Winning Over Maritime Blindness – The Burden of History

Published in Hilal English

Written By: Muhammad Azam Khan

Back in 2014, a UK based seafarer organization undertook a maritime awareness survey on sea commerce. This organization has continued to advance welfare interests of local seafarer community and alongside raised maritime awareness for over 90 years. The survey was instructive and it found that just four in ten people knew that the majority of food imported into UK came by sea. Of the 1,000 people surveyed, 27 percent said air and 20 percent road.


Amongst the many reasons cited for such a shocking state of maritime blindness in a country which once ruled the world through its navy, two reasons were revealing. Firstly, “Globalization”, it said, “has somewhat diminished Britain’s status as the pre-eminent maritime nation. Seafarers can now be employed from almost anywhere in the world, often on lower wages than their British counterparts”. Secondly, as per survey done among those people living in coastal towns and port cities, they did not have much of an inkling of what went on right under their noses. It led one analyst to remark, “the majority of business takes place ‘out of sight and hence out of mind’.”

winingovermaritime.jpgThe study is startling since 95 percent of UK imports are done through the sea. It is because of sea and Royal Navy which protect this commerce that they have food on their tables, fuel in their power stations, can heat boilers and cars, and also purchase most of the consumer goods that they take for granted. Yet this is only half the story, as the sea also transports 75 percent of British exports.


The term “maritime blindness” also, “sea blindness”, refers to a state where large segments of population in a country remain oblivious and unconscious of the sea or ocean related matters. It is a menacing threat for any nation requiring a maritime future. The term is now an accepted expression in the international nautical lexicon.


In Pakistan, a nuclear armed country where the fate of 208 million (latest head count) is closely tied to sea, the story is no different from UK. In fact a similar survey may perhaps produce even worse results. And like UK, in our case too, over 95 percent of Pakistan’s commerce and 100 percent of energy resources are shipped through sea. The oil tanker strike that followed the tragedy at District Ahmedpur Sharqia in Southern Punjab in June 2017 resulted in overextended queues at the gas stations across Pakistan. Yet if queried, barely anyone would have known wherefrom this oil, prior reaching refineries at Karachi, came from. But we carry the burden of a long history.

 

The term “maritime blindness” also, “sea blindness”, refers to a state where large segments of population in a country remain oblivious and unconscious of the sea or ocean related matters. It is a menacing threat for any nation requiring a maritime future. The term is now an accepted expression in the international nautical lexicon.

Most of the invasions in sub-continent emerged from the west. The inward centric Mughals had a penchant for building large armies. This came only at the expense of neglecting Indian shores. With the world’s strongest navy reinforcing the commercial interests of Great Britain via British East India Company, the Colonial masters gradually built up their land power, through Madras in 1749 and Bengal in 1756. It was beginning of enslavement of India and a long haul for British Raj.


The advent of steamships and the opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 were two major developments that transformed trading patterns in the region by shortening the time and distances involved. During World War II, Britain desperately needed manpower to fight in Africa and elsewhere. The Raj turned its gaze on colonial Punjab, the massive granary of cotton and other agriculture products. Consequently, the world’s finest and largest network of canals was laid in Punjab but there were no industries that could offer economic and employment opportunities to local population. This was to serve twofold purpose. First, it provided cotton and other agriculture merchandise which London needed to run its commercial textile industry and second, for gifting large tracts of land holdings to the local lords, the so called modern day aristocracy, the favour was returned to the colonial masters in the provision of manpower to fight their war. With no jobs except in farms, the locals willingly agreed to join the British Army and remit money orders back home. It was to set a precedent for coming generations. To this day, the landlocked Punjab remains the largest repository of providing manpower to the armed forces, particularly Pakistan Army.

 

The maritime threats and challenges to Pakistan are not only varied but hybrid in nature, too. The arrest of Indian naval Commander Jadhav (from Balochistan on March 3 last year), and induction of nuclear submarines and strategic missiles are just the tip of the iceberg. Indian Navy plans to raise the inventory of warships from existing 145 to 200 by 2027. As of today, 40 warships are under construction in different Indian yards.

