The Devil We Know

Will Pakistan, with Chinese support, manage to counterbalance India’s naval might in the Indian Ocean?

The American USS Reuben James participates in a naval exercise with two Pakistani ships, September 25, 2002
The American USS Reuben James participates in a naval exercise with two Pakistani ships, September 25, 2002 (US Navy/Aaron Ansarov)

The balance of power in the Indian Ocean rim has been degrading for some time but China’s recent decision to sell submarines to Pakistan threatens to further upset South Asia’s fragile nuclear balance. The question we must ask ourselves is “who do we want counterbalancing India’s naval might in decades to come?”.

Pakistan is weak and not getting any better. It is an artificial polity and much of its problems stem from that very fact. It lacks a cohesive core ethnicity, it lacks geographical coherence (the Indus valley having never been an easily defensible position without strategic depth) and its demographic-raw materials proportion is worsening due to population growth.

What Pakistan has in abundance is geostrategic relevance. All those interested in counterbalancing India (China), Iran (Saudi Arabia) and Russia (the West) have a permanent and vested interest in propping up Pakistan.

For this reason, Pakistan’s military apparatus always has been and always will be powerful. While the Pakistani army and air force have made the difference in their wars with India and in small deployments to the Middle East (against Israel and later in support of Saudi Arabia in Yemen), Pakistan’s navy has long been the weaker branch. India always managed to control the sea lanes when in conflict with its rival.

The Pakistani navy however, has had another role to play — that of anti-Indian ambassador in the Indian Ocean. Islamabad’s navy is the only one in the Indian Ocean armed with air independent propulsion submarines and has been known to make port calls to Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia.

In other words, the maintenance of an alternative sphere of influence to that of New Delhi’s in the Indian Ocean requires Islamabad. Throughout the Cold War, India’s partnership with the Soviets threw America into the arms of Pakistan but as the relationship between America and India warms up in this century, those in the Indian Ocean rim who seek an alternative to India are running out of options.

The war conducted in Afghanistan by the United States and their allies has greatly destabilized the region. Pakistan is now fighting a war of its own on its western border and is failing to keep up with the growth of India’s armed forces. Recent earthquakes and India’s military lead has only exacerbated the equation.

For all these reasons, one might have predicted that Beijing would sooner or later move to rebalance the situation and this month it was revealed just how it decided to do so. India’s Force magazine reported that Pakistan may soon add to its arsenal Chinese diesel submarines carrying nuclear cruise missiles.

It is not a first in Asia for Israel has had them for some time as deterrence. Has this worked? To a certain extent. Jerusalem’s threat is enough for regional hegemons such as Iran to tread carefully. Confined only to a land based ballistic deterrence, Israel would have had little in the way of second strike capability. The range of its deterrence would be limited moreover.

Thus Pakistan’s threat to India would be considerably upgraded — especially considering that India is developing a ballistic missile submarine class and that Pakistan can only afford so much in terms of submarines (having previously canceled a contract with German shipyards for a conventional diesel class of submersibles).

Pakistan’s weakness may now have been plugged by an influx of technology from its patron but this is a temporary solution at best. China trusts its ally to bounce back once the Westerners leave Afghanistan alone.

This development speaks of the growing competition for this very important ocean but let there be no sense of triumphalism for power monopolies are unstable. Either China will be forced to keep a naval detachment in the southern seas or America’s alliance with fellow democratic India is not meant to be. Time now to ponder which of those two possibilities is worse.

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