Updated: Feb 2
Image Courtesy: NDTV
The Indian Ocean is the world’s third-largest water body, with vital sea lanes of communication (SLOC) passing through the world’s major choke points and the only warm water opening, giving it geopolitical significance. With abundant resources, critical value maritime commerce SLOCs, military presences with few shatter belt region and failed states with high power disparity, the region has become highly dynamic and volatile. As the international trade is highly dependent on this region any disruption on this SLOCs would halt the global economy that can even led to inflation in certain states. With such significance this region has to succumb to certain asymmetric challenges. The asymmetric challenges rise from both state actors (power asymmetry) and non-state actors (actor and tactic asymmetry). The threat posed by nonstate actors with sea expertise and maritime capabilities includes, piracy, terrorism, armed robbery, human smuggling, illegal fishing, drug trafficking, and so on, would further complicate the security environment in this region. To address these threats, extra regional players and littoral states within this region have come forward with cooperation and engagement. This study will attempt to understand the concept of asymmetric threat and evaluate asymmetric challenges in the Indian Ocean region. This research will also look into the causes of asymmetric challenges and the success of regional and extra regional collaborative efforts to address them. The aim of this paper is to outline the steps that can be taken to bring peace and net security to the Indian Ocean region.
The Asymmetric Challenges Emanating from the Indian Ocean Region
Ensuring maritime security in the Indian Ocean, is a difficult task still. The presences of major SLOCs and the congested choke points and high maritime traffic makes this region, very hard to regulate. One of the most important hurdles is prevention of illicit activities in the maritime domain, if it disrupts the international trade, would have ramifications not only for national security but also for the global economy. The best example can the effect after the ‘Super Ferry’ attack as well as the when the ‘Ever Given’ vessel got struck in the Suez Canal it hindered the international economy by choosing different routes, increasing traffic and inflation in few nations. Peter Chalk a RAND Corporation Analyst stated, “the maritime environment will likely remain a favourable theatre for armed violence, crime and terrorism given its expanse, lack of regulation and general importance as a critical conduit for international trade”. Lack of proper securitisation in the region has led to emergence of many asymmetric threats in this region. As it can be seen, this region is contested by major powers and is prone to conflict. According to a recent study by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research, the Indian Ocean countries are involved in 42% of global conflict (Heidelberg, 2009). The scholars find reasons vary from place to place and some of the causes of such conflicts are the growing presence of shatter belt (West Asia) region, failed states, high levels of poverty and unemployment, corruption, resource competition, foreign intervention, underdeveloped institutions, and lack of democracy. With such a geopolitical situation, it is critical for the nations in this region to work together. The growing threats from this region are primarily from major powers intervention. Most of the nations in this region were once colonies and are now developing; there is no single great power in this region; therefore, when major powers such as America, China, and France try to influence. This poses a severe regional security issue in terms of power asymmetry where the small developing nations cannot compete with the great powers. Is this an asymmetrical threat, or merely a traditional threat? Even that is vulnerable to asymmetrical attack. The threat posed by non-state actors is also an asymmetric threat; therefore, how can one distinguish an asymmetric threat. In order to come to the conclusion, it is critical to comprehend the concept of asymmetric challenges?
The concept of Asymmetry
As the term implies, there is no symmetry, and therefore no equality. However, in the security lexicon, it refers to the conflicting actors’ “significant disparity in terms of material force, economic capability, political obligation, and other factors” (Khurana G. , 2013). Asymmetric threat does not only come from non-state actors; when a major power attacks a weak power, they are not fighting fairly, and this is also an asymmetric threat. The global focus on the maritime asymmetric threat did not emerge immediately after the 9/11 attacks, but it did become the subject of a systematic investigation following the attack. The world realised a new version of political dimension, which completely changed the global view; the ports and naval bases, which were once popular tourist destinations, became a zone of extreme security (Kumar, 2010). Michael Rubin brought out the important attribute in the asymmetric threat and defined asymmetric threat as ‘are not new, nor are strategists’ attentions to them. In every era, from the pre-modern to the present day, weak forces utilize surprise, technology, innovative tactics, or what some might consider violations of military etiquette to challenge the strong’ (Rubin, 2007).
