Order At Sea: Indian Navy in a Threatening Red Sea

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Why in News?

  • In recent times, the Yemen-based Houthi rebels have emerged as a significant threat to Red Sea merchant shipping.
  • From India’s perspective, it becomes imperative to delve into the critical importance of maritime security, focusing on the Indian Ocean's strategic significance and the complex dynamics of the ongoing Yemeni civil war.

An Overview of India’s Role/Contribution in Global Trade and Shipping

  • Global Trade and Shipping: Backbone of the Global Economy
    • Shipping, as the most cost-effective and efficient method of transporting goods over long distances, serves as the backbone of the global economy.
    • 80% of the world's oil and 10 trillion tons of cargo are transported annually by nearly 1,00,000 merchantmen which underscores the magnitude of reliance on maritime trade for sustaining the economic health of nations globally.
  • India's Role in Global Shipping
    • Amidst the vast international shipping network, India maintains a modest merchant fleet of about 500 vessels, with approximately 1.5 lakh Indian sailors serving on foreign-flagged ships.
    • This reflects India's active participation in the global shipping industry.
    • Moreover, it emphasises the interconnectedness of economies and the necessity for maritime nations to actively engage in securing sea routes for mutual economic benefit.

Strategic Importance of the Indian Ocean

  • Hub for Global Trade
    • The Indian Ocean is a vital hub for global trade, connecting Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.
    • It serves as a primary route for nearly 1,00,000 merchantmen annually.
    • The sheer volume of international shipping passing through the Indian Ocean emphasises its strategic importance for the smooth functioning of the global economy.
  • Critical Choke Points
    • The Indian Ocean is characterised by several narrow passages known as choke points.
    • These include the Malacca Strait in the east, the Hormuz Strait at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, and the Bab al Mandab Strait at the mouth of the Red Sea.
    • Choke points constrict shipping traffic, making it vulnerable to interdiction by states, pirates, and terrorists.
    • The security of these choke points is paramount for ensuring the free flow of international trade.
  • A Strategic Zone for India
    • India's location along the Indian Ocean gives it a strategic advantage, and India has recognised the imperative to actively engage in maintaining good order at sea.
    • The Indian Navy's self-assigned role as a preferred security partner in the region aligns with the acknowledgment that ensuring maritime security is not only in India's interest but also a commitment to international stability and trade.

Maritime Security Challenges in Indian Ocean Region

  • Jurisdiction Complexities
    • The concept of flag states, where the state in which a ship is registered holds exclusive jurisdiction and this concept adds complexity to maritime security efforts.
    • In peacetime, the primary responsibility for security and law enforcement on ships falls on the flag state.
    • Warships from other states, even when wanting to board a merchant vessel for security reasons, require the consent of the flag state or the ship's master.
    • This legal framework poses challenges in swiftly responding to emergent threats at sea.
  • Evolving Nature of Drone Warfare
    • The emergence of drone warfare poses new challenges for maritime security and while larger drones are detectable by radar and can be targeted, smaller, low-flying drones are harder to spot and engage.
    • Counter-drone measures are crucial, and soft-kill measures, such as jamming or corrupting radio signals, become primary tools for defence.
    • However, the evolving nature of drone technology requires continuous adaptation and innovation in security protocols.
  • Ongoing Saudi Arab-Iran Proxy Clash in Yemeni Civil War
    • The ongoing Yemeni civil war is often viewed as a proxy clash between regional powers, primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran.
    • This adds a layer of complexity to the conflict, turning it into a multilateral struggle.
    • The involvement of countries like Jordan, UAE, Qatar, Sudan, Bahrain, and organisations like Al Qaeda and Hezbollah underscores the geopolitical dimensions of the conflict.
  • Complex Geopolitical Landscape
    • The conflict has transformed into a multilateral struggle with various external actors participating or supporting one side or the other.
    • The U.S., for example, has engaged in targeted killings in Yemen through drone attacks.
    • The intricate geopolitical landscape contributes to the challenges in understanding the underlying reasons for specific actions, such as the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.
  • Houthi’s Ideological Objectives and Challenges
    • The Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah, claim ideological objectives for their actions and unlike traditional pirates seeking ransom, the Houthis assert a broader goal related to ideological motives.
    • Their attacks on shipping are aimed at pressurizing Israel to end its indiscriminate bombardment of Gaza, citing a humanitarian cause, and expressing solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
    • The challenge lies in the Houthi group's claim to target only ships flying the Israeli flag or those bound to and from Israeli ports or somehow linked to Israel.
    • The difficulty in identifying and avoiding ships falling into these categories raises concerns about the potential collateral impact on innocent vessels and the need for a reliable mechanism to enforce such distinctions.

Responses at International Level and Role Played by India

  • Operation Prosperity Guardian
    • The U.S. launched Operation Prosperity Guardian with the aim of safeguarding Red Sea shipping, particularly in response to Houthi attacks.
    • However, its perceived goal faced scepticism from France, Italy, and Spain, who deemed it unnecessarily provocative and potentially escalatory considering Iran.
  • India's Strategic Deployment
    • India's response, deploying four to five warships to the Red Sea, demonstrates its commitment to being a key player in regional security.
    • The deployment serves as a show of naval presence, reinforcing India's self-assigned role as a preferred security partner in the region.
    • This not only aligns with its national interests but also contributes to maintaining international maritime order.

Ways Ahead for India to Maintain Peace and Security in IOR

  • Leverage Diplomatic Relations
    • India's diplomatic leverage with both Iran and Israel positions it as a potential mediator in the Yemeni conflict and the associated maritime threats.
    • With deep ties to both nations, India can play a crucial role in urging moderation and restraint.
    • The goal is to prevent the Yemeni conflict from further escalating and spilling over into the Indian Ocean, which could have far-reaching consequences for regional stability and global trade.
  • Balance Interests
    • Navigating the complexities of regional geopolitics, India must strike a delicate balance between safeguarding its maritime interests and contributing to broader international stability.
    • By diplomatically engaging with all relevant parties, India can work towards finding common ground and promoting dialogue.
    • It will reinforce its commitment to maintaining peace and security in the strategically vital Indian Ocean region.

Conclusion

  • The multifaceted challenges in maritime security demand nuanced responses, blending military readiness, diplomatic finesse, and adaptability to evolving threats.
  • India, with its strategic deployment, diplomatic standing, and commitment to regional stability can play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of this complex scenario.