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Why Securing Gateway of Tears Is Critical For India

January 05, 2024 15:29 IST

The Indian Navy, which regards itself as the 'net security provider' in the Indian Ocean Region, has also stepped up to the plate, with a warship stationed at all times off the Gulf of Aden for counter-piracy tasks.

91 Indian warships have been deployed in the region since 2008, patrolling high risk areas where piracy was rampant.

IMAGE: The Indian Navy's warships responded swiftly to a maritime incident in the Arabian Sea involving the hijacking of the MV Ruen, December 16, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

2023 ended with the Indian Navy's recovery of a Liberian flagged tanker, Chem Pluto, which had apparently been attacked by an armed drone after it crossed the West Asian straits and was entering the Arabian Sea.

Given the recent spate of attacks on merchant shipping in the Arabian Sea, the navy announced the deployment of three guided missile destroyers -- INS Mormugao, INS Kochi and INS Kolkata -- to maintain a deterrent presence.

In addition, the navy's P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft are flying patrols over these waters in order to maintain maritime domain awareness.

There are three key maritime chokepoints through which shipping can enter from West Asia into the Arabian Sea: The Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb (BAM).

Almost all the oil and petroleum products being shipped out from West Asia must pass through the chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz.

From here, giant tankers carrying petroleum products from the Persian Gulf head east for Asian markets -- primarily China, India and Japan -- without needing to risk navigating the BAM or the Red Sea.

Of even greater interest to New Delhi is BAM's role as a strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal.

The strait is 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, limiting tanker traffic to two 2-mile-wide channels for inbound and outbound shipments.

Most petroleum and natural gas exports from the Persian Gulf that transit the Suez Canal pass through both the Bab el-Mandeb and the Strait of Hormuz.

The chokepoint's Arabic name -- the Gateway of Tears -- illustrates its fraught geopolitical environment of inter-state and inter-sectarian conflict, state failure, famine and crime.

The Indian Navy regards BAM as critical, given its commanding location astride the international shipping routes between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.

Closure of the BAM could prevent tankers originating in the Persian Gulf from transiting the Suez Canal, forcing them to divert around the southern tip of Africa, which would increase transit time and shipping costs.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a re-calculation of oil and trade flows, some 6.2 million barrels of crude oil, condensate, and refined petroleum products crossed through the BAM every day.

The strait's two-mile-wide shipping lanes allow cruise ships, warships, fishing trawlers and international merchant shipping to keep going through the world's fourth busiest waterway.

The US and its allies have determined that safeguarding these sea lanes is in the global interest.

For weeks, beginning soon after Hamas fighters in Gaza launched coordinated attacks on Israel on October 7, rebels from the Iran-backed, Shia Muslim, Houthi group in Yemen have unleashed multiple airborne strikes on cargo ships traversing the Red Sea and BAM, leading many of the world's biggest shipping companies, including Mediterranean Shipping Company, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd and British Petroleum, to announce they would avoid the area.

This has caused oil prices to rise, damaging the global economy.

The Houthis are Zaidis, a sub-sect of Yemen's Shia Muslim minority. They consider Iran as an ally, because Saudi Arabia is their common enemy.

They take their name from the movement's founder, Hussein al Houthi. The group was formed in the 1990s to combat what they saw as the corruption of the then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

India's naval response

The Indian Navy, which regards itself as the 'net security provider' in the Indian Ocean Region, has also stepped up to the plate, with a warship stationed at all times off the Gulf of Aden for counter-piracy tasks.

The navy chief has said that 91 Indian warships have been deployed in the region since 2008, patrolling high risk areas where piracy was rampant.

In addition to anti-piracy missions and owing to heightened tensions in the Straits of Hormuz, Indian warships have also deployed to the Gulf since June 2019, under the aegis of Operation Sankalp, to reassure Indian merchant marine vessels transiting the region.

During this period, 27 Indian warships have escorted 381 Indian-flagged merchant vessels carrying 305 lakh tonnes of cargo.

On its Web site, the navy says: 'The Indian Navy has been deploying [at least] one ship in the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy tasking since October 2008.'

Indian Naval ships escort merchant ships through the 490 nautical mile-long Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) and thus far 50 Indian Navy warships have been deployed.

New Delhi has been deliberate in displaying leadership in carving out a role in counter-piracy.

Squeezing a high volume of merchant and military traffic through narrow channels is just the first challenge.

Then there is the question of who is to lead collective security, since the area is bordered mainly by weak countries that are focused mainly on their internal security.

With the COVID-19 pandemic sapping regional attention and resources and leaving little mind space for maritime security, there has been a sharp increase in piracy in 2020.

While the CMF has the flexibility, skills, and credibility to take on a larger role in the BAM, the US does not favour greater involvement.

Beijing's muscular approach could backfire unexpectedly.

Fragile Yemen could splinter further, encouraging the Houthis to act more aggressively in their own waters.

IMAGE: A visual of the MV Chem Pluto taken by the Indian Coast Guard's Dornier maritime surveillance aircraft in the Arabian Sea after it was hit by a suspected drone which led to fire on it. Photograph: ANI Photo

A matter of hegemony

Given the complexity of the situation for New Delhi, analysts are recommending seizing the initiative and establishing hegemony or collective security in the Red Sea.

With COVID-19 distracting global attention and the security of the BAM increasingly fragile, the risk of a dangerous miscalculation is high.

Beijing, meanwhile, is treading carefully, avoiding involvement in the rivalries around BAM.

This neutrality allows it to cultivate its economic and diplomatic relationships in West Asia and Africa without alienating any potential partner countries.

Unless China's economic or strategic interests are severely threatened, it is unlikely to take an overt role in resolving the regional conflicts around the BAM.

Since most regional countries are already committed to longstanding partnerships of their own, any Chinese attempt to secure the BAM via naval control would have to go it alone, a gargantuan effort with questionable returns.

So how best to secure the West Asian sea lanes?

In the past, this has been achieved by a muscular approach combined with one that has addressed the root causes of piracy.

The suppression of piracy off the Horn of Africa relied on the appearance of an overt international naval presence; a big grey ship on the horizon tended to result in a sudden change of plans by would-be pirates.

From its first major base beyond its own waters, China will be looking at the lessons learned in West Asia about how Western forces react in volatile situations.

Other actors will also be looking at how much of a role the US and its partners take in the BAM, and adjusting their actions accordingly.

An increased -- and increasingly visible -- presence by the US and its partners is warranted, leveraging existing partnerships and working with new and inexperienced partners.

Activities such as passing exercises, boarding practice, and sailing in company help build regional capability and confidence, or at least keep some of the less professional navies out of trouble.

The security situation in the Persian Gulf and BAM does not look like it will be resolved any time soon; indeed, with the multiplying effects of the pandemic, economic collapse and plunging oil prices, it is likely to get worse.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

Ajai Shukla
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