Securing the Indian Ocean sea-lanes

G Parthasarathy | Updated on June 26, 2019 Published on June 26, 2019

With China keen to tighten its grip on this crucial trade route, India’s move to strengthen ties with island nations is right

Recently published figures on global exports of countries are interesting. China, whose exports were less than India’s in 1948, is today the world’s largest exporter, with annual exports of $1.99 trillion. Even the US lags behind China, with annual exports of $1.46 trillion. India, with annual exports of $268.6 billion, ranks twentieth — behind Singapore and Taiwan.

Those who believe that India can match China’s regional influence, on its own, should remember these facts. India will have to be measured and realistic in seeking to balance Chinese power across the Indian Ocean. We are working with and advising littoral countries against becoming overly dependent on China. Our effort is to balance Chinese power, in cooperation with partners like Japan, the US, European Union members Germany and France and like-minded Asian countries, like Indonesia and Vietnam.

With foreign trade and investment gaining importance in promoting national influence in today’s world, safeguarding maritime security is becoming increasingly important. India is, therefore, paying greater attention now, to the security of its sea-lanes, across its Indian Ocean “neighbourhood”.

This “neighbourhood” extends from Aden and the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow gateway in the oil rich Persian Gulf, astride India’s western shores, to the Malacca Straits. It is across these sea-lanes that over 60 per cent of the world’s petroleum exports move, on maritime routes.

These sea-lanes, which move across the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in our east, are also the strategic routes for the flow of oil, from across the Indian Ocean, to the Pacific Ocean. The Straits of Malacca are regarded as crucial “choke points” for the world’s sea-borne oil supplies. Security of Indian Ocean sea-routes from Hormuz to Malacca, therefore, remains crucial for India’s national security.

India gets over 70 per cent of its oil supplies across the sea routes of the Indian Ocean. The imperatives of energy security are becoming increasingly complex, because of rivalries and tensions, within the Indian Ocean Region, as India now faces a growingly assertive China. Beijing receives most of its oil imports from across the Indian Ocean through the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Straits of Malacca. An estimated 16 million barrels of oil are transported across the Straits of Malacca daily.

Global dimension

China would have realistically and hopefully recognised that any land-based adventure across its borders with India, could lead to disruption in its supplies of oil and gas, crossing the narrow Straits of Malacca.

Interestingly, China is sparing no effort to expand the Myanmar Port of Kyaukpyu, in the Bay of Bengal. This port is linked to China’s Yunnan Province, by a network of pipelines across Myanmar.

Security of the sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean now has global dimensions. Apart from rivalries within the region, its geopolitics is substantially influenced or challenged by the US and its allies like Japan on the one hand, and rivals like China on the other. Tensions across the Indian Ocean region also arise from the sectarian, Shia-Sunni and civilisational Arab-Iranian, rivalries.

Interestingly, Iraq is the only major Arab power, with a majority Shia population. It carefully balances its ties between its Sunni Arab brethren and Iran. Superimposed on these rivalries, are Israeli-Palestinian tensions, with Islamic countries paying mostly lip service, to the Palestinian cause.

While both China and India have avoided involvement in these regional rivalries, India has growing concerns about China’s ambitions for military bases across the Indian Ocean region, given its growing naval presence in the region. China uses its economic clout to offer credits for infrastructure projects, which lead recipients into a “debt trap”.

Beijing has invested $590 million in building a naval base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Interestingly, the US, France and Japan have bases nearby. China took over control of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, after Colombo was unable to repay Chinese credits, extended for the port project. The port of Mombasa in Kenya appears headed in the same direction, as also the airport in Zambian capital Lusaka. India has been drawing the attention of smaller countries to the dangers of getting exposed to excessive debt liabilities with China. China also extends significant support and patronage to political leaders like former Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, who are “encouraged” to ignore Indian concerns and interests.

Clear strategy

Prime Minister Modi has evolved a clear strategy to deal with partner countries across the Indian Ocean. India has taken a number of measures to promote economic and security cooperation with Island states like Mauritius, Seychelles and Maldives. The “special relationship” that India enjoys in Mauritius was evident, by the presence of Maldives Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth in the swearing in ceremonies of Modi, both in 2014 and 2019. Three Indian built Fast Patrol Boats have been supplied in Mauritius in recent years.

Describing the extensive maritime ties with Mauritius, Modi noted: “As frontline states of the Indian Ocean, Prime Minister Jugnauth and I agree that it is our responsibility to ensure collective maritime security around our coasts and in our Exclusive Economic Zone.” Ties with the Maldives, including in maritime cooperation, have been revived, after the visit of Modi to Maldives, almost immediately after he was sworn in for his second term. Ties with the Seychelles are also being strengthened.

There are concerns that China appears to be undertaking an effort in Colombo, like it did in Hambantota, to take over management of yet another strategic port, in Sri Lanka. India has recently offered to participate in building a container terminal in Colombo, in collaboration with Japan. The bulk of the cargo handled in Colombo, is destined for India.

China has, however, made a serious mistake by making untenable claims on maritime borders, with virtually all its maritime neighbours. It is facing a serious problem with Indonesia, which has, on the other hand, demarcated its maritime boundaries with India. Rejecting Chinese claims on its “Natuna Islands,” Indonesia asserted: “China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea have no legal basis under international law”.

Prime Minister Modi and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo agreed recently that India would cooperate in building the Sabang Port, in Indonesia, located close to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The Indian navy is now well positioned to meet security challenges across the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean. Contrary to popular perception, India is moving steadily towards playing an increasingly significant role in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on June 26, 2019

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