#EXCLUSIVE Pakistan eyes creating rifts within the Indian Ocean Region by establishing a parallel forum, with Chinese support

Pakistan is planning to establish the Afro-Asian Ocean Forum on Maritime Cooperation (AAO-FMC) to counter India’s growing maritime and regional influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). There are reports that the government is considering opening an office for the Forum in a Tier One city like Karachi or Islamabad. However, due to financial constraints, Islamabad is seeking external funding. As an obvious option, Pakistan has approached China to seek a grant for the project. It is noteworthy that China has been aggressively making efforts to expand its maritime influence in the IOR. Pakistan has allowed China to use its territory through China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to reach the Indian Ocean via Gwadar Port.1 Therefore, it is possible that the new Forum could be another Chinese plan to target India in the IOR through Pakistan. Under immense debt liabilities from China, Pakistan will not have much say but to compromise its sovereignty and foreign policy to cater to Beijing’s interests in the region.

This new attempt to revive the old Pakistani propaganda of using the phrase “Afro-Asian Ocean” as a counter to the Indian Ocean will not find many supporters among the littoral states in the region. Most of the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), East African littorals, and West Asian countries are comfortable with the term “Indian Ocean” and are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).2 Notably, IORA is an intergovernmental organization established in 1997 to promote economic cooperation and regional integration among countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Pakistan is not a member of IORA, and China is only a ‘dialogue’ partner. This further suggests that both countries are skeptical of the terminology and do not wish to acknowledge the centrality of India in the IOR.

Pakistan believes that the name Indian Ocean unfairly associates the ocean with India, thus giving undue prominence to one country in the region.3 In the past, Pakistan has even proposed renaming the ocean as the ‘Indo-Pak Ocean’ or ‘Muslim Ocean’ due to the significant Islamic presence in the region. Ironically, Pakistan has used the term in its first National Security Policy 2022-2026, released in January 2022. Under the sub-heading ‘Maritime Competition’, the policy document states, “the self-professed role of any one country [India] as a so-called net-security provider in the wider Indian Ocean would negatively affect the region’s security and economic interests.”4 This statement clearly shows Pakistan’s insecurities regarding India’s influence in the IOR. Consequently, Pakistan is attempting to promote AAO-FMC as a potential alternative to the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORA).

Another reason for Pakistan’s initiative is the increasing prominence of the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ over ‘Asia-Pacific’, which has garnered support from Western countries and littoral states in the IOR. China and Pakistan are still uncomfortable with the new terminology. Therefore, this new Forum can be viewed within the broader context of countering both the names – Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific.5 Pakistan may seek support from Islamic countries, which are littoral states in the Indian Ocean and members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), to promote the new Forum. It is worth noting that in 1963, Indonesia had objected to the term ‘Indian Ocean’ and wanted to rename it as the ‘Indonesian Ocean’.6 However, Indonesia and other ASEAN countries now use the term in their official discourse(s).7 Similarly, East African countries, island states, and West Asian littorals in the Indian Ocean are comfortable with the terminology. Notably, the vision for IORA originated during a visit by the late President Nelson Mandela of South Africa to India in 1995.8

Similarly, the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) was established as an intergovernmental organization in 1982, linking African Indian Ocean nations: Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion (an overseas region of France), and Seychelles. India holds the ‘observer’ status in the IOC.9 These examples underscore the importance of both African and African littoral states for India. On the other hand, Pakistan is trying to create rifts within the Indian Ocean Region by establishing a parallel multilateral forum, with Chinese support, which will prove to be futile. Pakistan is aware that India enjoys excellent bilateral relations and strategic partnerships with member states in the region. Hence, it is possible that to promote the new Forum, Pakistan may approach only selected countries in the IOR and avoid reaching out to countries like Australia, which is a close partner of India and a member of the four-member Quad grouping.10

Furthermore, given China’s coercive military activities in the South China Sea (SCS) and the broader Indo-Pacific region, which have provoked the ire of many regional countries, Beijing seems to be utilizing Pakistan as a front to advance its agendas in the Indian Ocean.11 Consequently, China may provide funding for this forum and endorse the appointment of a Pakistani military official to head the AAO-FMC. However, Pakistan lacks both the diplomatic expertise and logistical capabilities to lead a sensitive multilateral forum. Additionally, littoral states may be wary and suspicious of the need for an alternative forum in the Indian Ocean when the IORA already exists. Lastly, the new Forum could be another attempt to revive CPEC by drawing attention of Asian and African littoral states on Gwadar port.12 Nevertheless, all these reasons will fail to provide any justification for the establishment of an agenda-driven multilateral forum in Pakistan.

1 https://jamestown.org/program/cpec-at-ten-a-road-to-nowhere/

2 https://www.iora.int/member-states

3 https://www.nation.com.pk/01-May-2017/maritime-security-in-the-afro-asian-ocean

4 https://static.theprint.in/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/NSP.pdf

5 http://seharkamran.com/maritime-security-in-afro-asian-ocean/

6 https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/heres-how-seas-receive-names-and-the-associated-problems-and-resolutions/articleshow/59922770.cms

7 https://asean2023.id/storage/news/ASEAN-India-Joint-Statement-on-Maritime-Cooperation-FIN-1.pdf

8 https://www.iora.int/indian-ocean-rim-association

9 https://www.commissionoceanindien.org/en/strategic-areas/

10 https://www.dfat.gov.au/geo/india/bolstering-our-ties-india

11 https://www.cfr.org/timeline/chinas-maritime-disputes

12 https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/china-s-big-gamble-pakistan-10-year-scorecard-cpec

Leave a reply

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here