Pirates feel the sting of India’s naval muscle

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — The rising might of India and the growing menace of piracy collided recently in the Gulf of Aden, a 2.59-million-square-km stretch of waterway between Somalia and Yemen. This came after India’s demonstration of prowess in space with the successful launch of a lunar probe. As a symbol of scientific development and international stature, the success should garner India a share of the lucrative commercial satellite launch business.

On Nov. 15, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was one of the world leaders gathered in Washington to discuss ways and means of rescuing the world from the grave financial crisis afflicting it.

Then, on Nov. 19, an Indian Navy frigate, the INS Tabar, engaged, set ablaze and probably sank a pirates’ mother ship in the Gulf of Aden.

In other words, signs of India’s rapid rise to international prominence are all over the map. And the rise is multifaceted and multidimensional — not just restricted to the stunning economic growth rate for over a decade.

The image of Indian warships patrolling and engaging pirates so far offshore and of lunar probes being launched is somewhat unsettling in the context of continuing deep poverty and other serious problems in the country. Yet there are many reasons for India investing in a credible naval force.

First, geography. The Indian Ocean covers about a fifth of the world’s ocean area, with almost 50 countries around its littoral and immediate hinterland. With links to both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, the Indian Ocean is of vital commercial, political and strategic importance to India. The peninsular nature of the country’s shoreline exposes it to potential seaborne threats from the east, west and south.

Second, history. The British conquered and ruled India on the back of the Royal Navy. A popular Indian explanation for the sun never setting on the British Empire is that even God would not trust an Englishman in the dark. Then there are the island territories: the Andaman and Nicobar chain to the east and the Lakshadweep group to the west.

The appearance of a U.S. aircraft carrier task force in the Bay of Bengal during the Bangladesh War of 1971 shocked the Indian security elite into re-emphasizing the importance of sea power. A modernized and expanded navy was justified in terms of requirements for sea denial, sea control and exclusive economic zone protection capabilities. A brown-water fleet is adequate only to the tasks of coastal defense; India’s requirements in 21st century are for a blue-water navy. Three key acquisitions by the Indian Navy — long-range aircraft, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines — make India a formidable force in the Indian Ocean.

The regional public-good aspects of these were demonstrated in 1999, when Indian warships rescued a Japanese cargo ship that had been captured by pirates. It was repeated in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 when India was one of the core group of four countries, along with Australia, Japan and the U.S., helping out with its ships in Indonesia as well as Sri Lanka. The Indian Navy also joined in the international relief operations during Israel’s Lebanon war in 2006.

Tokyo sat up and took notice of India’s rising naval profile after the 1999 incident, which led to a series of security dialogues and consultations among government officials and analysts and commentators. A security cooperation declaration was signed during Singh’s visit to Japan last month, calling for enhanced cooperation against terrorism, piracy, nuclear proliferation and natural disasters.

According to the International Maritime Bureau, there were over 199 incidents of piracy in the first nine months of 2008. A total of 581 crew members were taken hostage, nine kidnapped, nine killed and seven missing (presumed dead), as 115 ships were boarded, 31 hijacked, and 23 came under fire from pirates. The Gulf of Aden accounted for about a third of these.

Somali pirates have been responsible for almost all the attacks there, with 26 vessels hijacked and 537 crew taken hostage, plus another 21 vessels attacked. The seizure on Nov. 18 of the Saudi supertanker Sirius Star, loaded with over $100 million worth of crude oil, was the pirates’ most audacious attack to date.

Ideally, the waters of the region should be patrolled by the navies of Kenya, Tanzania and other interested littoral states backed by Western technical help. But India has vital stakes in enforcing the rule of law around East African coastal waters. Indians comprise one-sixth of the world’s maritime workers; some 30 Indian-owned ships pass through the Gulf of Aden, laden with oil and other merchandise worth $100 billion, every month. The Tabar incident is the first time India’s navy has carried out an attack so far from its shores. It shows that the government has authorized the navy to act autonomously to tackle the threat of piracy. An unresolved question is the legal jurisdiction in which captured Somali pirates could be tried, as Somalia has had no functioning government since 1991.

On the positive side of the ledger is the dramatic decline in piracy in Southeast Asian waters with multilateral cooperation between littoral navies and the forces of China, India and Japan.

All this is yet another indication of why a new leaders-level G20 is likely to replace the G8 as the forum of choice for articulating norms and formulating rules that can then be ratified by the globally legitimate international organizations.

An accumulation of intensifying global deadlocks — from climate change and terrorism to nuclear proliferation, financial meltdown and agricultural trade — is guaranteed without the new grouping. An urgently updated architecture of global governance is necessary but is not by itself a sufficient condition for resolving global deadlocks.

Ramesh Thakur is founding director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario.