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 ambition. Both issues raise grave concerns for major and smaller powers in the region and other extra-regional global powers. Trade and livelihoods of the people of the nations surrounding it, as well as those of the small island nations, are contingent on the living and non-living marine resources of the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, many other landlocked countries in the region like Nepal, Afghanistan and Bhutan depend on access to the ocean for international trading and for steady growth of their economies. Transnational and non-traditional threats in the region are growing and should be addressed with far more diligence than being done at present as they will decide the future balance of power. Maritime challenges 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 the other issues but also to include them while framing national policies and concluding multilateral and international conventions and agreements.
The Indian Ocean region comprises 26 nations in various stages of social and economic development. There’s disparity among them in terms of economic growth, social development and societal stability that has resulted in competition for scarce resources among the nations, as in case of fishing and other living resources. It has also led to the disproportionate exploitation of the constantly depleting resources by some technologically developed nations to the detriment of others. 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 gas reserves, foreign powers, too, which are not geographically placed in the region, are displaying keenness to gain a foothold here. Besides, counter-piracy efforts and counterterrorism measures have approved the naval presence of the foreign powers. With an 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 the US and 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 require regional cooperation. Development of port security is essential for healthy sea-borne trade and safe harbours and ports for economic development of the region. But, the spurt of recent attacks in which technologically superior warships have been threatened by low-tech attacks has raised serious concerns. Many ports are vulnerable, as are various offshore installations. 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. Forty per cent of the 4 billion people in Asia live within 100km of the coast. Rising ocean level and changing weather patterns due to global warming will increase the stress in coastal regions. The island nations face greater threats as the seas close in on them. It 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 that will adversely affect the population in coastal areas as well as in the mainland.
The overall effects of these factors will be serious destabilisation in the region’s countries creating conflicts as they will struggle with changing realities. Depletion of water resources due to coastal salinisation will affect not only lives of 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 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 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 many 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, unregulated fishing. The link of this component to maritime security issues is that the vessels are also used for trafficking humans, arms, drugs and other illegal activities.
Non-state actors in the region raise different threat issues. Terrorist groups have attacked oil tankers, passenger ships and offshore installations with impunity. The attack in Aden of USS Cole, of the French super tanker Limburg and several such incidents has underlined the dangers. Weak governments and insufficient controls along the coast have exposed their vulnerability. The Mumbai 2008 attack, where terrorists chose the sea route to enter India, highlighted the dangers of unregulated maritime domain. Numerous incidents of piracy in the region in recent times have resulted in the creation of private security agencies to safeguard the ships. However, recent incidents especially in the Indian context; namely, the Enrica Lexie and the Seaman Guard Ohio cases have underlined the dangers of the presence of private armed guards aboard ships. Lack of regulations and insufficient coherent policy framework have created more concerns instead of solving the safety issues. The flouting of norms of international laws by the agencies is the undesirable fallout.
Maintaining good order at sea and constant engagements between the nations of the region is the only way to address these issues. International maritime assistance and building strategic confidence will lead to the increased safety of sea lanes for trade. Transparency in national maritime policies will reduce maritime coercion and mitigate tensions created by the strategic placement of large and imposing naval assets. The nations of the region have to redefine the role of their navies from that of constabulary and expand it to one of maintaining good order at sea and protection of maritime resources.
The writer is an expert in international law and founding member of Centre for Security Analysis, Chennai.