When India used to secure Somalia’s Red Sea coast

And why it must do so again

The pirates of Puntland made the strategic mistake of becoming too successful. And they also ran out of luck, when among the vessels they hijacked was one carrying a huge arms shipment, and another something mysteriously important. And suddenly, the world’s navies with the capability to get there—save India’s—decided that it was time to sail to go pirate hunting (or, at the very least, pirate watching) in the Red Sea. The US navy is already there. The Russian navy is on its way (and may well demonstrate some muscle in the days ahead). Even the European Union “is setting up an anti-piracy taskforce to help protect the lawless sea lanes off east Africa.”

Now, piracy off Somalia presents both threat to humanitarian relief operations, international security and to international commerce. And both the UN security council and the president of Somalia have called for the international community to take an interest in patrolling the region. And as Seth Weinberger writes, suo motu action against pirates has legal sanction under international law.

Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so. However, that creates a problem—in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act (why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?). [Security Dilemmas]

The question, though, is how long these navies will stay in the region. While the United States and its allies have the logistics and support infrastructure in the region, other naval forces will have to work out arrangements if they are to maintain forces for an extended period of time.

Amid all this, the Indian government is demonstrating an inexplicable reluctance to dispatch the Indian navy to the waters off Somalia. Not only does this position disregard the threat to India’s interests in the region, it also ignores the fact that a century ago, it was the (British) Indian navy that used to secure the Red Sea.

During the prime mininstership of William Gladstone in the 1880s, it was decided that the Indian government should be responsible for administering the Somaliland protectorate because the Somali coast’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden was important to India. Customs taxes helped pay for India’s patrol of Somalia’s Red Sea Coast. [David D Laitin/LOC]

According to retired Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh, “it is almost impossible, and prohibitively expensive, for the Indian Navy to send two warships and a tanker, some 2,000 nm from our west coast, and keep them on patrol for 365 days a year in the “safety corridor”. He argues that apart from placing armed “Sea Marshalls” on board commercial ships passing through the region, the Indian navy should partner those of the west and Russia to patrol the region.

The long-term solution, of course, lies on land: extricating Somalia from its civil war, and stabilising the entire Horn of Africa. That’s a tall order. In the meantime, it is necessary to contain the Somali pirates. There is a clear case to deploy the Indian Navy in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia, with rules of engagement that include hot pursuit. Indeed, there is a clear case to task the marine commandos with hostage-rescue missions where Indian ships and nationals are taken hostage.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony has more. Information Dissemination & Eagle1 are two excellent blogs covering maritime security issues. A Chatham House paper by Roger Middleton on the subject.

28 thoughts on “When India used to secure Somalia’s Red Sea coast”

  1. Nitin,
    Why should we worry about Somalian coast?
    I am more concerned about the mountain of trash 200 mts from my house.
    Then comes electricity problem, water problem, sloooooow internet, theft problems, potholes, traffic jams.
    Instead of sending the Navy to Somalia, they can come to my neighbourhood and help me clean. I will work with them shoulder to shoulder. Then they can go to Somalia.

  2. It’s nice to think we could or would do what the major powers do, but what exactly is our national security interests off of the coast of Somalia? I can think of some a thousand miles south of Somalia – still on east coast of Africa.

    I think US jumped in because US has major presence in that area and does not want weapons from those ships getting into wrong hands which may end up killing Americans. The Russians obviously have something on that mysterious ship…

  3. Sid,

    This is not the place to be flippant. If you have municipal problems, please contact your municipality. Actually, that they are not clearing your trash etc is your fault. You should go stand outside your elected representatives office and make sure he does what is necessary.

  4. Chandra,

    The fact that Indian ships and nationals have been held hostage is enough reason to be concerned. It is just as well that the threat is nipped in the bud rather than wait for a really nasty incident (eg the IC-814 of the high seas) and then act.