Image1: Comparison between Conventional and Irregular warfare
Source: U.S (United States). Department of Defense (Kumar, 2010).
When a threat comes from state actors, there is asymmetry in capability and power; however, when it comes from non-state actors, the scale of asymmetry is high because it is not between sovereign actors, the target is population, they must adhere to rules and regulations, technological capabilities and tactics would be different, and the territory or area where they are located is hard to predict. The target of asymmetric threat was largely considered to be population to generate fear but, now it can change out to be attacking national assets. It is clear that the attack from state actors differs from the attack from non-state actors in the diagram above. State actors are more likely to attack the military, whereas non-state actors are more likely to attack the population in order to instil fear in the public and gain widespread popularity which has undergone a transition too. The USS Cole was attacked by the Al-Qaeda terror organisation. Because of the aforementioned factors, the Indian Ocean is home to a large number of asymmetric conflicts, which can be divided into threats from state actors and threats from non-state actors.
Threats from state actors
IOR is considered as a zone of peace, even though during cold war there were efforts from both US (United States) and USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) to influence this region. As the classical geopolitical thinker Mahan stated that ‘whoever controls the Indian Ocean, will control the Asia’ (Guptha, 1987). As the statement goes, there is a competition between state and non-state actors to control this region. The main aim of the state actors in this region is to exert its influence and to secure the SLOCs so that the international trade does not hamper. In the post-Cold War period, we could see the emergence of China in the IOR through as a major player by providing financial assistance for construction of ports and other infrastructure projects to the IOR littoral states. These efforts, commonly known as encirclement policy of China, is to bring all small states under their fold by keeping them in debt trap. In the case of Sri Lanka, the construction of Hambantota port made the Sri Lankan government into debt trap. Despite the fact that China does not use any military capabilities to control this region, it does so through diplomatic and economic means. Aside from China, the United States, Russia, France, and a few other European Union countries are all attempting to exert influence in the region.
When these great powers meet with weak states like Somalia, it can create an asymmetric threat due to the vast power disparity between them. Pacific Command, Central Command, and African Command are the three joint combatant commands that oversee American interests in the region. Aside from that, the American Navy has a support facility in Diego Garcia (Fernando, 2015). India is one of the major players in the IOR. Few scholars refer to it as a triangle formed by the United States, China, and India. ‘All three countries will become increasingly aware of the security challenges and opportunities that the others may present. They will therefore be more concerned about the contours of the triangular relationship and will seek to mould the triangle into patterns that favour their interests’ says Harry Harding, a 21st century scholar (Harding, 2004). The role of state actors in the conduct of financing and sponsoring the terror and other violent groups.
Iran, which has a sophisticated Naval force to conduct asymmetrical threats popularly known as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) to safeguard Iran’s maritime interests as a revolutionary naval arm guard, is another important state-led threat in this region (Himes, 2013). The presence of such power and capability asymmetry makes this region largely vulnerable.
Threats from non-state actors
The actors itself makes the asymmetry in terms of non-state actors. In such a threat, the conventional actors are fighting with nonconventional actors. Their means of getting funded, the tactic, target, aim varies from each other. The ultimate goal of India for example it to securitise the region and gain upper hand. Whereas, the goal of such organisation varies, if it is pirates poverty and lack of stable governance, led to take this path. Their goal to attain a proper livelihood. The goal of LTTE, is the recognition and giving legal status to the Srilanka Tamils and their right to live. The tactics used by them varies, as the Srilankan navy uses the proper conventional means whereas, the LTTE use suicide boats, sea mines etc. Maritime terrorism, piracy/armed robbery at sea, narcoterrorism, armed conflicts, maritime trafficking, and insurgency are all current non-state actor asymmetric threats ongoing in this region. As most of the littoral states are sea dependent, an such attack would have ramification on their livelihood and can even lead to economic stability.
Maritime Terrorism: When terrorism occurs in the maritime environment or through it. The ultimate goal of terrorist organisations is to create fear and destabilise international and national environments. Because more maritime capability and training, access to the sea and seafaring experience, are required, and hence the number of maritime terrorist attacks in the maritime citizens are terrified. Due to political unrest in the region, insurgents, and terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda, which has carried out two maritime attacks on the United States vessels, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which has an exclusive maritime wing known as the Sea Tigers (Kadal Puli), have carried out several attacks in the region. We also have the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which was responsible for the deadly attack on the Super ferry in the Indian Ocean, which killed nearly 116 people. In 2008, Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based terror organisation, used the sea as a medium to enter Mumbai’s coast and carry out a series of attacks. Despite the low frequency of attacks, there are many active organisations in this region, such as the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), an Indonesian separatist movement, and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terror organisation based on ideology that seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Muslim-majority areas.
Piracy: Ransom, armed robbery, criminal violence, obstructing freedom of navigation, and ship hijacking are just a few examples of piracy. In Article 101as of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), piracy is defined as:
‘Any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation, co mitted for private ends by the crew or the passenger of a private ship or a private aircraft, and directed:
On the high seas, against another ship or aircraft, or against persons or property on board such ship or aircraft;
Against a ship, aircraft, persons, or property in a place outside the authority of any state;
Any act of voluntary participation in the operation of a ship or of an aircraft with knowledge of facts making it a pirate ship or aircraft;
Any act of inciting or of intentionally facilitating an act describes in (a) or (b)’(IMO, 2019).
Even though IMO defines it, it has several loopholes, as it addresses the issue if it happens in the high seas only. It was prominent in the 1990s in Southeast Asian countries and has since, spread to African countries such as Somalia, which is considered a failed state. Because the eastern and western parts of the Indian Ocean are abundant in the busiest SLOCs, international efforts to combat them have been made, as they are mostly found near choke points like Bab-al-Mandab, the Strait of Malacca, and the Strait of Hormuz. Piracy is frequently carried out on the mothership, which is away from the bases, and attacks try to load the ship. Once the pirates have control of the ship, they sail it toward the Somali coast, for example, and demand a hefty sum of money in exchange. Aside from that, there is a growing link between piracy and terrorist organisations.
Trafficking: In this region, smuggling, drug trafficking, and human trafficking are all common. Because the global trade route passes through this ocean and there is a high volume of maritime traffic, it is difficult to regulate the ocean, which is exploited by organised crime groups. Arms trafficking is an essential component of all insurgent activities and political conflicts. Drug production is also common in places like Afghanistan, which produces a lot of heroin and cannabis. Another reason for these activities is that they are used to fund terrorist organisations. Counterfeit trade, particularly of medicine and cigarettes in the name of well-known brands, is becoming more prevalent. According to an IMO report, approximately 50% of pharmaceuticals sold in Asia and Africa are counterfeit. Human trafficking, in addition to arms and drug trafficking, is a significant source of revenue. Most countries in this region would be involved in trafficking in one way or another, whether as a source, transit, or destination country, or all three. Smugglers use a variety of tools, from large ships to small fishing boats, and because most of the large ships and most of the fishers are involved in commercial activities, it is difficult for authorities to effectively regulate and check the contents (Bimal N. Patel, 2017). These techniques are mostly used by insurgent groups in order to fund and arm themselves. These are the major asymmetric threats in this region; organisations are drawn to container ships (used for ransom activities), cruise ships, and other vessels, passage ferries (high human fatality), LPG, LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) oil tankers (as such tankers already carry explosives, they would be easy to attack, and such an event could halt global trade for many days), all of which would have a significant impact on the region’s normalcy.
The Causes and Implications of Asymmetric Challenge in the Indian Ocean Region
There are growing asymmetric challenges in the region but it is imperative to understand why itis prevalent in this region at high scale and what are the consequences if that threat materialises? The Indian Ocean, the world’s third-largest ocean, serves as a great connector to both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, stretching from the Cape of Good Hope in the far south to the Strait of Malacca in the east and the Gulf of Suez in the west, and is home to vital Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOCS) that carry one-third of global trade. The shift in economic pivot from the Atlantic to Pacific and then move close to the Indian Ocean region (IOR) has increased its geopolitical significance in economic, military, political, and strategic terms. The IOR was once known as a zone of peace, but it has since evolved into a competitive, cooperative, and converging region (Khurana G. S., 2016).
