The term Indo Pacific, as a new geopolitical construct and as a term used to denote an economic and strategic community continues to gain ground in academic and policy circle. In June 2018 at the Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore, when PM Narendra Modi outlined the Indian version of the definition of Indo Pacific as a ‘natural region’, stretching from East African coast all the way to the Pacific island nations, it became quite clear that India’s preferred focus was on the Indian Ocean. From an Indian perspective, as important as securing the east, is its western maritime security, where the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea meets, which has gained prominence in recent years. From an African perspective as well, it is only in the last few years that Africa, as a collective entity, has come to realise the importance of its maritime security. With a booming oil and mining industry, Africa has been at the center of global attention which has led a number of global players like India, China, and EU to focus on Africa’s waters. The Indian Ocean, and the Indo Pacific in a larger context, has emerged as a theatre of cooperation with growing convergences between India and east African littorals and African island nations.
Speaking at Raisina Dialogue 2019 in January, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale opined that “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state – but based on issues and interests.” Given India’s rise as an emerging global player and growing ‘Afro-optimism’, it is these interests which has prompted India to engage and forge closer maritime-security partnerships with African countries’ for shared growth, common security, and mutual benefit. A secure maritime environment is a prerequisite for achieving sustained national development. Today, the Indian Ocean is home to forty percent of world’s population, more than fifty percent of world’s oil, forty-five percent of world’s gas reserves and significant seabed mineral reserves. The ocean has an active maze of sea lanes which carry half of the world’s container shipments and two-third of the world’s oil container shipments. Therefore, India is looking to build upon its advantageous geographical location in the Indian Ocean and secure its vital interests.
Africa figures significant in India’s maritime-security calculus for various reasons. With the discovery of vast array of natural resources in seabed mining, deep-sea excavations, oil plants, rare earth materials, and large deposits of natural gas, off East coast of Africa, India now has significant opportunities to collaborate with African countries. Resource-rich East Africa littorals are increasingly turning towards the Indian Ocean in order to obtain sustainable growth and development. However, many African countries, who for the longest time tended to look inward, neglected their coastlines and suffered from a culture of sea-blindness, lack the necessary capacity to ensure security of their declared maritime zones. The challenges faced by African states in the governance of their maritime zones reveals the security assistance which they seek. It is in this domain where the Indian Navy, which continues to play an important role in upholding and enforcing international norms regarding global issues such as: combatting piracy, maritime terrorism, and drugs and small arms trafficking, has emerged as a crucial partner for African countries.
Africa figures significant in India’s maritime-security calculus for various reasons. With the discovery of vast array of natural resources in seabed mining, deep-sea excavations, oil plants, rare earth materials, and large deposits of natural gas, off East coast of Africa, India now has significant opportunities to collaborate with African countries
India wants to enhance cooperation with African countries in order to keep the oceans open and free for the benefit of all nations. Indeed the world needs cooperation rather than competition in the eastern shores of Africa and the eastern Indian Ocean, as was mentioned in 10 Guiding Principles for India Africa engagement, enunciated by PM Modi last year during his address to Ugandan parliament. To this end, complementarities can be drawn between Indian Navy’s 2015 Maritime Strategy document and the African Union’s 2050 African Integrated Maritime Strategy (AIMS 2050). Complemented by PM Modi’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region), and SAGARMALA (port development) initiative, the Indian Navy’s and Africa’s continental and regional maritime security approaches could be aligned to enhance cooperation for mutual benefit in Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
A closer examination of India’s maritime strategy document reveals that our maritime cooperation approach with African littorals has expanded and diversified into a broad-based security approach. Such an approach entails regular shipping visits, sharing of best practices to build capacity through training, transfer of naval hardware and logistical support, naval intelligence, joint military exercise and patrolling of seas, development of listening stations and posts, and conducting joint hydrographic surveys. East African countries’ such as Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Somalia, Djibouti, and African island nations’ like Mauritius, Seychelles, Comoros, and Madagascar, have emerged as key strategic partners and enablers for expanding India’s footprint in the surrounding IOR, especially in Western Indian Ocean region.
As a result, India has adopted an expansive maritime strategy in recent years, driven by great power ambitions and by strategic rivalry with China which continues to expand its maritime capabilities and act unilaterally in the IOR. Indian Navy has placed particular emphasis on securing key maritime ‘chokepoints’ at the entrances to the Indian Ocean around southern Africa (including the Mozambique Channel), the Arabian Peninsula (including the Strait of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb) and the straits connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through the Indonesian archipelago (the Malacca, Sunda, and Lombok straits).