    As the Chatham House report and Mr Weinberger’s article show, it is a collective action problem. The threat is not directed solely against India, but India is one of the victims (insofar as delayed shipping, increased costs, kidnapped nationals, arms/explosives/drug smuggling etc).

    The navy’s proposals is to be allowed to patrol the region, and be allowed to conduct hot pursuit should the need arise. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable proposal and a good balance between costs and potential benefits.

    I myself support a aggressive approach by the Indian state wherever its nationals are at risk—especially in hostage situations. If India acquires a reputation for being tough in such cases, it will deter potential hijackers/kidnappers and protect the lives of Indian nationals. It also stems from my belief that the Indian state should care about the life of each and every one of its nationals.

  5. “I myself support a aggressive approach by the Indian state wherever its nationals are at risk—especially in hostage situations. If India acquires a reputation for being tough in such cases, it will deter potential hijackers/kidnappers and protect the lives of Indian nationals”

    I agree.
    This also applies when Indians are at risk INSIDE india, from other indians with malicious intent. Then, some amount (or a large amount) of offense, to those with malicious intent is justified.

    Oh to be able to apply saama-daama-danda-bhed to some of our home grown secessionists in the media!

  6. Nitin,
    It is not fair to fault India for not yet getting involved in this.

    In this specific instance the primary motivation of the navies of US & Russia rushing to those parts lies in the nature of the cargo. Not so much an intent to initiate any strategic policing on their part. In fact, the US navy happened to be in the neighbourhood and the cargo seemed interesting enough for them to stay and watch what the whole thing is about. The fact that the US navy was around and might unravel the mystery behind the vessel’s contents might have forced Russia’s hand to send along their contingent to ensure nothing is revealed.

    True, by the end of this episode these countries and Europe may come together with some cohesive, strategic plan to patrol these waters. When there is a global willingness to contribute to securing these waters, India should pitch in and take some leadership as well – but certainly should not be unilaterally and completely undertaken & underwritten by India.

  7. I really don’t think we, meaning GOI, are at a stage of offering blanket protection to all Indians anywhere in the world, especially for the so-called non-VIPs.

    We are still a second rate power willing to jump up and down for a little praise and get depressed at a little slight…beyond power projection, we crave approval – not a sign of maturity of establishment…

  8. @Chandra,

    Why the self-loathing? I suspect you spent the formative years of your life in the late 60s and early 70s that you feel so less at ease with a confident posture.

    Nitin is obviously far ahead of his time. Heck, it’s the UPA in power! But still, the arguments are sound. I think there is nothing wrong, nay, I think it is important to be aspirational about our place in the world.

  9. “You should go stand outside your elected representatives office and make sure he does what is necessary.”

    The day I can make her do whats necessary, our Navy can go to Somalia.
    BTW, I thought this forum talks about national interest, not fantastical dreams.
    Well, its your private forum so its upto you what you write. I will leave it at that.

  10. Sid,

    Of course, it’s up to me what I write. Readers are free to disagree, as they often do.

    But it’s funny how you feel you can disagree, even throw about flippant arguments, but won’t appreciate that others can do the same to you.

    In any case it appears that you’ve given up trying to make your elected representative clean your trash and tend to matters of municipal interest. That should hardly place you in a position to comment about where the Navy should go.

  11. Udayan, may be I put it wrongly, but it wasn’t self-loathing. This is how GOI views itself (or at least the it looks to me) – the long shadow of Nehru is still upon the establishment. I surely wish we were unafraid to act when our interests are at stake…

  12. @Nitin

    Sids views may not exactly be in place with what you are discussing but he has a right to say where his country’s Navy should go especially if he is a taxpayer.A descenting voice is also in India’s National Interest !Further this gung ho about going out there and patrolling should have a pragmatic approach.One should not put on the Yankee cap and start thinking like super power.We don’t have the resources neither do we have a logistic line to support a mission like this.Then, have we ever tried to work out the percentage of the shipping traffic passing through the red sea that belongs to us.you will find your answer there.Lets not get to be suckers every time.

