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Jun 3, 2015 | Commentary

Challenges to Pakistan’s maritime security

The challenges to Pakistan’s maritime security in the Indian Ocean during the last decade have led to different dimensions, which are significant from both national and international perspectives. These challenges for maritime security fall under the aegis of both traditional and non-traditional aspects. It is vital to understand that 95% of Pakistan’s trade is through sea lines of communication (SLOC) and that the Indian Ocean also includes vital choke points such as the Straits of Hormuz, the Straits of Malacca and the Lombok and Sunda straits that are important for steady traffic flow of energy resources and other commodities. Emerging concerns for Pakistan are also arising from the operationalization of the Gwadar port which is close to Straits of Hormuz, where a major percentage of the world oil traffic passes.

In addition, growing religious radicalization in the Middle East and terrorism in South Asia are a matter of transnational concern towards maritime security for Pakistan in the Indian Ocean region from two perspectives. Firstly, there is an external threat towards the possibility of militant factions or insurgents attacking sea ports and vessels that can lead to floating bombs, stagnancy and collapse of regional and international trade. Secondly, through container shipments, insurgents can smuggle weapons, drugs and conduct human trafficking operations to finance their activities and recruit new members. This represents a vital threat to Pakistan’s national interests and national security.

Finally, in terms of diplomatic relations and foreign policy, maritime security is an important feature of Pakistan’s international diplomacy. Pakistan aims at harboring friendly relations with its neighbors in order to develop its regional and global interests. Geopolitical dynamics have changed in the region, but for Pakistan, maintaining sovereignty and respecting territorial jurisdictions is essential. Pakistan has collaborated with China on various projects particularly on promoting seaborne trade through the inception of the Gwadar port. The 21st century Maritime Silk road concept by China is a great illustration of such partnership; it aims at expanding economic cooperation by regional and global interdependence where a win-win situation is achieved by the notion of one belt/one road.

Developing a maritime security strategy

Security challenges in the Indian Ocean are not the only primary issues for Pakistan that marginalize national concerns, simultaneously threats within the coast are equally linked with maritime safety, trade and smooth flow of sea traffic. Therefore, it is essential for a collective, common, cooperative and comprehensive maritime security strategy for national and regional interests. Elements of a maritime security strategy would include at least three essential aspects: agreements on International Ship and Port Facility Security, common rules and procedures at the regional level including for law enforcement agencies, and a comprehensive strategy that includes coastal issues, sea ports and territorial together.

The international maritime environment today is developing an approach where identical procedures are applied for safety and security of sea vessels and ports. The International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) Code by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) defines methods and procedures of how governments can address security threats that are a breach to the law. ISPS code is a coherent framework, where same management systems apply to all nations. It is essential for Pakistan and governments neighboring the Indian Ocean region to adapt the practices towards ISPS Code procedures that will not only promote global maritime standards, but also promote regional integration and create a shared platform where states can act against security threats.

The United Nations convention on the Law of Seas (UNCLOS) provides complete clarity towards scope of territorial waters, limits of air space over one’s sea jurisdiction, innocent passage of sea vessels, rules for merchant and warships, contiguous zone, exclusive economic zone, continental shelf, right of states, development for offshore resources and protecting marine environment and global and regional cooperation, scientific research and settlement of disputes. These areas are of cardinal importance in the international maritime domain and it is essential for states in the Indian Ocean region to have identical interpretation of the UNCLOS, where consensus is formed on rules, laws and procedures.This can be a way forward for joint law enforcement and intelligence sharing amongst nations who have stakes in the Indian Ocean. The effective implementation of the above strategy must focus on customs, maritime security agency, police, immigration, narcotics control and foreign office; as the joint intelligence based system would allow to identify possible threats – internal and external.

Finally, a comprehensive security plan for the maritime sphere must be constructed for coastal, sea port and territorial waters. It will be essential for the development, integration and use of advanced technologies as infra-red sensors, internet protocol surveillance system, non-intrusive inspections, X-ray machine, life detector, carbon dioxide detector and metal detector, under water and aerial surveillance.


Pakistan’s significance in the Indian Ocean region is growing from both strategic and international development aspects and in relation to maritime security. As maritime threats remain both internal and external in nature for Pakistan, it is vital to devise a maritime security policy that would inculcate a) a sustainable model for regional integration that promotes intelligence sharing and joint efforts to address challenges of transnational nature b) a common understanding of the international maritime framework under the UNCLOS c) shared practices using the ISPS Code towards safety and security of sea ports and vessels.

The way forward for addressing maritime threats must be connected to international best practices and contemporary technologies that would efficiently result in regional cooperation, including on law enforcement issues, to develop a comprehensive approach to security governance in the Indian Ocean.


Mohid Iftikhar is a Young Development Fellow working for the Federal Ministry of Planning, Development & Reform in Pakistan. He holds a Bachelor degree in Business Administration from the University of Southern Queensland, Australia and a Masters Degree in Peace & Conflict Studies from the National Defence University, Pakistan.

This article was written by Mohid Iftikhar in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Government of Pakistan.