Eye on the Middle East | The Indian Navy’s anti-piracy operations are geopolitically vital - Hindustan Times
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Eye on the Middle East | The Indian Navy’s anti-piracy operations are geopolitically vital

Mar 22, 2024 04:16 PM IST

The northern Indian Ocean has witnessed a burst of activity recently. However, the Navy’s increasing presence in NIO is driven by more than just anti-piracy.

Anti-piracy is an old game

The issue of Somali piracy dominated maritime security concerns in the Indian Ocean, off the Horn of Africa, for the better part of the last decade. Given the global economic impact of piracy, states across political lines (not without operational differences) cooperated in reining in the piracy threat; largely subduing it by 2018. Such cooperation was not novel or surprising - it is the issue of piracy which generated one of the first universal norms of international law, deeming pirates to be ‘hostis humanis generis’ (enemies of mankind).

New Delhi, Mar 21 (ANI): Indian Navy's INS Tir and INS Sujata participate in the second edition of a joint maritime exercise India Mozambique Tanzania (IMT) Tri-Lateral (TRILAT) being held from March 21-29. (ANI Photo)(Indian Navy) PREMIUM
New Delhi, Mar 21 (ANI): Indian Navy's INS Tir and INS Sujata participate in the second edition of a joint maritime exercise India Mozambique Tanzania (IMT) Tri-Lateral (TRILAT) being held from March 21-29. (ANI Photo)(Indian Navy)

The Indian Navy achieved remarkable success both in actively intercepting and raiding ships when the threat was at its height, and in deterring piracy through an active presence when it had waned. For the latter, the Indian Navy has had an active mission since 2019 (Operation Sankalp) to guard vital sea lines of communication (SLOCs) from maritime piracy, of which the Ruen operation was part.

With the resurgence of the piracy threat, it was only natural that the Indian Navy as the largest resident naval power in the Indian Ocean would respond assertively. Hence, even as Indian Navy Marine Commandos conducted multiple anti-piracy operations across early 2024, by the end of January, the Navy deployed its largest flotilla yet - sending 12 warships to the NIO (2 in the Gulf of Aden, and 10 in the western Arabian Sea). Notably, the Navy, which claims that its current deployments make it the largest naval presence in the region, distinguishes its anti-piracy mission from the US Navy’s Operation Prosperity Guardian against the Houthis who have been attacking ships in the Red Sea as part of their pressure campaign to halt Israel’s war in Gaza (explained in an earlier column).

A Reuters report from late January had quoted Indian Navy officials as stating that the Houthi attacks and piracy are “disconnected”. Speaking to the author, Vice Admiral (R) Anil Chawla (Chief of the Indian Navy’s Southern Command, 2018-2021) further explained that the Indian Navy has long had a policy of not joining such coalitions. However, beyond law enforcement, the Indian Navy’s operations are guided by two additional factors.

Geopolitical churn in the NIO

The resurgence of the piracy threat, notwithstanding its intensity, is an ancillary development to other regional conflicts. The instability created by the Red Sea crisis opened a window for Somali pirates who are now taking advantage of the Houthis’ fresh front against international shipping. This bolsters India’s rationale for focusing on piracy as a distinct issue. However, Houthi attacks alone do not make up for the geopolitical complexity of the maritime arena in the NIO. Both the Houthi attacks and the opportunistic return of piracy were both unanticipated developments that spawned out of the Gaza war. Geopolitically, the maritime space between India and West Asia was already growing crowded, at least in the recent past.

For instance, in November 2023, Pakistan and China conducted the largest iteration of Exercise Sea Guardian, which included their first joint maritime patrol in the Arabian Sea. More recently, Russia, Iran, and China conducted their own joint drills (Ex-Marine Security Belt, with over 20 ships) off the Gulf of Oman, with an on-shore component in Iran’s Chabahar (where India operates a terminal in the Shahid Beheshti Port).

While multilateral exercises featuring China are on the rise in India’s Western maritime neighbourhood, Chinese presence has featured more directly in India’s ties with neighbours such as Maldives. Given the new Maldivian President’s evident pro-Beijing inclinations, India has been more cautious about Maldivian access to Chinese surveillance vessels in the Arabian Sea.

However, despite the increase in the frequency of Chinese naval visits to the Indian Ocean, their levels of activity in the NIO remain low.

Chawla asserted that the PLA Navy has historically refrained from being proactive in the NIO, whether in countering piracy or acting against threats such as the Houthi attacks (in line with its abstentions at the UNSC). The Indian Navy, on the other hand, has been remarkably proactive, even while operating outside of coalitions (it was the first to respond to a British oil tanker’s distress call after a Houthi attack in late January).

Moreover, while the Indian Navy conducted its largest-ever Arabian Sea drills in 2023, it inaugurated a new base in Lakshadweep’s Minicoy (125 km from the Maldives). Essentially, both its mission-based deployments as well as its increased presence in the Arabian Sea aid the Indian Navy in deterring potential Chinese adventurism, especially when the PLA Navy itself might look to break out of its older mould.

Securing connectivity for India

The logic for a more proactive Navy is also driven by its larger interest in exploiting its geographic position. Among the new thrusts of Indian foreign policy under the present government (since 2014), is a push for greater regional and global connectivity. However, a few of the major connectivity projects that India has pushed for in recent years, have been plagued by their reliance on conflict-ridden states - such as the Kaladan Project (reliant on stability in Myanmar).

Moreover, while projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India Pipeline remain dormant, others like the International North-South Transport Corridor (linking states sanctioned by the West, such as Russia and Iran) depend on the Chabahar Port in the NIO, where China is taking increasing interest.

The latest push in the connectivity effort is the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. Among all others, the IMEEC has one of the largest maritime components, reliant on safe shipping routes especially from India to the UAE, which falls in the NIO. In New Delhi’s calculus, enhancing the Indian Navy’s role, especially in anti-piracy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the region, generates more goodwill; External affairs minister S Jaishankar recently characterised the Navy’s increased operations as being essential for India as a “responsible country”. Given both old and new threats to international shipping in the IMEEC route, the rationale for more Indian Navy operations in the NIO only increases.

Cumulatively, these necessitate a larger Indian naval presence in the distant waters of its Western seaboard - all the way to the Gulf of Aden. Essentially, while anti-piracy and operations to secure international SLOCs, form the immediate tactical focus of the Indian Navy, its increased profile in NIO meets the strategic objectives of India’s evolving geopolitical interests.

Bashir Ali Abbas is a research associate at the Council for Strategic and Defense Research, New Delhi, and a South Asia Visiting Fellow at the Stimson Center, Washington DC. The views expressed are personal

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