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Nitin Pai: Policing the Indian Ocean

Anti-piracy operations are a credible indicator of India providing global public goods and securing the global commons

Nitin Pai  |  New Delhi 

Somali pirates are now operating around 450 nautical miles off Mumbai. A retired US Navy Reserve officer plotted incidents of pirate attacks on a satellite map of the Indian Ocean to reveal a pattern that merits New Delhi’s attention. Over the last five years, Somali pirates have expanded the radius of their operations thousands of miles, from the waters off the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Sea off India’s economically dynamic western seaboard. Somali boats and nationals have been apprehended in Lakshadweep this year.

At the heart of the matter is the lack of international attention given to the source of the problem — the long civil war in Somalia that is both breeding Taliban-style militancy on land and vicious piracy at sea. The United States has set up a military command in Africa but clearly has no appetite for escalating its military involvement there. Meanwhile, vested interests in many countries are actually benefiting — think arms sales and money laundering — from the region’s conflict economy. So, the international response has been limited to treating the symptoms. Naval task forces and vessels of several countries, including the United States, Nato, Europe, India and China, are deployed in the region, all engaged in an attempt to protect commercial shipping along one of the world’s busiest waterways. These ships have played a useful role — the Indian Navy alone has escorted over 1,181 ships since it was first deployed in October 2008 — but the problem is scaling faster than the solution.

Indian Navy warships, around two of which are deployed on anti-piracy missions at a time, currently escort convoys of Indian and foreign ships through the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) along the southern coast of Yemen. This is, in effect, “maritime chowkidari” but the importance of which cannot be overstated. Anti-piracy operations are a credible indicator of India providing global public goods and securing the global commons. For instance, more than 1,037 foreign-flagged ships benefited from the security provided by our navy, as compared to 144 Indian-flagged ones. It is in India’s interests to continue policing the Indian Ocean. But the demands on the navy’s resources are increasing.

What can we do in the short term? Now, while the Indian Navy has discharged itself admirably in escorting convoys and fighting pirates, it is primarily a war-fighting force. New Delhi’s priority must remain equipping it to become a blue-water navy capable of projecting power in India’s extended maritime domain. At this time, assigning more ships to maritime constabulary duties off the Horn of Africa could risk blunting the navy’s war-fighting edge. At the same time, India must not underestimate the growing pirate menace that threatens its commerce and the lives of a large number of its seafaring citizens.

One way out of this dilemma is for New Delhi to lease a handful of commercial vessels, equip them with adequate fire power, and place them under the operational control of the Indian Navy. After all, you don’t need BrahMos missile-equipped Talwar class battle axes to tackle pirates armed with assault rifles. Operating commercial vessels on lease can be adequate to the task, is less expensive and will allow the navy’s combatant warships to focus on their core competence.

In parallel, India should use its upcoming presence at the UN Security Council to strengthen the mandate, personnel strength and international support for the African Union (AU) force that is currently deployed in Somalia. Ugandan officials have long been asking the UN for more troops so that the AU force can take effective control over Somalian territory and secure its ports. This makes sense. The challenge will be to manage the complexities of Africa’s regional politics so that the international effort has both robust international oversight and legitimacy. It is uncertain, perhaps unlikely, that the AU force will fully succeed in establishing order in the near-anarchic world of Somalian civil wars. There is, however, a good chance that it will seal off the pirates’ main launching pads.

The pirates of Puntland are leading indicators of the kind of asymmetric maritime threats that we will face in the future. New Delhi should put its energies into working out how the Indian Navy can leverage maritime partnerships with Oman, Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives, among others, to intensify its presence in our western waters. Incidentally, more than a century ago, Somalia was administered from New Delhi, not just for colonial administrative convenience, but “because the Somali coast’s strategic location... was important to India”. In those days, it was (British) India that was responsible for patrolling the Red Sea coast.

Today, at a time when the Asian balance is in a state of flux, India cannot afford to be perceived as paying insufficient attention to the developments in its neighbourhood. New Delhi’s decision two years ago to dispatch navy ships to secure shipping lanes was rightly seen as a sign of greater willingness to use its power to contribute to international security. Two years on, it is time to enhance that commitment.

Nitin Pai is founder and fellow for geopolitics at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati – The Indian National Interest Review

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First Published: Mon, November 15 2010. 00:57 IST