Post QUAD and AUKUS—whither Gwadar -The Nation

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The world has witnessed global power competitions throughout its age. It results in alliances, partnerships, forums, pacts and agreements between likeminded nation states who strive to thwart a perceived threat. Not long ago, the world witnessed the Cold War era which culminated in dwarfing the Soviet threat. We seem to be at the crossroads of another global power competition again, between the US and China, the consequences of which may very well affect Pakistan. The US-China rivalry during the recent past has become obvious as the US and its allies are conscious of China’s hefty economic overtures around the globe which have challenged their “freedom of action” in many parts of the world. In such a scenario, the Indo-Pacific emerges as the preferred theatre where Chinese aspirations are intended to be challenged.

The world, of late, has witnessed the emergence of important alliances which have generated discussion in strategic circles. The Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue aka the QUAD between the US, Australia, India and Japan and AUKUS with Australia, the UK and the US, have been formed ostensibly to challenge China on its home ground. One thing is evident from both the arrangements that the US is shifting its focus from roads to the seas and proposes pressure on the “Road” in BRI. Therefore, the country which controls the seas may have an upper hand in the conflict. With AUKUS and the QUAD, the US is attempting to contain the Chinese sphere of influence in the Indo Pacific. The evolving situation amply highlights the importance of stronger navies which could withstand multiple challenges. For Pakistan, although the US, China and India are the countries in these alliances who matter, yet it is specifically India that attracts Pakistan’s attention. So any arrangement affecting Indian potential in the realm of politics, economy and military impinges directly upon Pakistan’s security matrix.

Politically, QUAD affords India a position which can have leverage at the time of its choosing. India is however averse to labelling QUAD as an arrangement against China as India would not wish to antagonise China directly. Also, for India, the Indian Ocean is more important than the Pacific where Chinese influence and corresponding US concerns are greater. Indian understanding of the Indo Pacific also differs from that of the US. For India, the Indo-Pacific stretches from the east coast of Africa to the western and southern Pacific and includes portions of the Middle East. In contrast, the US includes neither Africa nor the Middle East in its conception of the Indo-Pacific. In the realm of economy, India needs to consider its trade with China compared to what it has with other members of the QUAD community. With around $90 billion of trade between both countries it is inexplicable that India will ever consider hurting its economy by confronting China on a permanent basis. The mutual trade is likely to surge above $100 billion by the end of the current financial year. Although India has acquired some US military hardware in recent years, its old military inventory is Russia based and requires frequent assistance. India therefore needs to tread a very fine line in maintaining the balance between the US and Russia.

Despite cautious Indian moves, its intentions against arch rivals China and Pakistan are obvious. In order to thrust its concept of Indian Ocean security, India has joined hands with the US, Israel and the UAE in a recent arrangement known as the QUAD of West Asia or the Middle Eastern QUAD. It emerged on October 18, 2021 when the FMs of India, Israel, the UAE and the US met virtually and decided to create a joint working group on issues concerning maritime security, infrastructure, digital infrastructure, and transport. The developments in the South China Sea are likely to compel China to take its safeguards, most prominently the ones attached to its economy. If the passage of its ships is impeded in the South China Sea, China has a better alternate route utilising the “Belt” component of BRI. CPEC with Gwadar as its kingpin stands prominent in such a situation. Diverting Chinese trade via Gwadar will result in QUADs’ permanent presence in the area. The presence and development of the Indian Navy will thus be a direct threat to Pakistan’s security.

Pakistan Navy provides seaward security to Gwadar Port for which a dedicated Task Force 88 (TF88) has been established since 2016. It comprises of sea and aerial platforms as well as marines maintaining security along the approaches to Gwadar Port and also inside the harbour. It has so far been an effective arrangement as there hasn’t been any incident at Gwadar or its surroundings emanating from the maritime domain. Hence, in a scenario where the Indian Navy embarks upon an ambitious development and deployment plan (D2P), Pakistan will be directly confronted with a situation where fast-paced development of its navy will be paramount. Pakistan Navy will have to expand its fleet to amicably negotiate the growing Indian challenge, not only in the east but also in the west. With Gwadar serving as the key player in CPEC, the responsibility of Pakistan Navy in the upcoming era is therefore becoming intense. Although QUAD and AUKUS are not likely to affect Pakistan directly, yet it cannot remain oblivious to Indian activities connected to both arrangements. Besides the military, Indian mileage in international politics or the economy will also have repercussions for Pakistan. Pakistan therefore needs to tread cautiously, by not only closely monitoring Indian activities but also treading a cautious path for maintaining balance between the US and China.