The Indian Ocean region is a closed ocean with few entry points, rich in diverse regions such as East Africa, West Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, and home to a sizable population (35.7% of the global population). It is a region with both a colonial legacy and a burden; it was formerly known as British Lake. This region is rich in natural resources and energy. It also serves as an important supply chain in the maritime industry. The Indian Ocean contains major communication sea lanes as well as major chokepoints, such as the Strait of Malacca, Bab-el Mandab, and the Strait of Hormuz, through which 80 percent of the oil and primary commodity trade passes. The global economy is built on trade, and IOR facilitates it. The presence of such a busy trade route elevates IOR to geopolitical prominence. The countries in this region are known for producing iron and oil, and it is rich in natural resources such as oil reserves, energy reserves, and the export of fishing industries to various other countries, which increases its value (Parmar, 2014).
Saul Benard Cohen, when explaining the geostrategic regions, considers the Indian Ocean Realm, along with the trade-dependent maritime realm and the Eurasian Realm, to be the emerging region. This demonstrates the Indian Ocean’s importance. Despite India’s efforts to influence the region through policies such as SAGAR (Security and Growth of All in the Region), net security providers, and so on, there is no single major power in this region. The lack of a dominant power in the region has resulted in power struggles. Where we can see China, the United States, France, and other European countries’ policies attempting to influence this ocean. This importance of the IOR makes it more vulnerable; the presence of the busiest SLOCS, an unstable government and a shattered belt, a rich resource base, and the absence of a great power within this region all add to its threats and vulnerabilities. These conditions entice as groups to operate in the region and carry out their criminal activities. Money laundering also occurs through the water, which is how the majority of these organisations are funded (Potgieter, 2012). Because of these factors, the Indian Ocean is extremely vulnerable. In this region, port security, coastal security, ocean resource security, IUU fishing regulation, and environmental security are all critical. Surface, subsurface, and underwater threats, as well as the use of weapons of mass destruction, are all growing threats.
While examing the origin of the asymmetric threats from the non-state actors, the roots can be traced from the socio-political and economic condition of the land. The best example to state can the piracy in Somalia. Due to lack of proper governance, the European power, used to dump the hazardous waste into the territorial waters of Somalia, as the population were hugely depended on fishing. Due to the presence of hazardous waste, the fish yield drastically decreased, and the poverty started to hit the place and the military of Somalia joined hands with the fishers for conducting piracy for their livelihood. Another example can be the LTTE, where due to the human rights violation of the Sri Lanka Tamilians by the Sri Lankan government they formed and as they had several obstructions to plan their attack on land, they moved to sea. As they move to see other government and states faces the crisis. So, it is a cyclic event where the issue starts from the land moves to sea, the attack happens and the implication is faced by sea and land.
Asymmetrical threats have a wide range of consequences, with global trade and commerce being one of the most significant. The majority of major SLOCs pass through the region, and any disruption in this trade would have an impact on international trade and commerce. Because it could obstruct the global maritime supply chain. For example, the attack on the super ferry halted trade for a few days, affecting the global economy. Because the majority of the countries in this region rely on maritime trade, such an event would have a significant impact on them. Another important threat that is less discussed but has ramifications is the environmental impact; attacks in the ocean and oil spills will kill phytoplankton, which emits a large amount of oxygen, and the death of a large number of plants will result in global warming, and apart from that, the death of zooplanktons will disrupt the ocean food chain, reducing fish catchment rates, which will have an impact on fishermen’s livelihoods; most people in these countries’ coastal areas rely heavily on fish catchment. Another issue is that most Indian Ocean islands are experiencing rising sea levels, which will lead to increased illegal immigration. With elevated levels of illegal immigration, there is a growing threat of drug, human, and illicit trafficking. We also have a political implication; if such threats exist, a nation will be unable to function properly, resulting in poor governance and subsisting.