A cursory glance at the national media in Pakistan today shows that maritime matters seldom become a major headline story. Even when major international developments unfold in the dominion of oceans, we rarely find a mention of it on mainstream channels. The last national awakening on naval related matters came in November last year after Pakistan Navy picked up an Indian submarine which made a botched attempt to intrude into territorial waters close to Makran coast.


Added to this picture is our national history. The realization for having a strong navy never dawned to those in the corridors of power until it was just too late in 1971. The 1965 and 1971 wars kept the battles at sea away from media and public observation. This however cannot, and must not, take away the heroism or shine residing in some of the most audacious war time operations conducted by Pakistan Navy. The bold action of submarine Hangor that resulted in sinking of Indian Navy frigate or the steely and unwavering resolve of another Pakistan Navy submarine Ghazi in going down while hunting and unnerving the enemy in distant waters of Bay of Bengal during 1971 war are documented in gold, even in international chronicles.


The twenty first century world is altogether a different ball game. Oceans are at the heart of modern-day geo-politics. From the Western Pacific (South China Sea) to Western Indian Ocean, from Asia pivot to A2/AD, from Malacca to Hormuz, and from CPEC to recent Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMoA) between United States and India, the energy-politics, the strategic interests, competition and confrontation, all cut across the maritime domain or else adjoining littoral region.


There is worldwide recognition that maritime power projection should now be seen as the reward for the capacity to use the ocean as the world’s greatest manoeuvre space. This is because ocean empire offers unlimited movement and capacity to surprise adversary and to calibrate the extent and nature of the military operations. The 2001 U.S.-led operation, Enduring Freedom and later operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 kicked off from western Indian Ocean.


To overcome the malaise of sea blindness, maritime awareness is a crucial enabling link. Over the past two decades Pakistan Navy has spearheaded initiatives that aimed to curtail sea blindness in the country. One such step was moving of the Naval Staff College to the country’s heartland, Lahore in 1996. Since upgraded as PN War College, the premier institute has served to expand maritime and naval outreach in Central Punjab and beyond. Besides integrating civil-military bureaucracy and academia through symposiums, seminars, workshops and dialogue, the institute has advanced the national cause of CPEC. The presence of a large number of officers from friendly countries (currently 28) in the year long Staff Course conducted at the College meanwhile reinforces ties and advance cultural affinity.


Entrusted with the onerous responsibility of security of Gwadar Port that underpins CPEC, Pakistan Navy recently raised a special task force (TF-88) of trained and motivated manpower. This has been in addition to other measures meant to extend inviolable security to Gwadar Port and maritime related projects of CPEC.


The maritime threats and challenges to Pakistan are not only varied but hybrid in nature, too. The arrest of Indian naval Commander Jadhav (from Balochistan on March 3 last year), and induction of nuclear submarines and strategic missiles are just the tip of the iceberg. Indian Navy plans to raise the inventory of warships from existing 145 to 200 by 2027. As of today, 40 warships are under construction in different Indian yards.


The Indian Ocean is a global energy reservoir and a critical economic enabler. There are nearly 150 warships from foreign navies present here today. With a nominal and least share in the defence outlay, Pakistan Navy has gone an extra mile in marshaling efforts to sensitize the nation on progressing importance of oceans and related matters as well as what this means for the country’s future.


The first of its kind Maritime Security Workshop (MARSEW) held at the Naval War College from September 11-25, 2017, Lahore involving Federal and Provincial legislature is certainly a giant leap for the country. It is time for new generation of civil-military bureaucracy to take informed decisions for the greater good of Pakistan. Pakistan Navy meanwhile continues to play its committed role in national cause and stands as the country’s dependable maritime watchman.

 

The writer is a freelance journalist. He contributes on maritime security and other national issues.

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 
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