caravan routes that were sometimes barely more than rough tracks, started as far back as the Han dynasty (207 BC – 220 AD). These trade routes crossed to the west through Central Asia, India, and what is now Pakistan. Today, we can still see the remnants of some of those tracks in parts of Gilgit Baltistan, alongside the Karakoram Highway.
A maritime Silk Route opened up between Chinese-controlled Giao Ch? (near Hanoi, in what is now modern Vietnam) sometime around the first century. It extended via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka, all the way to Roman-controlled ports in Egypt and the Nabataean territories on the north eastern coast of the Red Sea.
Today, a new ‘Silk Road’ is starting to wind its way from China down through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, with the western corridor ending at Gwadar in Balochistan, and in the east, at Karachi. The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is being constructed at a cost of USD 46 billion. Consisting of roads, rail and pipelines, the CPEC will shorten the distance between China and Europe, cutting the costs enormously of transporting goods, and oil and gas to the western provinces of China. The benefits to Pakistan are potentially enormous if managed properly.
The CPEC is not without controversy. There has been considerable political debate between the Provinces and the Federal Government about the routes, actual benefits to Pakistan, jobs for Pakistanis, and the transparency of the deal with China. This is hardly surprising. This is the biggest project to come to Pakistan and every province wants the best deal for itself. However, in the end, it is what will bring the best overall outcomes for the nation that matters. China, as the investor, is also entitled to negotiate the best deal based on their needs. Debate is healthy but it should be productive, not destructive, and seek to achieve fair outcomes for all of Pakistan as well as the investor and partner in the project, China. Otherwise, this huge investment will be ineffective and aspects of it may even fade away. This would be a great loss of an outstanding economic long-term opportunity for Pakistan.
Security has been a major topic of concern. A special security force has been tasked to protect the Chinese contractors and the infrastructure during construction and beyond. But while there has been considerable focus on the security of the land components, the maritime security aspects have received much less attention, at least by the media and the public. The whole point of CPEC is to open up shorter shipping routes to and from Europe and other markets for China’s inland provinces. Without enhanced security of the main ports and Pakistan’s territorial waters, the project will be at risk. The security of the port, and territorial waters of Pakistan through which ships to and from Gwadar and Karachi must sail, is paramount to the future viability of this trade route.
‘Sea blindness’ seems to be an issue here. The 1,000 km coastline, extending from Iran in the west, and India to the east, already presents Pakistan with a number of security challenges though there is no doubt that the Pakistan Navy is capable of addressing these. But the CPEC will bring new considerations, which must be factored in. However, while the nation is highly supportive and aware of the Army’s important role in the security of the country, few seem to give much thought to that of the Navy. Somehow, the wider population seems to be blind to the threats that come from the sea, perhaps because it does not resonate with our daily lives in the way the possibility of a terror attack in our cities does. The risks are real and there is no room for such blindness. The Indian Navy, for example, is building up its Navy with new warships, nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier. Compare this to the Pakistan Navy and it is easy to understand the increasing imbalance in maritime deterrence. While talks between Pakistan and India are on the cards in the hope of reducing the bilateral threats, we cannot know what the future will hold. History tells us to be wary.
Piracy poses a significant threat to shipping in the Arabian Sea and other major shipping routes around the world such as the Straits of Malacca. The economic cost of piracy and the taking of merchant marine ships have necessitated a rise in insurance premiums for shipping companies and clients. Some shipping companies have engaged private security companies to have armed protection teams onboard their ships. These issues raise the costs of merchant shipping and affect the viability of sea transport. Ships sailing to and from Gwadar and Karachi will be at risk of pirates who operate across a wide region, if maritime security is not at its optimum.
The Pakistan Navy is already very experienced in international maritime security. It has for some time played an important and highly regarded role in two important Task Forces as part of the Maritime Security Operations that protect the Arabian Sea. Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) is a multinational coalition naval task force that works under a 25-nation coalition of the Combined Maritime Forces. Based in Bahrain it was established to monitor, inspect, board, and stop suspect shipping as a response in the “Global War on Terrorism” in the Arabian Sea, the Horn of Africa region, and to support maritime operations in the Indian Ocean.
Established in 2009, the Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) is also a multinational Naval Task Force set up to combat piracy attacks in the Gulf of Aden and off the eastern coast of Somalia. Its mission is to disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea and to engage with regional and other partners to build capacity and capabilities to protect global maritime commerce and secure freedom of navigation. It operates in conjunction with the EU’s Operation Atalanta and Nato’s Operation Ocean Shield. At times, the Pakistan Navy has taken its turn in leading the Task Forces. According to my international defence sources, Pakistan’s leadership was very highly regarded, as has been its overall participation. However, this has had little publicity here in Pakistan.
The substantial experience gained from participation in these Task Forces will stand the Navy well in its role to provide maritime security for the CPEC. This new role could be transformative for the Navy in Pakistan through drawing greater attention to their role and the need for greater budgetary support for future requirements, which will need to be addressed in terms of ships, equipment and possibly manpower.
Maritime exercises are being conducted with the Chinese Navy, which also has a strong interest in the maritime security of CPEC and to protect the massive investment. This will further enhance the Pakistan Navy’s capabilities and extend its relationships with foreign maritime forces beyond the existing Task Force commitments.
There is however, a significant issue which must be addressed. The Navy receives only a very small percentage of the Defence budget. This must be increased to meet the future needs of the nation’s maritime security in an increasingly unstable region. New ships are expensive but required to expand the protection of maritime borders and the CPEC maritime route in territorial waters, as well as maintain commitments to other regional maritime security operations. The CPEC is a long-term project. It will take years to be fully operational and effective and to realise the full benefits for Pakistan and China as the investor and partner. New ships and equipment take time to procure so now is the time to start the process and this begins with larger budget allocations to facilitate procurement.
If the CPEC is to truly fulfil its potential and become the new ‘Silk Road’, and provide Pakistan with broader economic opportunities, then the country must also invest in its own future. Maritime operations and security must take their place as a critical component to be included in all discussions and decision-making considerations, and the Navy must be fully equipped and resourced to meet the future requirements of a successful and secure nation state.