The Western Indian Ocean (WIO) has changed dramatically in the last decade. The strategic environment has shifted. Somalia’s piracy has drawn international attention to the region’s vulnerability. However, even if the issue is temporarily resolved, piracy may resurface. Illicit maritime trafficking, illegal fishing, and other environmental crimes are on the rise, which creates the best opportunity for Pakistan to become a regional leader in stabilizing the region through the effective contribution of the Pakistan Navy (PN).
Several international navies have established a permanent strategic presence in the region. Effective capacity-building programs are underway to improve regional marine security. But the region’s massive blue economy prospects are now increasingly recognized. This new environment necessitates examining the region’s future and regional maritime security architecture for evaluating the role of PN as stabilizing force in WIO.
The WIO has never seen such geopolitical attention since colonialism ended. Strategic interests in the Atlantic and Pacific were common during the Cold War. But the new millennium brought renewed interest in the Indian Ocean. The Western Indian Ocean, extending from South Africa to India, has increasingly come into prominence in the larger region since the late 2000s. It was undoubtedly due to Somalia-based piracy. Initially active in the Gulf of Aden, pirates swiftly expanded their hunting grounds to include the waterways of the Indian and Pakistani coasts.
From 2008 through 2012, an unprecedented worldwide coalition was formed to combat piracy. There were three multilateral naval operations and several solo deployers. The governance structure for coordinating the battle against piracy was supplied by SHADE and the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS). Since 2012, piracy attacks on large-scale have not been reported.
After containing Somali piracy, it became clear that piracy is merely one marine crime plaguing the region. Narcotic trafficking has risen dramatically. With the end of piracy, fisheries crimes returned. Fishery crime is a critical regional security 4ssue, as well as other environmental crimes. The emergence of fundamentalist \groups also threatens the region’s waters. While Somalia’s security situation is improving, Al Shabab remains a threat. The destabilization of Yemen and the spread of Daesh across the region pose new threats.
The US, China, and Russia all have a vital naval presence in the region International fleets helped curb piracy and will continue to support the region confront maritime security issues. But there’s a flip side. International fleets also pursue national interests, which may or may not be aligned with regional objectives Naval presence means major militarization of regional waters, which increases the possibility of violent conflicts.
PN is a key player in the region’s maritime security. It has made significant contributions to anti-piracy efforts and participates in Combined Maritime Forces missions. Throughout these operations, PN has created new bi-lateral, `and multilateral ties with regional actors. For the area, PN must continue to collaborate and actively provide maritime security and drive political discourse to become a prominent stabilizing force in WIO. PN has one of the few operationally experienced fleets in the region, which can act as a force multiplier when stabilizing the region.
PN also assisted in fostering maritime diplomacy in Africa through overseas deployments. Human Assistance and Disaster Relief HADR missions to Ghana, Kenya, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Seychelles, South Africa, and Tanzania were conducted by PN Ships ASLAT and MOAWIN in 2019-20. For HADR and goodwill visits to Benin, Djibouti, Kenya, Niger, and Sudan, the PN Ship NASR proceeded for Africa in January 2021.
Among WIO countries, Pakistan’s trade with South Africa is the most important. South Africa receives USD 1.052 billion in commerce with Africa. Then comes commerce with Kenya and Tanzania, at $289.3 million and $194.58 million, respectively. Trade with Madagascar is worth $187 million. The said trade accounts for about half of Pakistan’s entire commerce with Africa. Only three nations within the WIO area are included in the Look Africa policy based on GDP. It requires more economic and diplomatic engagement with WIO nations to increase trade and a more demanding role of PN as representative of Pakistan’s national interests in the region.
Pakistan has actively participated in UN peacekeeping deployments in Somalia. WIO maritime security risks, including piracy, grew in the first decade of the 21st century. Pakistan joined the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) in 2010 to help fight piracy in the Western Indian Ocean. From 2009 to 2015 practically the entire Pakistani coast was classified as a High-Risk Area (HRA) nor piracy. Due to this, a Norwegian fisheries survey vessel was unable to inspect Pakistan’s coast in 2013. Thus, WIO security is vital for maritime safety and directly affects Pakistan’s national interests providing a wide window of opportunity for PN to act as a stabilizing force in WIO.