From Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific: Determining Pakistan’s Regional Strategic Relevance

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The initiation of Global War on Terror (GWOT), the United States’ (U.S.) pursuance ‘hot pursuit’ strategy, rise in South-to-South trade, heavy militarization (and afterwards nuclearization) of Indian Ocean, and transformation of security alliances in and around the Indian Ocean Region compounded for the development of complex foreign policies while enhancing the importance of Asia-Pacific. As the U.S., China, Japan, Australia, the European Union (EU) and Russia became geopolitically and geostrategically active across the region, new power poles started to emerge increasing the significance of regional countries internationally.

With the increased focus of EU, Japan, Australia and their allies towards the Indian Ocean Region to contain growing Chinese influence, the widely accepted concept of “Asia-Pacific” started diminishing. Soon, it was replaced by the notion of “Indo-Pacific” in order to elevate India’s position in the overall political and strategic landscape. By referring, the region as Indo-Pacific – through new literature, academic activities and official documents – these countries tried to bandwagon the growing influence of Beijing in the region. While New Delhi emerged as a head-on collider with Beijing, Islamabad became the front-line ally of the latter in the swiftly changing regional scenario.

How Does Pakistan Matter?

Earlier, the ambiguity of Islamabad’s regional strategic relevance was questioned by many scholars and analysts by stating that in the grand game where two giants are competing, Pakistan remains a pawn. For example, Indian Navy went east in Vietnam to help the Southeast Asian countries, having disputes with China, contend People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA-N) in various capacities. Sino-Indian rivalry stretches across the Indian Ocean Region ranging from disputes over islands, surveillance, trade routes and military exercises. The juggle between a trade-based order and a security-driven order continues in the region where the significance of Islamabad snowballs.

Pakistan has become the CenterPoint for China in both the scenarios as Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) largely remains dependent on its flagship project, China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Furthermore, in the regional security apparatus, both the countries have aligned their security interests – especially against Indian growing hegemony to dominate and confront its neighbors. Quad countries along with France, Germany etc. have been conducting naval exercises across Indo-Pacific in addition to Indo-US joint military exercises even on Indian soil. The alliance of EU with the Quad countries to “re-establish a level playing field” for containing Chinese rise in the region is balanced out by Pakistan’s partnership with China in Indian Ocean.

Indo-Pacific has evolved as a Center of Gravity (CoG) for the EU and Quad countries because of its massive economic activities generated in and around the region. According to various estimates, more than 60% of global maritime trade by volume passes through the Indo-Pacific region in which the aforementioned entities (and individual countries) have the largest stakes. Attached to the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs), security concerns of the EU and Quad members have rose leading to the militarization of the entire region. Five distinct component regulate the strategies of these countries in the region including counter-terrorism, maritime security, environmental security, cyber security (data traffic, undersea cables) and crisis management and conflict mediation.

In Indo-Pacific, China has been able to draw support from Pakistan, primarily, in terms of military to maintain the balance of power if not gain leverage through it. For the U.S., EU and other allies, Pakistan’s role as a front-line ally since 2001 and in the contemporary geopolitical and geostrategic landscape as a facilitator withdrawing their forces is exemplary. Moreover, with the opening-up of Pakistan’s foreign policy, the country is developing relations with ASEAN in diverse areas. Similarly, Russian military is also strengthening its relations with Pakistani military – with a focus on naval exchanges, exercises and other associated activities in the Indian Ocean – after the Indian realignment towards the U.S. spearheaded by Washington’s Indo-Pacific Strategy.

Alfred Thayer Mahan’s sea power theory written in his book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, is becoming applicable on the contemporary geostrategic landscape of Indo-Pacific and highlights various burgeoning alliances in the region. It is worth noting that the control of SLOCs relies heavily on Mahan’s strategy which has been largely adopted by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army-Navy unlike the European powers for which it was more relevant. Although Pakistan Navy’s operational outreach is limited as compared to its neighboring countries and the extra-regional navies involved, its importance in terms of transforming the existing power poles and developing security structures remains high.

Some analysts say that the jury is still out to gauge the strategic relevance of Pakistan in the Indo-Pacific region but it is clearly visible the country is deeply vested in the regional affairs. The argument of Pakistan not having a blue water navy went down the flames after the recent turn of events in Afghanistan. It is widely being debated that without being active in Kabul’s affair – while the world proclaimed that Islamabad had been isolated – it was able to extract the most benefits out of the situation. The same case study is valid on the Indo-Pacific too as long as the element of surprise is intact.

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