The Global and Regional Initiatives Taken to Tackle Asymmetric Threats in the Region
Several efforts have been made to combat these threats, including regional, extra regional, and global efforts. Asymmetrical actors are becoming increasingly transnational, necessitating multilateral cooperation.
Global Initiatives: Following the 9/11 attacks in America, the International Maritime Organization put certain regulations in place to help detect and deter threats to international shipping, which resulted in the creation of the International Ship and Port Facility Security (ISPS) code (‘Protecting Human Rights and Safety of Merchant Mainers’, 2015). It was an addition to the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) convention. Following the implementation of the ISPS, the security of the ports, port workers, seafarers, ships, and so on was prioritised in order to avoid any security threats. According to ISPS standards, the ship has a Ship Security Alert System, which sends a security alert to the shore in the event of a threat, as well as an Automatic Identification System (AIS) that allows the ship to be tracked. This would go through subjects such as “survey, verification, certification, and control” in the event of a sea attack. Despite the fact that there are numerous international conventions on terrorism, the Suppression of unlawful acts against safety of maritime navigation (SUA 1998 and 2005) protocol focuses on combating terrorism and other asymmetric threats at sea (Singh, 2019). There was debate on whether ISPS code and fully address whole asymmetric threat, however the security in the maritime domain increased after the coming of both. It is considered as a bench mark standard for maritime security, not that it can tackle most of resolve all the issues rising in the maritime domain and supply chain.
Supply chain security initiatives: The international supply chain is extremely dynamic, and there is a growing threat to international trade and these countries’ economic growth. The United Nations has issued resolutions UNSCR 1540, 1874, and 1897, in which states are required to adhere to security norms in order to secure the supply chain. The resolution calls for states to refrain from funding non-state actors and to regulate the transfer of arms and ammunition, particularly weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The UNSC (United Nations Security Council) resolution of 1897 focused specifically on Somali piracy, but because Somalia’s government is a failed state, its adoption had negligible impact. The US created the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and Customs Security Initiative (CSI), which regulates the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Even though these are regional initiatives most of it is taken by extra regional powers in this region. Some of the initiatives are
EUs (European Union) NAVFOR: The European Union, through the EU (European Union) NAVFOR (naval force), is patrolling the Somalia coast to combat piracy in the region and to police the Gulf of Aden, where there have been numerous piracy attacks. The main goal of this operation was to ‘prevent piracy and armed robbery off the Somali coast by deterring, preventing, and repressing acts of piracy and armed robbery’ (Lewis, 2013).The EU recognised the root cause of piracy, which began on land due to a lack of proper governance and employment opportunities; the operation’s ultimate goal was to capture and prosecute pirates along the Somali coast. By focusing on the principle of human security, the EU has taken a comprehensive approach to dealing with the issue of piracy.
North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO): They carried out Operation Ocean Shield (OOS), a counter-piracy operation that was carried out in two stages by the SNMG1 (Standing NATO Maritime Group) and SNMG2, with the area of operation being the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden. NATOSNMG’s main mission was to ‘assist ships in avoiding, deterring, or delaying piracy attacks in high-risk areas’ (Lewis, 2013).. Even NATO has assessed the root cause and concluded that the grass root cause is on land rather than at sea, but it does have an impact on the ocean. The NATO operation was more concerned with resolving the problem than with preventing it.
Combined Task Force (CTF 150-151): As part of the ‘global war on terrorism,’ 33 nations have agreed to ‘monitor, board, inspect, and stop’ suspected ships from the North Sea to the Arabian Sea as part of a maritime security operation in the IOR. They conducted an anti-piracy operation in Somalia from 2006 to 2008, and from 2014 to 2017, they focused on drug trafficking and smuggling. The CTF151, on the other hand, is working with the EU and NATO to combat piracy in the Gulf of Aden and along Somalia’s eastern coast (Jens Vestergaard Madsen, 2013).
Shared Awareness and De-confliction (SHADE): This is a counter-piracy operation led by Bahrain, and it covers the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Somali coast. The operation’s main goal is to share information and de-conflict the region. The Combined Maritime Force (CMF) and EU NAVFOR forces are included in this (NAFOR, 2020).
