Pakistan Withdrawal from Combined Task Force 151: Does it Presage a Lethal Military Bloc – An Alliance of Four (Ao4)?
Commodore Somen Banerjee
Pakistan Navy’s Pull-out

It was reported by Al Jazeera that the Pakistan Navy had pulled out of Combined Task Force (CTF) 151 on October 08, 2018. However, there has been no official confirmation by the Pakistan Navy. CTF 151 was established in 2009 under the aegis of Combined Maritime Force (CMF) for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden (GoA) and Bab Al Mandeb under the UN Security Council Resolution 2316. Other CTFs operating under the CMF are CTFs 150 and 152.

The CMF is commanded by the Commander of the United States Central Command and the 5th Fleet based at Bahrein and comprises 33 nations including Pakistan. Some reports have indicated that the reason for Pakistan leaving the CTF 151 is the US refusal to pay for the fuel used by Pakistan Navy (PN) participating in the CTF operations. By the same logic, Pakistan should have pulled out of CTF 150, which deals with terrorism and maritime security in Western Indian Ocean. But there is no conformation or denial on the issue.

One possible reason for withdrawal, which has not yet caught the attention of experts, could be the India-US 2+2 Dialogue. The conclusion of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) between the US and India would have raised concerns in Pakistan about the possible compromise of PN ships. This is because real time position of PN ships participating in CTFs is always known to the US through the Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System – Combined Maritime Force, Central Command (CENTRIXS - CMFC) network.

Implications. Pakistan’s withdrawal from the CTF 151 is a significant event form the strategic perspective, as it has severed the military alliance between the navies of the US and Pakistan. Link between the navies is cost-effective and easy to sustain even if the US were to pull out of Afghanistan in the future. With the eventual pull out of the US from Afghanistan, all military links between the US and Pakistan will come to a grinding halt. This would leave Pakistan with no option but to become a permanent ally of China, as Pakistan has traditionally allied with a superpower. Thus, the void left by the US will be filled by China. Pakistan’s eventual exist from US alliance will sow the seeds of a new Asian bloc comprising Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China, or an ‘Alliance of Four’ (Ao4). The prerequisites for this appears to be falling in place through a combinations of political convergence, geographical relevance and military capacity.

Political Convergence. The Trump administration has decided to confront China economically and militarily to reverse the possibility of being eclipsed by the later. To punish China, the US has imposed additional tariffs, visa restrictions, aggressive oversight on intellectual property theft, crippling its industrial policies and preventing its rise as a technological and military power1. Allegations of Russian involvement in the US elections, annexation of Crimea, and its backing of the Syrian government in the civil war have pitched Russia and the US in opposite camps2. Despite the landmark nuclear deal by the former US President Barak Obama with Iran in 2015, relations between the US and Iran have never been able to normalise. Iran is seen as taking advantage of the instability in Syria to tip the regional balance of power in its favour3. The pressure on Iran will increase in November 2018 when the US sanctions take effect on oil industries, the life-blood of Iran’s economy. Iran’s economy and currency have already been hit hard by the exit of big European companies to avoid being hurt by the US sanctions4. On January 5, 2018 the US suspended about $2 billion in security aid to Pakistan, and recently Pakistan has been warned by the US against International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout if the funds were used to pay off Chinese lenders. The Trump administration has also stopped Pakistani military officers from training in the US and Pakistan was put on notice for providing sanctuaries to Afghan Taliban5. From the aforesaid, it can be inferred that the US has taken some deliberate steps to simultaneously isolate China, Iran, Russia and Pakistan through sanctions or arbitrary actions, which give adequate motivation to all four countries to politically align against the US.

Geographical Relevance. Situated in the Arabian Sea, Pakistan is close to one of the busiest sea lanes emerging from the Persian Gulf. It is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is an indispensable nation for Afghanistan, China and Central Asian Region (CAR) to gain access to the Indian Ocean. China overlooks the Western Pacific with substantial claims over far flung islands in the adjacent seas. By its sheer size China occupies a central position in Asia and connects to rest of the Asia and Europe through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Iran abuts the complete northern coast of the Persian Gulf and shares its borders with Caucasus and Turkey. Russia occupies the entire North Asia and has access to the Arctic, Pacific and the Black Sea. Together, Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan are in a commanding position in the heartland and rim-land of Asia, as also project power into the adjacent oceans and sea lanes. Therefore, geography encourages the formation of a viable military alliance between these four countries. Through the BRI and regional alliances like the SCO, these countries have the capacity to exert considerable influence over large parts of Asia.

Military Capacity. China, Russia and Pakistan are nuclear powers with the exception of Iran, who is suspected to be close to having developed the capabilities. Together these four countries command sizable military forces, satellite network, cyber capabilities, and reach in Asia and have the potential to effectively balance a US led alliance. Acquisition of a nuclear submarine by Pakistan will further complicate the matters in the IOR for the US Fifth Fleet and India.

Oppositions to the Alliance of Four (Ao4)

Extensive economic interests of China and Russia can invite considerable resistance form the other Asian nations towards the idea of Ao4, especially because most would not like to be drawn into a strategic competition. India will be a major factor and can be a wedge in the formation of the bloc. India enjoys a special relation with Russia that the latter would not like to antagonise. Besides, India’s relations with China has also evolved through the Russia-India-China (RIC); Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) and SCO forums. So, Russia and China will have to be sensitive to India’s concerns.

Comments

Despite the opposition discussed above, simultaneous isolation of China, Russia, Iran and Pakistan and aggressive sanctions by the US can strengthen their resolve to form an alliance to counter-balance the US led order. If crystallised, the Ao4 could become a lethal military bloc of the 21st Century.

US’ Options. Since World War II, the US has preserved its putative hegemony by containing its adversaries and engaging the allies. However, in the present context, its strategy will have to be nuanced. It would be prudent for the US to keep at least one of the four nations socialised at all times, in order to prevent the Ao4 from forming.

India’s Options. India too can play significant part in diffusing the possibilities of an inimical Asian bloc. In the past, India had maintained strategic neutrality through its non-alignment policies, albeit with leanings towards the Soviet Union. However, in today’s milieu, India has the capacity to maintain strategic neutrality by simultaneously socialising with the US, China, Russia and Iran. This will ensure that Pakistan is kept off-balance, until it gives up on state sponsored terrorism; as also keep an Alliance of Four from gaining adequate traction.

End Notes
  1. Chas W Freeman Jr, On the Souring of Sino-American Relations, Remarks to Committee of 100, May 05, 2018, https://chasfreeman.net/on-the-souring-of-sino-american-relations/
  2. Jeffery M Jones, More in US favour diplomacy over sanctions, Gallup, August 20, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/241124/favor-diplomacy-sanctions-russia.aspx
  3. AFP and TOI Staff, Pompe says Syrial will not get a dollar for reconstruction, The Times of Israel, October 11, 2018, https://www.timesofisrael.com/pompeo-says-syria-wont-get-a-dollar-in-reconstruction-aid-if-iran-forces-stay/
  4. Steve Holland, Bolton 2.0: Trumps tough guy on Iran, Reuters, October 11, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-bolton-insight/bolton-2-0-trumps-tough-guy-on-iran-picks-his-battles-idUSKCN1ME11R
  5. Col MuhanmmadHanif, Likely future trajectory of Pak-US relations, Daily Times, 11 Oct 2018, https://dailytimes.com.pk/290019/likely-future-trajectory-of-pakistan-us-relations/

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