MARITIME MESS IN INDIAN OCEAN
Article Published in New Indian Express
May 6th 2014
Two major discussions that dominate any discourse on maritime challenges in the Indian Ocean region are piracy and the emergence of China as a major naval power and its growing ambitions. Both these issues raise grave concerns for both major and smaller powers in the region and other extra regional global powers. Trade and livelihoods of the people of the countries surrounding the Indian Ocean, as well as those of the small island nations, are contingent on the living and non-living marine resources of the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, several other land locked countries in the region like Nepal, Afghanistan, and Bhutan depend on access to the Indian Ocean for international trading and for the steady growth of their economies. Transnational and non-traditional threats in this region are increasing and should be addressed with far more diligence than being done at present as they will decide the future balance of power in the region. Maritime challenges of this region extend beyond national strategic ambitions and are far more complex. These challenges may not be perceived as being compelling at present but they will have significant impact over a period of time. It is therefore, incumbent to not only identify these other issues but also to include them while framing national policies and concluding multilateral and international conventions and agreements.
The Indian Ocean region consists of 26 countries in various stages of social and economic development. There is disparity among these countries in terms of economic growth, social development and societal stability which has resulted in competition for scarce resources among the nations, as in the case of fishing and other living resources. It has also led to the disproportionate exploitation of the constantly depleting resources by some technologically developed countries to the detriment of others in the region. As the region is rich in mineral resources like uranium, cobalt, nickel, gold and also has 55% of the world’s oil reserves and 40% of global gas reserves - foreign powers, too, which are not geographically placed in the region, are displaying their keenness to gain a foothold here. Besides, counter-piracy efforts and counter terrorism measures have approved the naval presence of
these foreign powers in the Indian Ocean region. With the extra regional power like the US positioning itself here, regional powers like China India, Russia, Iran and Pakistan are strengthening their positions and increasing their naval prowess to counter potential strategic threats by US and the US aligned states. Thus, new maritime disputes stemming from geo-strategic interests and new maritime boundary claims are the result of the new players in the region.
There are various other non-traditional threats that exist in the Indian Ocean region that require regional cooperation. Development of port security is essential for healthy sea-borne trade and safe harbours and ports are essential for the economic development of the entire region. However, the spurt of recent attacks in which technologically superior warships have been threatened by low-tech attacks has also raised serious concerns. Many of the ports are vulnerable, as are the various off shore installations in these countries. The island nations and archipelagos are most vulnerable as they can be accessed from any point of exposure. Environmental threats also abound in the region. 40% of the 4 billion people in Asia live within 100 kilometres of the coast. Rising ocean level, changing weather patterns due to global warming will increase the stress in the coastal regions. The island nations face greater threats as the seas close in on them and this will result in demographic changes from migration that will create severe stress and perceivable imbalances in the mainland. Destruction of natural barriers in the seas will also lead to erosion which will adversely affect the population and their lives in the coastal areas as well as in the mainland abutting coastal regions. The overall effects of these factors will be serious destabilisation in the countries of this region creating conflicts among the nations as they will struggle with the new changing realities. Depletion of water resources due to costal salinization will affect not only the life of the people along the coast but also affect food production elsewhere. Land based pollution from sewage and drainage discharges and marine based pollution from spillages, ballast waters and illegal waste dumping affects not just a single nation but has impact on the region as a whole. All these issues are hardly addressed by the countries that place huge reliance mainly on the enhancement of their naval capabilities.
Resources of the Indian Ocean have to be brought under the scrutiny of protection. Illegal and unregulated fishing by local vessels has led to depletion of stocks in national waters of several countries while similar action by foreign vessels has caused antagonism among nations. The constant engagement of Sri Lanka and India in the fishermen issues is well known but other countries in the region face similar confrontations. Indonesia faces an estimated loss of $ 4000 million annually due to illegal and unregulated fishing. The link of this component to maritime security issues is that these vessels are also used for trafficking humans, arms, drugs and other illegal activities.
Non-state actors in the Indian Ocean region raise different threat issues. Terrorists groups have attacked oil tankers, passenger ship and off shore installations with impunity. The attack in Aden of USS Cole, of the French super tanker Limburg and several such incidents has underlined these dangers. Weak governments and insufficient border controls along the coast have exposed their vulnerability. The attack that took place in Mumbai in 2008, where the terrorists group chose the sea route to enter India, highlighted the dangers of the unregulated maritime domain. Numerous Incidents of piracy in the Indian Ocean region in recent times has resulted in the creation of private security agencies to safeguard the ships. However, recent incidents especially in the Indian context; namely, the Enrica Lexie case and the Seaman Guard Ohio case have underlined the dangers of the presence of private armed guards aboard ships. Lack of regulations and insufficient coherent policy framework has created more issues and concerns than solved the safety issues .The flouting of norms of international laws by the agencies is the undesirable fallout of these security concerns.
Maintaining good order at sea and constant engagements between the nations of the Indian Ocean region is the only way to address all these issues. International maritime assistance and building strategic confidence will lead to the increased safety of the sea lanes for trade. Transparency in the national maritime policies will reduce maritime coercion and mitigate the tensions created by the strategic placement of large and imposing naval assets. The countries of the Indian Ocean region have to redefine the roles of their navies from that of constabulary and expand it to one of maintaining good order at sea and of protection of maritime resources.