Pakistani Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Muhammad Zakaullah visits Chinese Navy ship Harbin in Port of Karachi on February 12 during Exercise AMAN-17 (COURTESY OF PAKISTAN NAVY)
China and Pakistan are working together to implement the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) program at full speed, which provides further impetus for the two nations to extend their cooperation from land to sea.
CPEC, proposed by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to Pakistan in May 2013, will become a 3,000-km-long route connecting Kashgar in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to Gwadar Port in southwest Pakistan's Balochistan Province. Along the route, the two countries are building a network of extensive roads, railways, ports and other infrastructure.
In November last year, as part of the early harvest projects, a maiden overland cargo voyage set off from Kashgar to Gwadar Port at the entrance of the Arabian Sea. With Gwadar Port a new option, China's cargo trade routes to the Middle East, Africa and Europe will receive a further boost. The busy shipping course through the Malacca Strait will no longer be the sole passage for Chinese cargo ships bound for these regions.
The deep-sea Gwadar Port is adjacent to the key oil routes in and out of the Gulf. It is also the nearest warm-water seaport to the landlocked Central Asian countries rich in oil and gas resources. CPEC, through making Gwadar Port a new trade hub, will bring China and Pakistan new opportunities for economic and trade growth.
However, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups in the region pose potent threats to the safety and stability of the new route. On land, Pakistan has greatly improved domestic security by launching continuous counter-terrorism operations over the last two years.
Currently, finding the best strategy for tackling marine security challenges and solving other maritime problems, including piracy, crime, environmental protection and natural disasters, have become a primary concern for Pakistan.
In recent months, Pakistan has taken a number of measures to enhance maritime governance through cooperation with China and other countries. In mid-February, Pakistan held a multinational naval exercise, code-named AMAN-17, in Karachi and waters of the North Arabian Sea. Military vessels, aircraft and special marine force teams from 37 countries joined the five-day exercise. Aman means peace in Urdu.
AMAN exercises are designed to enhance interoperability between regional and extra-regional navies. The first AMAN exercise took place in March 2007. This year's drill was also a display of united resolve against terrorism and crime in the maritime domain.
While addressing the media, Vice Admiral Syed Arifullah Hussaini, Pakistani Fleet Commander, said that new security challenges have changed the maritime environment today. Threats, such as piracy and human and drug trafficking, have made security in the Indian Ocean more complex. "No country can counter these challenges single handedly," said Hussaini.
Furthermore, he stressed that with the inception of CPEC and Gwadar Port, maritime activity in the North Arabian Sea is likely to increase several-fold. As early as last December, the Pakistan Navy established a new unit, known as Task Force-88, to ensure the security of Gwadar Port and CPEC. "The CPEC projects on land have been under the protection of the Pakistani Army. As for maritime challenges, it is the job of the Pakistan Navy to protect Gwadar Port," Hussaini told Beijing Review.
According to the Pakistan Navy, the task force is composed of warships, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles supported by shore-based sensors. "Coping with asymmetric challenges will be the major object for this force," Hussaini said.
A Chinese Navy fleet, composed of missile destroyer Harbin, missile frigate Handan and supply ship Dongpinghu, participated in Exercise AMAN-17. This is just the latest example of Chinese Navy participation in the Pakistan-hosted exercise—the two navies have maintained good relations over many years. From traditional security cooperation to counter-terrorism, anti-piracy and humanitarian rescue, the two navies have established a mature collaboration mechanism.
China and Pakistan also seek maritime cooperation in civilian affairs. "The CPEC is rightfully considered to be a game changer not only for Pakistan, but for the economic development and prosperity of the entire region," said Pakistani Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif at the closing ceremony of the Seventh International Maritime Conference (IMC), held in Karachi, on February 13.
He stated that the Indian Ocean has emerged as a key geo-political region, since many global strategic interests are routed there. The overwhelming reliance on sea routes and increasing volume of global seaborne trade have also enhanced the importance of the region.
The three-day conference was held in tandem with Exercise AMAN-17. Themed "Strategic Outlook in the Indian Ocean Region 2030 and Beyond—Evolving Challenges and Strategies" the conference was organized by Pakistan's National Center for Maritime Policy Research under Bahria University. Eminent scholars and experts from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States were invited to deliberate on maritime security, economy and the marine environment.
Sartaj Aziz, Adviser to the Prime Minister on Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, underlined the ocean's importance for the common good. "The marine environment is an essential component of the global life support system, and investing in marine ecosystems can help us improve ocean management," he said at the conference. His sentiments were echoed strongly by fellow participants.
Wang Dakui, a senior researcher at the National Marine Environmental Forecasting Center of the State Oceanic Administration of China, proposed at the conference to strengthen international cooperation in order to better forecast oceanic disasters for coastal nations in South Asia.
Wang said that many coastal developing countries in South Asia are vulnerable to oceanic disasters because oceanic weather forecasting services remain insufficient in the region. "This situation heightens the importance for such cooperation being reached between these countries and China in future," he explained.
After the conference concluded, Wang visited Gwadar Port, which is currently still under construction. In his opinion, Gwadar enjoys a promising future as a new trade harbor of the Arabian Sea, but measures and infrastructure to prevent oceanic disasters need upgrading.
Pakistan Navy helicopters drop commandos during a counter terrorism drill at Manora Beach in Karachi on February 11 as part of Multinational Exercise AMAN-17 (COURTESY OF PAKISTAN NAVY)
"In addition to infrastructure projects, China is working with Pakistan to improve its research and technology within the maritime science and environment sector," Wang told Beijing Review.
According to him, since it was established in 2003, China's marine hazard early warning system has served well in forecasting oceanic weather and preventing many losses from natural disasters, including storms, typhoons and tsunamis.
Masood Khalid, Pakistani Ambassador to China, expects bilateral relations to consolidate further as more cooperation in CPEC is implemented. "We hope the progress of CPEC projects will gain more, and the link between the two countries will grow stronger this year," he told Beijing Review.
So far, the two governments have held six annual meetings on propelling CPEC projects. The regular meeting mechanism works well to promote the communication on infrastructure, energy and port projects, according to Khalid. Through increasing interconnectivity between China and Pakistan, more people-to-people exchanges can be promoted in future.
Copyedited by Dominic James Madar
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