In an effort to improve Indian Navy’s Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) capabilities, an Information Fusion Center – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) – was launched back in December 2018 based in Gurugram in National Capital Region, which will help to track and monitor shipping traffic in Indian Ocean, coordinate incident responses, and share submarine safety information. The maiden Maritime Information Sharing Workshop (MISW) took place on June 12th 2019 under the aegis of IFC-IOR and saw delegates from 29 countries participating. In keeping with our vision of SAGAR, this initiative is going to be instrumental in improving Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) for enhancing maritime security in the IOR.
Also, addressing non-traditional threats in the IOR is one of Indian Navy’s most prominent role. By assuming a benign role and deploying assets, the Indian Navy continues to be at the forefront of HA/DR operations in coastal areas, both in India and in the maritime neighborhood. And also continues to demonstrate its ability to sustain long-term deployments across the IOR and shore up its credentials as a responsible global power and position itself as a “first responder” along Indian Ocean littorals.
A significant beneficiary of India’s HA/DR operations has been African countries. With a vast coastline of 18,950 miles (30,497 kilometers), African littorals and Island nations’ are prone to such natural disasters. The key to mitigate disasters in such adverse situations rests on ensuring swift and coordinated interventions with local authorities on the ground. The latest example of Indian Navy’s demonstration of its HA/DR capability came in the aftermath of ‘Cyclone Idai’ which made landfall in the port city of Beira, Mozambique in the early hours of March 15th, causing havoc, destruction, and resulting in hundreds of deaths. Fortunately, four Indian Navy ships were immediately diverted to render assistance which carried dry provisions, epidemic-related medicines, clothes and ready-to-eat meals.
What made it possible for Indian Navy to be the ‘first responder’ is its operational readiness. Indian Naval ships on overseas deployment are mandated to carry additional HA/DR kits for such possible events, thereby enabling them to be prepared to undertake relief work. Complemented by Indian Navy’s ‘mission-based deployment’ (MBD) approach, Indian mission-ready ships are prepared round the clock to carry out anti-piracy patrols and provide humanitarian assistance when required.
India and African littorals and Island nations’ are also looking to foster closer collaboration in Blue Economy sector. African Union has declared it as the “frontline of African renaissance” and also PM Modi has referred to the Blue Chakra or wheel in the Indian National Flag as representing the potential of blue economy. Subsequently, in the 2015 Delhi Declaration, both India and Africa reiterated their desire to cooperate on developing Blue Economy. India can assist Africa in realising its vision of fostering blue economy in a sustainable manner, especially in areas like; exploration of marine resources, extractive resource security, fisheries, bio-tourism and marine-based green activities like Ocean aquariums, coastal diversity parks, and marine reserve areas.
India and African littorals and Island nations’ are also looking to foster closer collaboration in Blue Economy sector. African Union has declared it as the “frontline of African renaissance” and also PM Modi has referred to the Blue Chakra or wheel in the Indian National Flag as representing the potential of blue economy
Also, the signing of Mutual Logistics Sharing Agreement (MLSA) with US and France has been beneficial for Indian Naval Ships operating in Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean in two ways; The agreement with France has provided Indian Naval Ships with access to the French base in Djibouti and the tiny island of La Reunion in southern Indian Ocean for refit and refueling. The agreement with US has facilitated Indian warships to take fuel from American Navy oil tankers deployed in the region. Earlier, the warships had to visit nearby ports for replenishing their fuel and other stocks on regular intervals. Both these agreements have enhanced Indian Navy’s ease of operations by ensuring longer deployments at the maritime ‘choke points’ and a sustained presence of Indian Navy in African waters.
However, while India’s maritime partnership with African countries is well-poised to increase and evolve in the coming years, sustaining the momentum is key. In PM Modi’s first term, India has been quite vocal and assertive about its engagement with the African continent. As PM Modi enters into his second term looking to operationalise its commitments, New Delhi can indeed partner African states in the effective governance of Africa’s maritime commons. But if India wants to partner with African countries in creating a safe, effective, and sustainable maritime system, both need to closely work together towards developing infrastructure, and strengthening legal frameworks and institutions.