Commentary

An Incidents at Sea Agreement for South Asia

in Program

By Nathan Cohn – Contentious
maritime issues and nuclear dangers are likely to grow between India and Pakistan. The Indian Navy has plans to expand substantially, and
submarines are poised to become a larger part of South
Asia’s naval equation.  Both India and Pakistan are positioning
themselves to introduce sea-based deterrents, which, if deployed, would test the
reliability of command and control.
The resumption of structured dialogue in February presents an opportunity to
establish rules to avoid provocative behavior at sea and reliable mechanisms to
resolve disputes. An incidents at sea (INCSEA) agreement can build norms for
responsible behavior at sea which can reduce the risk of unintended escalation.

During
the 1960s and early 1970s, heightened tensions at sea led American and Soviets
officials and analysts to invest considerable intellectual capital in
constructing a mechanism to prevent and resolve naval mishaps. U.S. and Soviet naval vessels repeatedly engaged
in risky and dangerous maneuvers, while U.S. warplanes ‘buzzed’ Soviet
ships. Cat and mouse games brought submarines and ships into dangerously close
proximity, even resulting in collisions. Soviet and U.S. vessels often simulated
attacks against each other’s ships and planes. In a crisis, mock attacks or
collisions, even if accidental, could have been misinterpreted as a real attack
with escalatory potential.

In
response, the United States
and Soviet Union negotiated and signed the 1972 Agreement on the Prevention of
Incidents at Sea between the United States
and Soviet Union. This INCSEA agreement
prescribed measures to prevent ships from colliding, reduced interference in
naval formations, and prevented provocative maneuvers and simulated attacks.
Significantly, the agreement established navy-to-navy channels to resolve
disputes, which expanded and regularized bilateral military communication.
Annual forums served as a consultative mechanism. While incidents at sea were
not eliminated, INCSEA’s rules considerably reduced their frequency and
provided a mechanism for resolution when preventative measures failed. Since
1972, INCSEA has served as a model for similar agreements involving over 30
navies. 

The
waters around South Asia have been calm compared to the dangerous
confrontations at sea between the U.S. and Soviet navies. For most of
their history as independent states, friction between India and Pakistan has been mostly on land,
not at sea. Nonetheless, there have been maritime incidents and naval military
activities of note. The detention of fisherman operating in non-demarcated
areas is a regular occurrence. Their release is usually one of the signals of
reduced tensions in the region. During the 1971 war, India’s
navy sustained a blockade which prevented resupply of Pakistani forces and
contributed to Pakistan’s
decisive defeat. The most worrisome incident at sea to date occurred in 1999,
when an Indian MiG-21 fighter aircraft shot down a Pakistani Atlantique naval surveillance aircraft
near the Rann of Kutch. Each side claimed the
other had violated national airspace and nearby military forces were placed on
high alert. The ensuing dispute heightened tensions, but fortunately cooler
heads prevailed.

Maritime
friction is likely to grow. Since 1998, India’s blue-water navy has
steadily expanded, including the high profile purchase of a Russian aircraft
carrier. India
plans to deploy new nuclear subs, destroyers, and an indigenous aircraft
carrier by the end of the decade. Naval-air improvements are also underway,
including the high profile purchase by New
Delhi of the P-8 multi-mission naval aircraft designed
for surveillance and anti-submarine warfare. While Pakistan does not have the
resources to match India’s build-up, Islamabad is purchasing four Chinese
frigates and six new submarines from China, in addition to the recent
acquisition of three French subs. Pakistan will also add eight P-3C naval
surveillance and patrol aircraft, which are likely to be employed in
anti-submarine warfare. Both nations are acquiring the means to place nuclear
weapons at sea, perhaps initially on platforms that carry cruise missiles.

As India and Pakistan’s navies stretch their
sea-legs in coming years, the two fleets could operate in close proximity with
greater frequency. India’s
leadership has enunciated an expansive role for India’s
Navy, from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of
Malacca. India’s fleet may
also operate in close proximity to Pakistan’s
major port facilities in Karachi
and Gwardor. Incidents of harassment cannot be ruled out, especially in the
absence of adequate communication during crises. The most dangerous possibility
is that harassment during a crisis will unintentionally result in actual
combat.

The risk
that nuclear-armed vessels could become embroiled in a confrontation at sea
gives these incidents escalatory potential, especially if command and control
is deficient. India
has begun initial sea trials of a nuclear submarine designed to carry ballistic
missiles, the Arihant. Islamabad
is unlikely to seek or afford similar capabilities, but appears to be
interested in developing a sea-based version of the nuclear-capable ‘Babur’
cruise missile. During a crisis, maneuvers intended to track a submarine could
be misinterpreted as foreshadowing offensive operations. Even if prudence and
caution characterize decision-making, heightened use-it or lose-it pressures
could prompt elevated alert or readiness levels, exacerbating command and
control challenges.

The
avoidance of mishaps at sea requires rules against provocative behavior and
dialogue to help resolve disputes. Unfortunately, none of these conditions
exist in South Asia. There is no permanent
mechanism for consultation between the Indian and Pakistani navies, and there
are no rules for responsible behavior at sea. Just as the U.S.-Soviet INCSEA
agreement prohibited disruptive behavior and established the first permanent
line of communication between the U.S.
and Soviet navies, a similar agreement in South Asia
could reduce the risk of incidents. Annual meetings, similar to those
established by the US-Russian INCSEA agreement, could be useful to air
disagreements and engage in genuine discussion.

India and Pakistan
have endorsed an incidents at sea agreement twice before, in both the 1999
Lahore Declaration and a 2006 Joint Statement. Dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad
resumed in February 2011 after a two year hiatus following the Mumbai attacks.
Modest confidence building measures can reduce tensions and defuse sparks which
could ignite conflicts. An incidents at sea agreement is not a game changer
with the potential to transform India-Pakistan relations, but it is both
achievable and helpful.

 

Photo Credit: Ministry of Defense, India: http://indiannavy.nic.in/indian_navy_photo_gallery.htm

 

 

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