The Chinese naval base at Qingdao in Shandong Province was buzzing with naval activity a few weeks ago. Two significant events – International Fleet Review (IFR) to celebrate the 65th anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), a multilateral forum of western Pacific navies – had been planned. The former was cancelled due to PLAN’s engagement in southern Indian Ocean for search and rescue operations of the ill-fated Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 370, and the latter brought together naval delegates from twenty member-countries and three observers: Bangladesh, India and Mexico.
An important issue for discussion at the 14th WPNS was the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), which seeks an agreement on procedures for ‘conduct at sea’ during un-alerted meetings/sightings between warships of member countries. The usefulness of the CUES was overwhelming, and was endorsed by the member navies, including China.
This development offers an opportunity for the navies in the Indian Ocean to explore a similar agreement. Before attempting that, it is important to raise at least two important questions: are there many flashpoints in the Indian Ocean? Do the navies in the Indian Ocean meet frequently at sea and require CUES? As regards the first question, it is fair to say that there are a few ‘hot spots’ in the Indian Ocean but these are limited to areas such as the Persian Gulf and the northern Arabian Sea.
As far as the second question is concerned, a number of regional and extra-regional powers have forward-deployed their navies in the Indian Ocean. These operate either independently (such as those of China, India, Iran, and Russia) or as part of various task forces such as the TF 150, TF 151, EUNAVFOR and the NATO in support of counter piracy operations, ‘war on terror’, treaty agreements, and other national strategic agendas.
In the past, there have been a number of military/naval accidents involving warships, submarines and even air crashes in the Persian Gulf and the northern Arabian Sea between the regional and extra-regional navies. Some of these have escalated into saber-rattling and politico-diplomatic stand-offs.
In the Persian Gulf, regional countries have not established the Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) and there have been instances when the powerful Iranian Navy has challenged its smaller neighbours. As far as extra-regional navies are concerned, the Iranian Navy has confronted the US Navy by conducting high speed naval maneuvers and missile firings, and has used drones to shadow US naval assets. In 2013, the Iranian Air Force shadowed a U.S. Predator drone over the Gulf of Oman but no shots were fired. However, in 2012, Iran fired at the U.S. Predator drone flying close to Iranian coast but without damage to the platform. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy has been quite active and in 2004 and 2007, it captured British Royal Navy sailors and marines in the disputed waters off the coast between Iraq and Iran.
Unlike the Persian Gulf, India and Pakistan have signed the INCSEA; and yet there have been several instances of buzzing and formatting by naval aircraft, shadowing and near-collision between the warships of the two navies. In one instance, there was a fatal incident involving the Pakistan Navy’s Atlantique aircraft which was shot down by the Indian Air Force.
The Indian Ocean countries have established the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) which draws liberally from the WPNS. In fact it is a mirror image of its counterpart in the western Pacific Ocean. The IONS was started in 2008 at India’s initiative and the chairmanship is rotated between four generic ‘sub-regions’ i.e. UAE (2010), South Africa (2012), Australia (2014), and the next Chair would be a South Asian country.
In their deliberations and discussions, the IONS member-navies have attempted to address common non-traditional maritime security threats and challenges such as piracy, terrorism, drug smuggling and gun-running, but have shied away from discussing hard security issues such as competitive naval modernisation, clandestine operations by underwater platforms, snooping and buzzing by aircraft etc. A discussion on measures to mitigate risks due to close encounters at sea between maritime forces has not been on the agenda. Furthermore, there is no dialogue between the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the IONS; and the two institutions appear to be working in silos.
The Indian Ocean is buzzing with naval activity and the CUES can be a potential issue of interest among the Indian Ocean navies. The key objective of the CUES in the Indian Ocean would also need to involve extra-regional powers who should be willing to adopt regional guidelines to prevent incidents at sea, including unwarranted escalation and sabre-rattling. This would add to stability in the Indian Ocean and can be an agenda for confidence building measures among the Indian Ocean and the non-Indian Ocean naval powers.