Maritime Matters

Forecast 2016: Indian Ocean Politics and Security

15 Jan, 2016    ·   4959

Dr Vijay Sakhuja identifies four issues that will merit attention in the new year

‘Continuity and change’, ‘continuity and no change’ and ‘new challenges and opportunities’ are important formulations for any geopolitical and geostrategic forecasting. These help analysts to understand events to develop trend lines. In the Indian Ocean, at least four issues would merit attention during 2016.

First, the primacy of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) in the regional political, economic and security discourse will continue. Indonesia took over the chairmanship from Australia in 2015 and South Africa would assume charge in 2017. The Bengaluru Declaration (2011), the Gurgaon Communique (2012) and the Perth Communiques (2013 and 2014) noted with concern the maritime security environment in the Indian Ocean, and called upon regional countries to cooperate.

The other important multilateral forum, i.e. the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), addressed the regional security agenda by proactively engaging in discussions on piracy in the Gulf of Aden. These multilateral organisations will continue to lead and drive the regional maritime security agenda of the region.

The rise in piracy in the Gulf of Aden led to the promulgation of High Risk Area (HRA) stretching from the Somali coast to as far as 1,400 nautical miles towards Maldives, including the west coast of India. Several affected countries argued that since piracy in the Gulf of Aden had declined from sixteen incidents in 2012 to two incidents in 2014, the HRA label be withdrawn. It was only in 2015 that the area covered by the HRA was reduced but the issue still remains.

Another significant development in the Indian Ocean is that of Seychelles taking over the Chairmanship of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) on 1 January 2016 with a near clean piracy ‘slate’. Seychelles is expected to focus its attention on Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing by foreign vessels in the Indian Ocean. It will also provide Seychelles a unique opportunity to invest its politico-diplomatic capital to highlight the issue in Somali waters, given that this was the very reason that prompted the Somali fishermen to stand up to fight foreign fishing vessels and turn into pirates. Also, IUU can potentially undermine the durability of what has been achieved in the Gulf of Aden by the international community over the last five years.

The Indian Ocean also witnessed the growth of Private Maritime Security Companies (PMSC), which emerged as a response to the rising graph of piracy in the Gulf of Aden. These quickly turned into an attractive counter-measure option and triggered a huge demand. As of 2013, nearly 140 security firms reportedly operated in the Northern Indian Ocean. PMSC vessels carried weapons and ammunition but soon came under scrutiny and suspicion after two harrowing incidents in India. In the case of Enrica Lexie, the Italian marines embarked onboard to provide security and opened fire on an Indian vessel off the coast of Kerala, killing two fishermen, which led to a severe diplomatic exchange including the case being brought before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). In the second case, 'Seaman Guard Ohio', a ship owned by a US-based private company was intercepted while carrying weapons in India's contiguous waters and the crew has been convicted. This too may result in a diplomatic standoff between the US and India.

Second, Blue Economy will continue to be high on the agenda of several Indian Ocean countries individually or collectively to harness the seas in a sustainable manner. Significantly, several political leaders of IORA countries have endorsed the concept and states are keen to harness the potential and engage in sustainable development of living and non-living resources of the seas to advance economic growth and enhance human security.

Given that the Indian Ocean is a large sea space with a number of seas and bays, a pan-Indian Ocean approach to address collectively the importance of Blue Economy will be on the agenda of the IORA. This issue is expected to percolate into other groupings and sub-groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC), Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and African Union (AU). Several countries of the above groupings and sub-groupings have already endorsed and internalised Blue Economy in policy, bilateral relations and international transactions.

A number of typologies for the development of Blue Economy are plausible. These are ‘India-Maldives-Sri Lanka-Seychelles-Mauritius’, ‘India-Pakistan-Oman-Iran’, ‘India-Bangladesh-Myanmar’, ‘India-Sri Lanka-Indonesia’ as also among the IORA-SAARC-BIMSTEC, ASEAN and AU. This would have to be led by the IORA.