According to the Institute for Security Studies, ‘the Indian Ocean Region has complex sub-regional geopolitical and geostrategic associations.’ There is still cooperation among nations, such as the Indian Navy, which conducts patrols in coordination with Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Bangladesh (CORPAT) across the IOR. The White shipping agreement is another significant initiative. Where colour codes are assigned to ships, it has aided security agencies in regulating the maritime domain as well as raising maritime terrorist awareness by sharing information from most countries. Through this white shipping agreement, the black colour code is given to the suspicious ships and through this black shipping can be avoided. Following the 26/11 attack, India took several initiatives to ensure the safety of the IOR, including the establishment of the Information Fusion Centre (IFC) in Gurugram, which houses all information regarding the IOR with a special focus on Indian waters and is an adjunct to the Indian Navy’s Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), where data has been ‘collated, assembled, analysed, and shared’ with other countries in this region related to the maritime domain The Indian government also mandated fishermen to install a transponder system, and biometric cards were issued to fishermen, who can be referred to as the “eyes and ears” of maritime security. The National Committee on Strengthening Maritime and Coastal Security (NCSMCS) was established in India to address emerging threats on the coastal front. The formation of the National Maritime Commission, which will serve as the maritime security coordinator, as well as policies such as the Act East Policy, Security and Growth of All in the Region (SAGAR), SagarMala project, and others, demonstrate India’s commitment to maritime awareness. India has also provided certain naval assets to the IOR island nations (Singh, 2019).
Aside from India, Singapore has an effective agency known as the Singapore Maritime Crisis Centre (SMCC) that is responsible for combating terrorist attacks both on land and at sea. SMCC collaborates with other maritime agencies to assimilate intelligence, assess threats, and improve surveillance (Singh, 2019). One of the canter’s major accomplishments was its ability to increase planning and interoperability with other security organisations while avoiding operational gaps. Another initiative is the Djibouti Codde of Conduct, it is a set of norms that have to followed, in order to ensure the safety of that coast.
The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malayasia signed a trilateral agreement in 2017 to combat maritime terrorism, particularly in the Malacca Strait region, following the 2019 IS attack on Philippine boats in Malaysia. In addition, India and the Philippines signed a bilateral agreement in 2019 to ensure maritime security, specifically to combat maritime terrorism. The US has also carried out Operation Enduring Freedom Horn of Africa (OEF-HOA) to combat maritime terrorism in the region (Singh, 2019). Apart from that there are many organisations in the IOR, like IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association), IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) several others, these organisations should include every country in this region and share information.
With its growing geopolitical importance, the IOR is facing a number of asymmetrical threats. The government has taken a number of initiatives to combat these threats, but only a few have proven to be effective. The Indian Navy and the Singapore Navy recently caught smugglers using the information fusion centre, which is one of the successful initiatives. To ensure freedom of navigation and order at sea, nations should share information with all nations in the region, not just a few. Aside from that, an Indian Ocean Organization involving all nations in the region should be formed. The countries in this region should also work to maintain political and domestic stability. The licenced vessel list should be made public to increase transparency and aid in the detection of black ships. Not India has been patrolling the region with P8I to regulate IUU issues and armed robbery, so a joint regional patrol centre should be formed. The majority of countries in this region are still developing, and they are unaware of sophisticated technology used by terrorist groups and other organisations. Technological systems such as AIS, VMS, sonars, and radar technology should be shared among nations (Mazurek, 2019). Controlling all of these issues at once is difficult; steps at a slower pace are required to address issues at the grass-roots level. The majority of the threats occur in the maritime environment, but the majority of the causes originate on land. All of the asymmetric threats in the region should be addressed by the region’s nations. Through the study it’s clear that with the geostrategic significance and dependence of international economy on this region, there is growing asymmetric threat from the state and non-state actors.
(Aishwarya R J is a second-year Master’s student at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. Graduated in B A International Relations, from the Central University of Kerala. Areas of interest include Maritime Security, India’s National Security, Indian Foreign Policy, Defense Studies, and China. The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the views of C3S.)
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