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Maritime Security and Challenges in the Indian Ocean Region

Any seminar on the Security Challenges in the Indian Ocean region, brings attention to the twin subjects of terrorism and piracy as the two main ingredients. Indeed these two headings have taken centre stage particularly due to the impact on mercantile marine trade that is coming under increased pressure as they traverse through high risk areas. There is enhanced awareness that Indian Ocean is the focus of the world due to the growing of economies and the dependence of these economies on the sea routes for development and security. Though most of the discussions tend to focus on conventional security challenges, there is a need to remember that the very concept of security has undergone a paradigm shift. So when we discuss the security challenges in the Indian Ocean, we also have to discuss issues of security which are distinctly different from the conventional security mould. The reference is to do with fisheries and livelihood security, environmental security, Search and Rescue, Marine Pollution and other such non glamorous issues.

Come to think of it, the Indian Ocean is the only ocean named after a country. It is a different matter that in an official response, Chinese have maintained that the Indian Ocean is not India’s ocean. Well, the same could be said about the South China Sea with a remark that “South China Sea is not China’s sea”. Irrespective of such play of words, one can say that India as a dominant regional power has to take a lead in ensuring that there is peace, stability and order in the areas of interest to humanity in its backyard.

Just after the war to liberate Bangladesh in 1971 , on 16th December 1971, The UN General assembly adopted a resolution declaring the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace for all times. The call for Indian Ocean to be nurtured as a zone of peace has remained largely ignored due to the geo political compulsions of the super powers both during the cold war and in the present day context. The designation of the present century as both an Asian one and also the one that belongs to the seas has shifted the focus to this part of the world which indirectly suggests that super powers or alliances will invite themselves to be in this area to protect their interests.

The criticality of Sea lines of communication and the need to protect the global commons has brought in extra regional players and has contributed to tensions in the areas of interest. These issues and challenges are discussed in the subsequent paragraphs.

The pivot to Asia – US policy shift

The recalibration of the US policy which has orchestrated a policy of pivot to Asia has its own ramifications in the region. With the rise of China and its increased assertiveness, US appears to be engaging with Asian countries in all spheres. In addition to the traditional partners in the Asia Pacific, namely, Japan, South Korea, Phillippines, Australia, New Zealand and other countries, there has been greater engagement in South Asia particularly with India. If Pakistan despite all the differences is still considered a reluctant tactical ally in the war against Taliban in Afghanistan, India is being looked at as an important future strategic partner with enhanced interaction in many spheres notably in defence and energy security. The US intent to position 60 percent troops in countries of interest in the Asia Pacific will redefine the geopolitical landscape with military overtones.

Simmering discontent in South China Sea- Issues of mistrust and CBM- ASEAN

There may be questions as to why this is this is an issue in the context of challenges in the Indian Ocean Region? The reason is very simple. The east west traffic that passes from the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and vice -versa must pass through the Straits of Malacca till alternate routes are proven. The ownership claims in South China Sea with so many claimants has resulted in heightened tensions. The failure of ASEAN summit to reflect the concerns of the members about the belligerence of China in South China Seas in July this year, portends great danger in this area of discontent.

The commissioning of the military garrison Sansha on 24th July 2012 on a disputed Woody Island soon after the ASEAN meeting has added to the concern of the small neighbours. The international community is witnessing an aggressive and impatient China which has no time for peaceful talks and resolution of outstanding disputes. There is only one way that is acceptable to China and it is its own way on its terms.

The spin offs of this aggressive posturing will see the ripple effects in the Indian Ocean which provides the linkages to forces that may be interested in accessing the hot spots through the Malacca Straits. From the point of China, as a nation which carries most of its goods on its own shipping fleet, it would be definitely concerned about safety and security of its vessels which are moving through the Indian Ocean. While it has deployed its war ships in anti piracy missions off Somalia since 2008, it is not exactly in an advantageous position in terms of reach, distance and supportability of PLA Navy units in the areas of interest in Indian Ocean.

IOR-ARC new trends expectations?

The IOR-ARC has largely been an organization with a limited role to facilitate trade and commerce amongst the IOR countries. However, there is an increased feeling that the scope and charter of the IOR_ARC needs to be enhanced with the expectations of the Asian century. The expectations are high as both India and Australia who are at the helm as Chair and Co-Chair respectively now are keen to revamp the organization.

Growing economies in the region and their interplay

The growth rates of countries in the region have been impressive except on occasions where there has been a dip in the GDP. The increased economic engagement has provided capable and strong economies such as China to increase their share of investments in various mega projects and infrastructure in many countries around the world in general and the Asia Pacific in particular. The classic examples are about China’s investment in Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambanthota in Sri Lanka and Sitwe in Myanmar and Chittagong in Bangladesh. While the initial intent is economic engagement; it is clear that such investments are not purely commercial. China in return will expect to be supported in its hour of need to turn round and logistically support its naval units which have increased interest in the Indian Ocean Region. The future will see Chinese units while proceeding for anti piracy patrols or while returning will plan for engaging the neighbouring navies of India in naval exercises that would gradually witness enhanced bilateral/multi lateral exercises. The challenge for South Asia and particularly India is to mange this Chinese advances in to the Indian Ocean and prepare for surprises. .

Expanding inventory of military assets and defence spending in the region

With economic growth comes the power to invest in security more enthusiastically. The pattern of defence spending in Asia Pacific is an indication that the countries in the region are investing more and more in security. This is a very good time for western military industry to cash on the paying power of the countries that are arming themselves against perceived threats. This has resulted in tilt in the military balance of the region. The major player of course is China whose military spending has been constantly going up.

China is investing heavily in new technology, platforms and weapon systems. The operationalisation of the aircraft carrier and the plans to induct it in the PLA Navy is progressing satisfactorily. It is only a question of time before the carrier makes a visible presence in the Indian Ocean to conduct its fleet operations now centered on a single carrier task force. The modernization of the naval forces in all the three media will reflect in the increased presence of PLA naval units in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. While all this would be for flag showing and forward posturing initially, all this would be again a learning process for the PLA Navy to fine tune the procedures for extended deployment and out of area assignment

Greater focus on HADR post 2004 and 2011

Many in India had not even heard the term Tsunami till the black Monday in 2004. After the devastating effect in India and our neighbourhood, India and others have initiated various measures for setting up warning systems and also to have mechanisms for disaster management. The Tsunami last year in Japan has only brought out the vulnerability of the total system when faced with natural disasters of the magnitude faced at that time coupled with human/technical failures. The need therefore is for drawing up robust contingency plans and to bring in all the players from the region that would earmark units and rehearse their role at national and regional levels during both manmade and natural catastrophe. This will constitute a greater challenge in times of calamity due to cultural, linguistic and procedural differences.

Piracy off Somalia

The incidents of piracy went up phenomenally between 2008 and 2011 by adventurous pirates supported and backed by land based sophisticated teams that are running the enterprise on a business model. The estimated cost of piracy is in the region of 7 to 11 billion of US dollars annually. Due to sustained efforts by the navies of the world and other deterrent actions by ships, the first half of 2012 has seen a noticeable dip in the number of attacks and has also brought down the number of sea farers held hostage.

However, the world has not seen the end of piracy and sustained efforts are still necessary. A lot more effort is needed in Somalia where the root causes lie. The bearing on the Indian Ocean Region is the increased presence of extra regional players who are present in large numbers. This has facilitated coordinated action by some of the western navies though; there are still a large number of navies who are operating independently in a loose structure. The initiative to get China, India, South Korea and Japan to work together is a welcome sign that will enable the navies of the Asia pacific to work together and learn to operate together.

Neighbourhood Issues and Terrorism

The challenges of preparing for preventing acts of maritime terrorist activity have become acute following the Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008. The seaborne terrorists who landed in Mumbai killed over 166 innocent civilians including foreigners. The maritime neighbourhood has never been the same and there have been slew of measures implemented by India to prevent a repeat of similar seaborne attacks. The trust deficit as far as Pakistan is concerned is very high and with Pakistan being in constant denial mode, India will have to ensure that its coasts and oceanic boundaries are well protected from cross border terrorism mounted from the seas.

A slew of measures implemented include placing the Navy at the apex of the maritime security architecture, commissioning of the National Automatic Identification System(NAIS), use of light houses for fitting radars to provide seamless information to the Joint operation rooms, equipping and training the fishermen to be the eyes and ears of the fleet, establishing of Vessel Traffic Management Systems, installation of Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) radars, revamping of the intelligence apparatus to bring about greater degree of coordination amongst the multiple agencies operating in the same medium, The commissioning of the National Intelligence Agency to investigate and prevent acts of terrorism, the setting up of regional hubs for National Special Group of commandos, setting up of the National Technical Research Organisation(NTRO), creation of two new CG commands in Gujerat and West Bengal, commissioning of new Coast Guard Stations and Coastal Security Groups manned by the State Maritime Police, induction of additional Air Cushion Vehicles for the Coast Guard, Commissioning of additional naval stations in the Island groups on both flanks, conducting of regular table top and real time exercises including all the stake holders and such other measures. Despite the initiation of all the above measures, there is still a lot to be done to have a robust maritime security architecture that will prevent surprises at sea by pro active action and cooperation with other agencies.

Energy Routes -SLOC Vulnerability; Malacca Straits/Straits of Hormuz dependence

The energy thirsty nations such as China, India and other developing countries in the region have no choice but to import large quantities of energy resources from around the world. The growing economie depend on the seas for getting coal. oil, gas and other energy products to sustain their economies. This also brings in the threat of these vessels and products being targeted by both pirates and Non State Actors.

The example of China, India, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea and others from the region who have dispatched war ships to protect the international shipping operating in the global commons is a clear indication that the security challenges would grow manifold. The close proximity of ships from different nations also needs to be managed by a sound architecture that does not allow mistakes and misunderstandings during normal patrol missions. The challenge therefore is for establishing clear cut operating procedures, protocols and communication methods to prevent incidents while engaged in peace time missions becomes critical.

The Straits of Hormuz and the Red sea on the west and the Malacca Straits on the east of India are critical arteries that facilitate the free flow of goods both ways. With the constant increase in the number of vessels going up each year issues of traffic separation, monitoring the traffic for both safety and security would engage the attention of the planners. There would be greater use of technology to facilitate establishing of C4ISR architecture. There are issues of financing and funding of such means and methods for protection of the global commons. The Straits of Hormuz is on boil with the increased presence of US ships and the threat of an all out war with Iran. Iran has threatened to close down the Strait of Hormuz and has challenged US as a result of the spat over the nuclearisation of Iran. Any such action by Iran will precipitate stern action by US and its allies and will lead to a war in the Straits that supports global traffic. The resultant inevitable disruption of the transportation chain will have serious ramifications for the countries that are dependent on the supply of products through the Straits of Hormuz.

Extra Regional players and stake holders in the arena

It is evident that the concept of Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace will remain only in paper, interspersed with shrill calls and hollow statements. The presence of multinational forces under the aegis Combined Maritime Forces for oil and for the war on terror or for ostensible regime change will continue to add to regional tensions. There have been also concerns of proliferation which the sea forces of the world led by US are trying to prevent by the Proliferation Security Initiative. So there would be alliances from the west and the rest who would all be in the same operating medium and that itself would be a challenge in our areas of interest as it does affect peace time activities including fishing and exploration in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The two incidents of shooting of fishermen in the EEZ of India by an Italian Tanker on 16th February this year and another shooting by a US ship USS Rappahannock in the waters of Dubai on 16th July bring out these dimensions of security challenges as they impinge on normal fisheries and livelihood issues. In both the cases which resulted in the death of innocent Indians, it appears that the guards/crew did not assess the situation correctly and misinterpreted the action as that of pirates/suicide attackers. While the case of shooting by Enrica Lexie is being tried in Kochin, the case of shooting by the American ship is being investigated by Dubai authorities with preliminary report indicating that the crew have erred in their assessment.

Fisheries and Livelihood Issues

The period after the defeat of the LTTE has seen increased incidence of the Indian fishermen coming in to conflict with their counter parts in Sri Lanka and also with the SL Navy. There have been allegations and counter allegations about use of excessive force and even fire arms to prevent fishermen from poaching. From the Indian fishermen point of view, historically, the contested waters belonged to India and they have every right to fish in the traditional waters. Having demarcated the maritime boundary with Sri Lanka in 1974, wherein, Kacchativu was gifted to Sri Lanka, the Indian fishermen have been debarred from fishing around that rich fishing grounds around that Island leading to skirmishes and incidents. It is not that only Indian fishermen are guilty of trespassing, the Indian Ocean has witnessed intrusions by fishermen of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and Sri Lanka who do cross in to each other’s territory while looking for fish. This will remain a great challenge with security overtones.

With dwindling stocks, and irresponsible fishing in different parts of the world, conflicts and clashes would be the order of the day and there is a need to resolve this by bilateral agreements and joint monitoring of the areas allocated for fishing. The Coast Guards or their counter parts in this part of the world will need to work out modalities to ensure that the situation does not go out of hand. The establishing of a hot line some years ago between the Coast Guard Headquarter in India and the Maritime Security Agency in Pakistan has helped in ensuring that the fishermen are not detained unnecessarily in the garb of security. Similar arrangements are required with other maritime neighbours.

Environmental Security

With some of the recent incidents of collision and grounding particularly off Mumbai, the fragile fishing grounds and our coast line has been exposed to the dangers of increased unmonitored coastal traffic and the resultant effects. The absence of credible interfaced technology to monitor, regulate and control the movement of vessels of all size has remained an area of concern for maritime security agencies, ports, Law Enforcement agencies and other stake holders. Also, the much touted word Maritime Domain Awareness is here to stay but there is lot more that needs to be done to achieve even minimum levels of MDA which is critical to deterrent operations at sea

In conclusion, it is evident that there are many challenges faced by the countries of the region. The activities in the region have the potential to transform the maritime potential of the region. Yet there are some serious issues such as Piracy, Terrorism, Safety of mercantile marine trade, proliferation, security of Straits, environmental protection that require deft handling. All these demand great attention to see that India and other stake holders work out strategies to ensure a peaceful environment in the Indian Ocean Region.

(Courtesy: – South Asia Analysis Group. The above is the theme Address delivered by Commodore RS Vasan IN (Retd) during the joint seminar conducted by Center for Asia Studies and Stella Maries College Chennai on 08 August 2012 . Commodore RS Vasan is presently the Head, Strategy and Security Studies at the Center for Asia Studies at Chennai and member, Chennai Center for China Studies. He can be contacted at

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