Third, the Indian Ocean is witnessing a silent yet aggressive naval build-up, which features modern and sophisticated naval hardware - aircraft carriers, submarines, expeditionary platforms, destroyers and frigates and missile-capable craft to conduct complex operations. The Indian Navy is a formidable force and nearly 48 warships are under construction, which include one aircraft carrier, one nuclear and six conventional submarines, and a variety of destroyers, frigates and corvettes.

These trends are indicative of the extended strategic reach of the Indian Navy from the littorals deep into the high seas.

The Pakistani Navy will continue to be a ‘lean and mean’ force focused on sea denial capability. The Iranian Navy is the most powerful in the Gulf region and would enjoy numerical and firepower superiority over its neighbours. The South African Navy has identified itself as the ‘Guardian of the Cape Sea Route’, and would focus on low-end maritime threats and challenges and disaster response at sea. Australia’s interests span the Pacific and the Indian Ocean and the government has plans to plans to spend nearly US$89 billion over the next 20 years to acquire new ships and submarines. Likewise, the Indonesian Navy plans to have three operational fleets comprising of a strike force, a patrol force, a Marine Corps component and other supporting elements. As far as the smaller countries are concerned, their naval acquisitions would be limited to coastal security.

The security dynamics in the Indian Ocean also feature naval nuclear capability involving India and Pakistan. The Indian Navy operates one nuclear-propelled submarine (INS Chakra on lease from Russia) and another indigenously built nuclear-propelled submarine (INS Arihant) would be ready for operations in 2016.

There are plans to build two more nuclear submarines fitted with submarine-launched ballistic missiles and fit short-range ballistic missiles on warships. In the case of Pakistan, it has chosen to convert conventional submarines and warships and fit these with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, which will help it to obtain notional parity to overcome conventional naval asymmetry as also a sense of assurance against the large Indian Navy.

Fourth, the presence of China in the Indian Ocean has received mixed political, economic and security reactions; while some see China as an opportunity, for others it is a challenge. As far as opportunities are concerned, the 21st century Maritime Silk Road (MSR) initiative would help these countries develop maritime infrastructure that is critical for economic growth. On the other hand, these projects are seen as dual-use facilities and part of the Chinese naval strategy for the Indian Ocean wherein these facilities are meant to support PLA Navy’s future operations in the Indian Ocean. In that context, China has successfully obtained access to the port of Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea. This would help China to forward deploy its forces in the Indian Ocean.

Further, the Djibouti base will also serve Chinese naval engagements in the Mediterranean Sea in support of the MSR, safety of shipping, and countering piracy. Interestingly, China, through this base, can support its strategic engagements with Russia. It will be useful to recall that the Chinese and the Russian navies held joint naval exercises -  ‘Mediterranean Sea Cooperation-2015’ - in the Mediterranean Sea to enhance naval interoperability and “jointly deal with maritime security threats” but assured that the exercises were not targeted against any country.

Chinese warships are now a common sight in the Indian Ocean for a number of tasks i.e. counter-piracy operations and non-combatant evacuation operations such as those in Yemen and Libya. It is fair to argue that the 2015 Defence White Paper and the 21st century MSR provide the necessary political and strategic rationale for the PLA Navy to be deployed in the Indian Ocean. In fact the White paper is a carte blanche for the Chinese naval planners to conceptualise expansive strategic geography in which the PLA Navy is expected to operate in the future in support of national interests.

Finally, the Indian Ocean security environment is expected to remain complex and acquisition by regional countries would continue unabated. Chinese naval interests and activities in the Indian Ocean will expand through infrastructure development, military sales, naval operations and formal access to other facilities other than at Djibouti. The sighting and presence of Chinese submarines should not come as a surprise as was the case in 2014 and 2015. At the multilateral level, in 2016, the relevance of IORA and IONS will witness ‘continuity & no change’.