The visibility of Pakistan in the Indian Ocean Region has been somewhat enhanced since the launch of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), nearly three years ago. This visibility, as the article will argue, is poised to generate yet another paradox for Pakistan and its foreign policy. Pakistan has a significant geographical presence in the IOR, with an extensive coastal region along the Arabian sea, and the proximity with the Persian and Aden Gulfs is considerable, thus potentially enabling geopolitics to co-construct foreign policy discourses. The reality, is rather inconsistent with this scenario.
Pakistan appears to be destined to play an important role of connectivity in the Indian Ocean. But can Pakistan connect without belonging? Can Pakistan inhabit geopolitical discourses without a meaningful foreign policy towards the IOR that can go beyond China’s interests? These questions can contribute in starting an urgent debate that Pakistan foreign policy makers, and those who frequently intervene in it, need to have in a very near future, given the quick pace of events the IOR region is currently experiencing.
China’s access to the IOR, albeit not fully dependent on Pakistan, is enabled by Pakistan. The two-pronged role of Pakistan, as a connecter and as an enabler of China’s presence in two oceans is of immense significance for both countries. However, the fact that China has been granted full access and assured presence in the IOR, potentiates her aspirations to be fully legitimized as a great world power. As the facilitator of such a possibility, Pakistan is now harvesting additional security issues, but so is India. The latter’s regional hegemony is co-constructed by a combination of factors – partly because of its geographical position, and partly due to her agility on mixing geopolitics with identity politics. The result is the construction of a discourse that portrays India as the natural, if not outright logic hegemon in the IOR.
While the IOR region certainly owes its diversity, cultural and historical constructions to the very existence of India, the latter should not envisage ownership of the ocean, despite several attempts in the past. The Indian Ocean cannot and should not be understood as India’s ocean. Therefore, the perception that a more consolidated Chinese presence in the IOR, enabled by adversarial Pakistan, has prompted India to become actively engaging and building up the conditions to remain relevant, not only at the strategic-military level, but also at the social, political and cultural levels. Let’s assess how these levels are currently being played in the IOR, so as to frame how Pakistan is connecting, but not belonging.
First, the social, cultural and political levels. India, together with twenty other countries, is a member of the Indian Ocean Rim Association where thus far, it has been able to sustain an active role, thus establishing dialogues which consolidate a sense of being and belonging. The IORA engages its members on constructive dialogues, ranging from sustainable development, to maritime safety and security, to trade and investment, to fisheries management, to disaster management, to cultural exchanges, among others. IORA is now twenty years old. These are also the number of years Pakistan has been continually absent in the IOR. Pakistan tried to become a member of the group, but alleged incompatibilities mostly fuelled by the India-Pakistan rivalry has prevented the country to enter the significant regional group. Pakistan does have friends among the members, including Indonesia. The latter appears to be supportive of Pakistan’s membership. Furthermore, China is one of IORA’s dialogue partners, significantly, together with the other key military powers that are entrenched in Djibouti. The non-membership of IORA is, in my view, an issue of major urgency. Pakistan’s membership will not only work towards the country’s own interests. It will also contribute for a more positive image of the country abroad, and, perhaps not as substantially as desired, contribute for better relations with India.
Second, the development of complex security drivers currently under development in the IOR is contributing for a faster militarization of the region. Djibouti, a small country situated in the horn of Africa hosts military bases of five different countries: United States, France, Italy, Japan, and more recently China. All these countries, except Italy, are IORA’s dialogue partners. The possibility of Turkey to establish a military base in Djibouti is currently being equated by Ankara, and India has reportedly showed interest on establishing an embassy in the country. This perhaps is being equated by New Delhi as the first step to join the group of military estate holders in one of the most exciting geopolitical scenarios of the world.
While the aforementioned countries do not have an indigenous geography in the IOR, hence from a strategic point of view their presence in Djibouti is easy to imagine, India’s alleged willingness to set foot in the horn of Africa appears to be at best a mix of sheer hegemonic designs and insecurity. Pakistan neither has diplomatic relations with Djibouti (a country with a predominantly Muslim population, should the need to invoke any ‘emotional’ bond arise) nor has it ever developed meaningful diplomatic relations with African countries. Given the crescent importance of the African continent into China’s BRI, including Eastern African/IOR countries like Kenya and Tanzania (at least in these two countries there is a Pakistan High Commission), Pakistan may well be condemned to sit at Gwadar, qua sentinel (perhaps for China), assisting to one of the most significant regional politics moments of the century developing before her eyes.
Unless Islamabad/Rawalpindi foreign policy makers will promptly realise that Pakistan is bound to miss the ship of IOR politics, and that imagining naval battles will prove insufficient to guarantee Pakistan own security, Pakistan will remain a connector without belonging. Active diplomacy, including naval diplomacy, must quickly engage the stakeholders in the Indian Ocean. Pakistan’s engagement with African countries, including Djibouti need to be sought, preferably within the context of CPEC/BRI. Pakistan foreign policy elites need to envisage CPEC beyond Gwadar to Khasgar. CPEC needs to look South. The IORA needs to be approached in a frank manner.
Perhaps concessions need to be made, therefore political courage must take precedence over hubris. Compromising on certain aspects, including the MFN status of India, which allegedly has been used by the latter to block Pakistan’s membership, need to be carefully thought-out not only, but also through the perspectives of the potential that ‘blue economy’ has on offer. Pakistan needs to be, and to feel that belongs to the IOR. If Pakistan foreign policy elite can fathom this, then the CPEC challenges that are arriving at its shores will be transformed into further opportunities. If Pakistan will fail, yet another paradox will be engraved into her even-otherwise troubled foreign policy.
Maria Bastos is a PhD Candidate at the DPIR, University of Westminster, UK. She teaches at the School of Governance and Society, UMT, Lahore. Her research interests fall in the following areas: Pakistan foreign policy, Politics of identity and difference, Politics of the Indian Ocean, and Postcolonial IR theory. She tweets: @Minesbastos.