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Indian Navy cannot rest on its laurels
December 15, 2008
In the general euphoria surrounding the safe return of the Stolt Valor and its crew we tend to forget some of the more disturbing aspects of the incident.
Goaded into action by a series of such incidents, the Indian navy frigate Tabar blasted a pirate ship with its 100 mm canon and sank it off the coast of Yemen. It sent out a strong signal that India had finally realised that its shipping interests and its investment in the maritime industry worldwide were far too important to be held hostage to outdated notions of non-interference with vessels plying outside our territorial waters.
When the Stolt Valor was first hijacked in September maritime experts pleaded for meaningful intervention by government. This was turned down by mandarins in the Ministry of External Affairs. It is a Japanese-owned vessel, the argument went, registered in Hong Kong and hijacked in Somalian waters. So how does the Indian government come into the picture? The fact that almost the entire crew from the Captain downwards was Indian was conveniently forgotten.
Aside of the need to protect Indian lives, the question also impinges on India's vital interests. Most of the country's foreign trade must perforce traverse two waterways, the Suez Canal in the West, which handles about seven per cent of the world's oil trade each year, and the Straits of Malacca on the East, which account for about a quarter of the total global trade. If either of these portals is affected not only the country's trade but its vital supplies like crude oil are seriously affected. If both of them are to be kept operational at all times they must be freed from the scourge of piracy from which they now suffer.
Ships passing the Suez Canal must navigate about 500 nautical miles along the coast of the failed state of Somalia, bristling not with small time pirates who steal ships' ropes but with desperate well-armed criminals determined to extract huge sums by way of ransom.
The action of the Indian Navy has not come a day too soon but they cannot rest on their laurels. The Stolt Valor has been released after unspecified sums were paid by its Japanese owners but not before the crew went through an ordeal that lasted more than 3 weeks.
The only question is whether the Indian Navy should act on its own or in concert with some international grouping. There might be some misgivings about joining the largely US-led group of 14 maritime nations based in Djibouti but there are other alternatives.
In these circumstances what should India do? One alternative would be for the maritime administration to involve the Indian Ocean Rim Memorandum of Understanding, which was set up mainly for port state control activities but which can easily extend its mandate to checking piracy.
The writer is a former shipping secretary to the Government of India
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