Maritime scene in the Indian Ocean remains in a state of flux due to occasional tensions among the regional states. Conspicuous naval activity is indicative of the Ocean’s primacy among the other oceans of the world. ‘Strategic manoeuvring’ of the great powers, as claimed by The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies in its report ‘Maritime Future of the Indian Ocean (2010)’, coupled with rising maritime crimes, as reported by UNODC, in the Indian Ocean makes it the geostrategic centre of gravity. Pakistan has taken a full stock of the emerging maritime milieu and launched an initiative of ‘Regional Maritime Security Patrols’, better known as RMSP, in 2018. Main purpose of RMSP, as the sources suggest, would be to ensure safety and security of sea lanes from where majority of Pakistan and regional countries’ commerce passes through. RMSP, as the name suggests, could extend maritime security to other countries of the region.

Cognizant of the fluidity in its seas, Pakistan Navy, reportedly, deployed two ships, under its banner of RMSP, whilst leading the multinational task force CTF-150, to expand what may be termed as ‘maritime cooperative continuum’. At one end of the continuum is unilaterally independent deployment; while at the other is a principled multilateral engagement seeking maritime security for the Indian Ocean Region. Devoting more ships for RMSP is reflective of Pakistan navy’s seriousness and operational focus that governs its strategic choices in a region in need of a player on whose agenda tops the freedom of the seas. Despite the recent post-Pulwama crises, Pakistan navy remained undeviating in pursuance of its principal objective of preserving security in its immediate and extended maritime neighbourhoods. This article argues that the ‘maritime security continuum’ - embracing both CTF and RMSP - as appeared to have been adopted by Pakistan Navy is a concept that could be well suited to the regional setting’s juxtaposed threats that the Indian Ocean Region faces. There are three key reasons that make the continuum concept a consistent and enduring one: 1) recourse to region-centric mechanisms, 2) working with but reducing dependence on extra-regional players and 3) need for smaller navies to cooperate.

RMSP is a region-centric initiative that must aim to embrace the other regional maritime states under its flag. Angela Floristella notes in her work The ASEAN Regional Security Partnership (2015)’ that ‘regional initiatives have come to be seen as catalysts of change and stability in terms of peace, security and order’. Floristella opines that regional architectures are the best to resolve conflicts and strengthen security because of the comprehension of complexities that the region might have, as outsiders cannot read the regional environment fully thereby failing to array the security priorities that a region might require.

Regional cooperation, especially in the maritime domain, has not been a non-causal phenomenon. Emergence of several types of transnational threats compelled maritime nations to incentivize cooperation at sea, which led to creation of several multilateral cooperative maritime security constructs, e.g., US-led CMF, NATO-led ‘Sea Guardian’, Indian Ocean Rim Association etc. Geoffrey Till, in his book ‘The Changing Maritime Scene in Asia (2015)’, believes that Asia would see encouraging rise in naval and coast guard cooperation to improve maritime security in the region as he contends that “maritime Asia appears to be the scene of both continuity and substantial change”. One may rightly regard RMSP as a reflection of that change. As I noted in my piece ‘Regional Maritime Security Patrols: Pakistan Navy Preserving Freedom of the Seas’, published in the Maritime Study Forum on 4 February 2019, that maritime complexity necessitates `cooperation rather than competition’ among the littoral states. I argued there that the initiatives like RMSP must be calibrated to maintain, regionally, a threat-free environment so that economic, scientific and social activities at sea could continue unhindered. It may be termed as ‘extension of security’ from one’s own space to another across the Indian Ocean Region.

Until recently, outsiders, mostly the US and the Europeans, maintained a maritime order in seas that washed the shores of most of the Asian nations, especially, the South Asian ones. Toshi Yoshihara observes, in ‘Asia Looks Seaward: Power and Maritime Strategy (2008)’, pronounced focus towards maritime power, among the Asian nations, and he posits that “clustered fleets of navies are growing at fairly rapid rates”, and could unsettle the outsiders and assume larger role of maritime security at the regional level themselves. This could mean a higher probability of conflict but could also open significant prospects of cooperation whilst operating in proximity of the naval forces with extra-regional maritime powers. There is a greater likelihood that the interventions by extra-regional forces would not be welcome by the Asian maritime nations in future as these get stronger to assume broader charge of their security affairs by themselves. China, for instance, uses the term ‘counter intervention operations’ for its navy, to keep the intruding powers at bay.

Nonetheless, the Pakistan Navy pursues the continuum concept and shows its eagerness to be a member of the US-initiated maritime security architectures of CTF-150 and CTF-151. These tasks forces have been highly successful in countering drug trafficking, human smuggling and gun running. Such constructive outcomes, which Pakistan always welcome and, therefore, vowed to remain part of the task forces despite strategic strain in relations with the US. At the same time, the country does not espouse the idea of complete outsourcing of security to these combined tasks forces, hence the RMSP. RMSP and CTF could work at the same time with overlapping areas of responsibility but with a clear command and state-dictated articulation of charter. RMSP means to radiate the message of regional maritime cooperation signifying that dependence on external forces needs to be reduced in the future.

Nature and spectrum of transnational threats, however, would keep the regional maritime forces glued to cooperation so that the rise and expansion of these threats can be credibly checked. Regional navies like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, South Korea, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are developing modern naval capabilities to ensure that the sea becomes a cornerstone in their security priorities. Nevertheless, since developing a navy is an expensive proposition, as Michael McDevitt points out in ‘Small Navies (2014)’, therefore cooperation at sea would be seen an ‘operationally attractive’ scheme. Pakistan Navy’s continuum concept, wherein region-centric RMSP is the critical component; and in the same vein Pakistani policymakers should afford regional navies to become part of the initiative. Mechanics of integration into RMSP could then be worked out, which could be: 1) these navies may allocate ships for RMSP on ‘plug and play’ basis as Robert Kaplan refers to in his article ‘Center Stage for the 21st Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean’, published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2009; 2) or the ships of the regional navies may integrate for Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT) through mutually agreed terms, which could ensure operationally consistent use of resources to maintain a redoubtable poise against the perpetrators of maritime crime.

Pakistan Navy, through the adoption of maritime cooperative continuum concept, is sending a message that it is both willing to participate in multinational maritime task forces and able to begin its own initiatives to pursue what it calls ‘preserving freedom of the seas’. Coming of age, Pakistan Navy looks set on its course of cooperation as it braces itself to ensure a threat free environment for maritime commerce, exploration and other activities to proceed, uninterrupted. Initiation of RMSP and continued participation in CMF express Pakistan’s keenness to assume greater responsibility for ensuing security of the maritime commons in the Indian Ocean. RMSP, in its own characteristics, is a relevant and time-critical initiative, which should be extended to regional navies so that it can become an enduring partnership for preserving security at sea.