HomeWorldAsiaIndian Ocean Geopolitics: Pakistan & Maritime Silk Road Nexus

Indian Ocean Geopolitics: Pakistan & Maritime Silk Road Nexus


Mirza Abdul Aleem Baig 

In today’s highly interconnected world, the Indo-Pacific region has become a central area of geopolitical importance, drawing significant attention from scholars, policymakers, and strategic analysts. As the largest maritime zone, the Indo-Pacific holds considerable influence and has become a pivotal area in the reorganization of the global order in the 21st century. The region’s growing geo-economic and geopolitical relevance has led to increased activities involving cooperation, partnerships, and competition among countries and other entities. The Indo-Pacific is rapidly establishing itself as a crucial economic passage, with its sea routes accounting for over 90 percent of global trade.

The Indo-Pacific region is home to 65 percent of the global population and generates over 60 percent of the world’s GDP, with half of the world’s maritime transport passing through it. The peace and stability of the Indo-Pacific are vital for our survival and prosperity. The increasing formation of small multilateral organizations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), economic agreements like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), as well as strategic alliances such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORA-RC), Australia-United Kingdom-United States Security Partnership (AUKUS), and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), indicates a strategic shift in the region.

Correspondingly, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (MSR), an essential part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seeks to enhance global trade and economic growth through improved maritime connectivity. This modern reimagining of the ancient trade routes stretches from China’s coast to Europe, passing through the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and the Mediterranean. Among the many nations involved, Pakistan plays a pivotal role due to its strategic location, significantly influencing the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region.

The Indian Ocean is dotted with strategic choke points like the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, and the Bab-el-Mandeb, which are vital for the flow of global trade. The MSR’s emphasis on these chokepoints highlights the initiative’s strategic foresight. Ensuring the security and efficiency of these routes is paramount, and the MSR aims to address this need through improved maritime infrastructure and increased naval presence.

Pakistan’s strategic location near the Strait of Hormuz, yet outside the turbulent Persian Gulf, is crucial for China’s escalating presence in the Indian Ocean, particularly through bases like Gwadar, Djibouti, and Ream in Cambodia. This expansion is further supported by the dynamic domestic politics of nations like the Maldives and Myanmar, offering Beijing opportunities to solidify its security links in the region. Despite Pakistan’s economic troubles and security challenges, including recent attacks on Chinese projects and nationals, China has invested around $60 billion in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), illustrating its commitment to maintaining a strong foothold.

China’s support for Pakistan, even amidst Islamabad’s economic instability, signals Beijing’s reliability as a partner compared to the United States. This commitment is vital for securing China’s energy imports from the Persian Gulf, with key suppliers like Iran and Saudi Arabia, especially in a world where crises such as the wars in Ukraine and Gaza create volatile energy markets.

In the broader context of Indian Ocean geopolitics, the MSR is a game-changer. The Indian Ocean is a vital maritime highway, crucial for global trade, particularly for the transit of oil and gas. Control over this region is essential for the energy security and economic stability of many nations. The MSR’s focus on enhancing maritime connectivity is thus of immense strategic importance, aiming to secure and streamline these critical trade routes. Pakistan assist China in monitoring developments along the Persian Gulf and northern Indian Ocean Region (IOR). This alliance addresses China’s security concerns, ranging from India’s increasing influence and regional instability to the U.S. military presence.

Central to Pakistan’s involvement in the MSR is the Gwadar Port, a key player of this ambitious initiative. Strategically situated near the Strait of Hormuz, Gwadar provides China with a direct maritime route to the Arabian Sea, thus bypassing the longer and more vulnerable sea routes like the Strait of Malacca. This geographical advantage not only enhances the efficiency of trade routes but also bolsters China’s energy security by offering an alternative to the traditional, and often congested, shipping lanes.

China’s growing naval capabilities and presence in the Indian Ocean underscore its commitment to the MSR. The establishment of a military base in Djibouti and regular naval patrols in the region reflect China’s strategy to protect its maritime interests. This increased presence, however, is viewed with concern by other regional powers, particularly India. India, perceiving the Indian Ocean as its strategic backyard, has responded by bolstering its naval capabilities and strengthening alliances with other regional powers, including the United States, Japan, and Australia, through initiatives like the QUAD.

The MSR has thus introduced a new layer of complexity to Indian Ocean geopolitics. It has catalyzed a mix of competition and collaboration among regional actors. While some countries welcome Chinese investment and the promise of economic development it brings, others are wary of potential debt dependencies and the perceived loss of sovereignty. This duality reflects the broader geopolitical tensions and the balance of power dynamics at play in the region.

For Pakistan, the MSR presents both significant opportunities and challenges. On the economic front, the potential benefits are immense. The development of Gwadar Port and associated infrastructure projects can transform Pakistan into a major economic hub. Increased trade and improved connectivity can spur economic growth, create jobs, and enhance regional integration. By becoming a critical node in the MSR, Pakistan stands to gain from the economic dynamism and increased trade flows that the initiative promises.

However, these opportunities come with strategic challenges. Security is a paramount concern, particularly given the need to protect Chinese investments and personnel in Pakistan. The region’s volatility and the threat of terrorism add layers of complexity to ensuring the safety and security of these projects. Besides, Pakistan must navigate its strategic partnership with China while maintaining good relations with regional countries, including India. This delicate balancing act requires astute diplomacy and strategic foresight.

In brief, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road significantly impacts Pakistan and the broader Indian Ocean geopolitics. While it offers substantial economic opportunities through enhanced connectivity and development, it also brings strategic challenges that need careful management. The MSR’s success in the region will depend on how effectively these challenges are addressed, ensuring regional stability and security while fostering economic growth and integration. As the MSR continues to unfold, its influence on the geopolitics of the Indian Ocean and the future of Pakistan remains a critical area of interest and strategic importance.

*The author is a CAS-TWAS President’s Fellow at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC).

**The opinions in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization does not endorse or assume responsibility for the content.

The Diplomatic Insight, Pakistan's premier Public Diplomacy Magazine, has been at the forefront of promoting Peace Through Informed Dialogue since its inception in 2009. With both print and electronic versions, this decade-old media house is offering research, analysis, and public diplomacy outreach to clients in Pakistan and across the globe. TDI is now offering Amazon Kindle Self Publishing Services to diplomats, ambassadors, political leaders, academicians, and other civil society leaders to be the next best-seller authors. With access to 11 global markets and the option to translate your work into 11 languages, you can reach up to 300 million readers worldwide and unlock your personal and country branding.

Follow us


Most Popular