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Maritime Security Architecture and Western Indian Ocean: India’s Stakes

Dr Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • January 18, 2024

    The Israel–Hamas conflict and its associated challenges have prompted the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to become a focal point of international attention once again. Since November 2023, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been escalating their attacks on merchant ships and disturbing mercantile peace. This has subsequently prompted major shipping companies to suspend trade through this vital waterway.

    The return of piracy and armed attacks in the Western Indian Ocean may come as a surprise to some observers. Despite piracy and armed attacks in the region witnessing a consistent decline since 2013 due to the dedicated efforts of the international community, a latent threat of its return always persisted. Over the past decade, piracy in the Western Indian Ocean was contained but not eradicated.

    Maritime Security Architecture

    Maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean has mostly been associated with piracy off the coast of Somalia, while new threats and challenges have simultaneously emerged. These include drug trafficking, illicit fishing, weapons smuggling, and grey-zone maritime attacks. This is what we are currently witnessing in the Red Sea as Houthi forces are attacking commercial vessels with aerial drones and rocket-propelled grenade strikes from fast moving boats. This entire situation points towards a new phase of naval warfare driven by cheap aerial drones and missile strikes.1

    The Houthis have claimed they are carrying out attacks on shipping to show their solidarity with Palestinians against Israel. Despite the US and UK striking various Houthi-controlled sites in Yemen, they have vowed to retaliate and continue their attacks on shipping. The international community continues to remain over-reliant on a few regional navies including those of the European Union, the US, and India.

    It can be argued that although a growing number of regional institutions are responsible for ensuring maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean, no central authority to coordinate the myriad responsibilities in this regard has evolved. While some institutions have a narrow focus on the east African coastline, others have a much broader ambit covering the entire Indian Ocean. In many instances, there is overlap between regional institutions. Many of these are donor-driven and they tend to focus primarily on maritime capacity building and technical coordination.

    As Christian Bueger and Jan Stockbruegger have argued, there are only two informal institutions in the region that are responsible for political dialogue and deconfliction at the diplomatic and military level. These are the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) and the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism, both created in 2009.2 The CGPCS has now changed its mandate and is known as Contact Group on Illicit Maritime Activities (CGIMA) in the Western Indian Ocean.3

    With the decline of piracy in the region, these groups have downscaled their activities and even closed some of their working groups. The two other institutions established by the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC)—the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar and the Regional Centre for Operational Coordination (RCOC) in Seychelles—jointly constitute the executive arm of the maritime security architecture in the Western Indian Ocean. While the RMIFC and RCOC have conducted a few successful operations and work closely with EUNAVFOR-Atalanta and the British naval forces, their progress has certainly been slow.4

    India’s Stakes

    For India, unimpeded commerce through the Gulf of Aden is vital as annual imports and exports through this region are valued at US$ 50 billion and US$ 60 billion, respectively.  Naturally then, it is apt and appropriate for the Indian Navy to demonstrate its intent to keep the waters safe by displaying its presence and force as a deterrence. India has currently deployed 10 warships to the Red Sea to enhance maritime surveillance and deter piracy and drone strikes by Houthi rebels.5 Additionally, the Indian Navy deployed P-8I maritime patrol aircraft and MQ9B (Sea Guardian) drone to monitor operations.

    The daring operation on 5 January 2024 when MV Lila Norfork—sailing under the Liberian flag and en-route from Brazil to Bahrain—was hijacked about 850 km off Africa’s Somalian coast, is instructive. Within minutes, the crew alerted the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations—a Royal Navy channel which acts as the focal point between merchant vessels and military ships—of the imminent threat it was facing. The Indian Navy immediately sprang into action and diverted INS Chennai, a guided missile destroyer, from its anti-piracy patrol to the site of the hijacking in the Gulf of Aden. The Indian Navy’s marine commandos successfully boarded the Lila Norfork and rescued all 21 crew members, including 15 Indians.6

    The operation indeed served to demonstrate India’s capability and resolve to provide security in the face of acute threats to maritime security. Its success could be attributed to the Indian Navy’s mission-based deployment pattern that helps India to maintain a sustained presence in these waters. However, it is important to highlight that this incident is only one in a series of attacks in the region since November 2023.

    The United States in December 2023 launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, a coalition of more than 20 nations to defend international shipping and deter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Interestingly, India has not joined this US-led coalition and instead maintains a strategic distance and work independently in loose coordination with other maritime forces or under the United Nations flag.7

    The fragile geopolitical situation in the Middle East and the unfurling Red Sea crisis presents India with several challenges. Due to the rerouting of shipping assets, Indian shipping companies are concerned with the transportation costs which has increased manifold. The alternative shipping route via the Cape of Good Hope off South Africa adds around 30 days in travel time. A report by the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) assesses that Indian exports this financial year could drop by 6.7 per cent, resulting in a loss of US$ 30 billion.8 This is indeed a worrying situation for India which aims to reach US$ 2 trillion in total exports by 2030.

    The developing situation however has also presented India with some opportunities. The Indian Navy is considered the most capable navy in this part of the world in terms of providing assurance, safety, surveillance, and monitoring. This behooves India to take a leading role in stabilising the current situation and ensure that mercantile peace prevails. The Indian Navy can be expected to continue to use its significant capabilities to protect the sea lanes of communications, acting as a deterrent force.

    India recognises the Western Indian Ocean as an area of its primary interest and strives to be the ‘first responder’ to humanitarian disasters and a ‘preferred security partner’ for maritime capacity building for littorals in the region. Recently with Kenya, India launched a ‘Joint Vision Statement on Maritime Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region’. With Tanzania, India recently elevated its bilateral relations to the level of strategic partnership and held its maiden joint EEZ surveillance exercise in July 2023. India has also posted defence attaches in both Kenya and Tanzania. These initiatives attest to New Delhi’s seriousness in playing a proactive role in the evolving maritime security architecture in the Western Indian Ocean region.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.