An Incidents at Sea Agreement for South Asia

Stimson Spotlight

An Incidents at Sea Agreement for South Asia

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: