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Wanted: India-China-Japan-Singapore Task Force on Maritime Counter-Terrorism

During his forthcoming visit to China for four days from April 5,2010, for talks with the Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, S.M.Krishna, the Indian Foreign Minister, should review co-operation in counter-terrorism with China in order to re-focus it on co-operation in maritime counter-terrorism instead of the present focus on co-operation against conventional land-based terrorism. He should explore the possibility of closer cooperation involving the Navies of India, China, Singapore and Japan in ensuring sealane security and in protecting the commercial ships and energy supplies of the four countries from possible attacks by terrorists and pirates operating from Yemen and Somalia.

2. Al Qaeda has extended and strengthened its presence in Yemen and Somalia. While the Somalia-based Al Qaeda elements have not operated beyond Somalia so far, Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) as the Yemeni wing of Al Qaeda is called tried unsuccessfully to blow up an American aircraft over Detroit on December 25,2009, through a Nigerian suicide bomber recruited from London and trained in Yemen.

3. Al Qaeda has not so far succeeded in attacking strategic economic targets such as oil and gas production facilities and supplies by sea and commercial shipping despite its talking about it for some years after 9/11. This was partly due to the strengthening of physical security measures against maritime terrorism by the countries of the region after the attack on the US naval ship USS Cole in October 2000 and on the French tanker Limberg in October 2002. Both attacks took place in the Aden area. It was also partly due to the greater-cooperation among the navies of the region in the form of greater intelligence sharing and joint or co-ordinated patrolling. The positive results of these measures have been particularly evident in the Malacca Strait area.

4. Maritime counter-terrorism and anti-piracy measures have not been as effective in the Gulf of Aden area. Despite the deployment of anti-piracy patrols of the Western navies as well as those of India, China, Japan, the ASEAN countries and others, the Somalian pirates continue to be very active hijacking ships carrying valuable and often dangerous cargo such as chemicals and extracting ransom from the ship-owners for releasing their ships. Even China, despite its policy against ransom payments, found itself helpless last year when a Chinese commercial ship was hijacked by the pirates. Ultimately, the Chinese company, with a nod of approval from the Government, had to pay ransom when it found that the Chinese anti-piracy patrol was not in a position to help it.

5. At present, there is no evidence of any linkage between Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups on the one side and the Somalian pirates on the other. Lack of evidence does not mean there canot be any linkages. The kind of attention the possibility of linkages between terrorist organisations and organised land-based crime groups is receiving is not seen to monitor the possibility of linkages developing between the terrorists and the Somalian pirates. It was the realisation of the danger of pro-Al Qaeda organisations such as the Jemaah Islamiya developing linkages with the pirates based in the South-East Asian region and disrupting shipping and jamming choke-points that provided the trigger for the effective co-operation in the Malacca Strait area.

6. Such a trigger has not been there in the case of Somalian piracy. The danger of part of the ransom money being paid to the pirates finding its way into the coffers of Al Qaeda and its associates is real. India, China, Singapore and Japan as the countries that would be most affected if the Somalian piracy remains uncontrolled as it is presently and if Al Qaeda in Yemen and Somalia join hands with the pirates should take the lead in working out feasible options for dealing with the problem through measures such as intelligence-sharing, having a four-nation task force against piracy and maritime terrorism, mutual assistance in patrolling and joint maritime counter-terrorim exercises.

7. India already has a mechanism for counter-terrorism co-operation with China under which two exercises have been held so far in Yunnan and Karnataka. Sino-Indian co-operation against land-based terrorism would be pointless because of China’s close relations with Pakistan from which most of the threats to our security from jihadi terrorists arise. Till the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, China supported Pakistan’s contention that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD), the parent organisation of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), was a charity and not a terrorist organisation. It was China’s opposition that came in the way of the JUD being declared a terrorist organisation by the anti-terrorism sanctions committee of the UN Security Council. China and India have no shared perception when it comes to terrorist groups operating from Pakistan. China’s policies and acions are largely influenced by the views of Pakistan. Under such circumstances, it would be futile to expect the co-operation mechanism against land-based terrorism to be of any benefit to India. It will be only of public relations value. Nothing more.

8. However, no such differences of perception arise in the case of Somalian piracy and maritime threats from Al Qaeda and its associates in Yemen and Somalia. All the four countries ought to be equally concerned over the persisting and growing threats from the Gulf of Aden area. Any disruption of shipping or energy supplies will damage their economies as they are recovering from the impact of the global economic melt-down. As the victim of a spectacular act of sea-borne terrorism by the LET in November,2008, India should play the leadership role in evolving a co-operative maritime counter-terrorism and anti-piracy mechanism involving the navies of India, China, Singapore and Japan. The reasons for the participation of India, China and Japan are obvious and need no elaboration. Singapore’s participation would be beneficial because of the co-operation of the navies of India and Singapore for some years now and Singapre’s close relations with China. Singapore will be able to impart to the co-operation a good measure of professionalism. ( 30-3-10)

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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