Bits of broken pottery are usually found ashore at many places all along the littoral states of Indian Ocean. This depicts history, revealing itself for any carbon testing to reach a conclusion; IOR (Indian Ocean region) is a single contiguous region since centuries.

It is just the beginning of this century and many countries are already out of competition in the maritime race. In the Indian Ocean, all this started with China’s Malacca dilemma and contestation of line ‘dash-o-nine’, India’s fear of the ‘string of pearls’, the USA’s pivot of Asia and Pakistan’s coming out of sea blindness through the lens of Gwadar. India thinks itself as the net security provider in IOR with a blue water navy and a huge seaboard.

Pakistan navy is also no more a brown water force, it is a well-acclaimed regional navy and is growing with every passing day (anti-piracy operations of Pakistan navy deep in international waters had gained quite the accolades from all and sundry). In any future Sino-Indian rivalry in Indian Ocean, Pakistan will be the key factor and Pakistan navy the equaliser. The Pakistani naval fleet is designed to achieve the same as a lean and smart machine. If the coming rivalry opens up here, India will definitely have few surprises in the brown waters quickly turning blue.

What is the Sino-Indian rivalry all about as far as the maritime manifestation is concerned? This is very important to understand. There are three main players playing the roulette; China, India and USA. China offered India to join BRI, as a natural partner to this regional and trans-regional arrangement, India not only refused but started countering the initiative. Even as late as 2019, China wanted India to join, then came the abrogation of article 370 and 35A which made both China and Pakistan apprehensive to Indian intentions beyond the red lines. This triggered the Ladakh crisis and the start of rivalry in IOR as a consequence.

General Bipin Rawat has said that other options are on the table if dialogue fails with China on Ladakh. These other options are to hit where India thinks that it is strong. This is IOR, specially the seaboard defended by Pakistan navy. If the situation deteriorates, a naval war in Arabian Sea is not really out of the question. China’s declaration of a maritime arc from Persian Gulf through the strait of Malacca to the sea of Japan as the new maritime silk route has already unhinged the strategic thinkers of USA, who strongly believe that USA cannot allow any one power or coalition to dominate the Eurasian landmass (Mackinder laughing).

The professionalism, training and the history of combat with India of the Pakistan Navy stands testimonial that big brother will be soon in for surprises. The 496 ships (all types) of Chinese navy with 2 aircraft carriers will not be bystanders if the US moves its naval assets in IOR. The term ‘superpower’ is going to be redefined as now the peer competition will be in the domains and spheres known as the global commons. The high sea, atmosphere, Antarctica and space were the global commons as the world knows; China has redefined two others, the internet, with digital/cyber space and the inflow and outflow of rare earth metals. So we might be seeing the emergence of the first global power of the world soon.

No one except India wants to be on the wrong side of history, not even the United States. Any maritime power has to have a potent geography, maritime bent of its leaders, ship-building capacity, size of seafaring population, significant ports, merchant vessels and a strong navy. Pakistan has all of this now, less the enhancement of merchant vessels. The recent maritime policy given by the government amply covers this aspect as well.

There are a number of French and British colonial islands in Indian Ocean which also makes them interesting players in any future competition. USA’s naval bases are in Djibouti, Diego Garcia and Bahrain (CENTCOM). Indian naval bases are at Visakhapatnam, east coast Mumbai, Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India is making another base at Lakshadweep Islands near Western Ghats. Since 1992, India has been conducting naval exercises with the USA with the name of “Malabar”. The name itself depicts which part of Indian Ocean India is interested in, the Western Ghats and beyond, obviously towards Persian Gulf and Africa. Japan also joined the Malabar exercises later on, along with Australia, thereby making this annual naval exercise a precursor to the formation of QUAD which is the geo- strategic alignment of states concerned with China’s potential challenge to their interests.

As China-India competition is expanding into the Indian Ocean, therefore all three, Pakistan, China and India are more maritime focused than in the past. The manifestation of this is the weakening of Indian alliance system by China through making the entire littorals, the strategic partner one way or the other. Therefore, the illusion of India being a net security provider has gone in thin air. General Bipin Rawat can pick his monocle and see if there are more options on the table under the deck prism, if not, take a gig and come along.