  13. There are unconfirmed reports that recently Islamic Jihadists are supporting & trying to take control of Somalia’s pirates, though hardcore criminals are generally despised by ‘Holy Warriors’ & the criminals neither support their cause & there is mutual suspicion, yet there could be something brewing, – strategically Gulf of Aden is important & comparitively safer in the hands of pirates, dangerous in the hands of Jihadists, any other reason to guess why the low-profile, clandestinely operating pirates have suddenly become so ambitious & brazen in the past one year ???

  14. Ghana shyam,

    The question is not about expressing a dissenting view on this blog. Quote obviously there is an argument against sending the Navy anywhere. Unless you think that asking the Navy to clean up your neighbourhood is somehow a reasonable argument, I don’t see why you need to cite Sid.

    Similarly, it entirely possible to argue that it is pragmatic for India not to send the Navy at this stage (which I disagree, because this kind of pragmatism usually comes to haunt us in the future) without saying “Yankee cap” etc. If anything, the argument in this post is that the Red Sea was secured by India in the past.

  15. When our PM loses sleep for an Indian at Australia, our media & bloggers (including you; not sure) criticize him. When he doesn’t intervene militarily for Indian employees of a foreign company captured for ransom, same group (media & bloggers) make criticizing articles out of it. What a funny world ..

    Our shipping minister clearly told that it is between the shipping company & the pirates and GoI can’t militarily intervene. It can only talk to all the stakeholders to expedite the release of captured Indians. Do you want India to intervene militarily in all such events like gundas for foreign multinationals ?

  16. Invalid…… has made a valid Point… The PM should loose sleep for ‘ONE worthy Indian’ & must snore away to glory for ‘EIGHTEEN unworthy Indians’
    ….(Guys, isn’t there not any Afz/Moh.. to make the somalian cause worthy?? huh ..jus wonderin… poor insignificant “Indian” chaps..living in a funny world…)

  17. @Nitin
    The argument should be ‘British India’ used to secure the red sea in the past and not ‘ India’ because the entire scenario changes under which we all are arguing.At that point of time the traffic in the Red Sea was mainly of Her Majesty’s ships ,the french ,the dutch and the portugese.Oil was no where in sight which today carries maximum tonnage in the Red Sea compared to the textile and spice trade. And the British Indian Navy (if it can be called so) was run by the British and not Indians.If there is anything about securing the Red Sea,it should be a multilateral arrangement.The reason why the Indian Navy is being asked to do the job is because the rest are busy in the War on Terror rather ‘exhausted’.Do we still have an argument about the Indian Navy going to control the Red Sea.

  18. Ghana shyam,

    You are right in saying that it was the “British” Indian Navy. But many of “British” India’s strategic pre-occupations are also our own. The point, in any case, was to illustrate that historically the Indian fleet (and not the “Home” fleet of Britain) used to secure that area.

    The justification for going there now is not predicated on history. Are you seriously of the opinion that (a) threats to Indian shipping over the last few years (b) movement of jihadis from Pakistan to Somalia in recent years (c) kidnapped Indian nationals, all at a chokepoint through which India’s seaborne trade passes, is somehow not worth taking seriously?

    So what’s wrong about the Indian navy being “asked to do the job” because the rest are busy in the War on Terror? Is it logical to say we won’t do it, because they ought to divert their resources from the War on Terror to the War on Pirates? What I don’t understand is the underlying prickliness to co-operating with the US…especially because the exercise is in India’s interests?

    If it’s in our interests, we do it. If it’s not we don’t. If it is also in the interests of others, we co-operate (through multilateral arrangements as you say). If it’s not, we go it alone, to the best extent possible.

  19. Of course India should intervene off the Somali coast. Her citizens have been kidnapped. Piracy from a failed state threatens trade in the region. It’s not called the Indian Ocean for nothing. It’s a big backyard–but; it’s her backyard. For better or worse, she is the next superpower.

  20. @Nitin

    Since when did British India’s ‘Strategic Preoccupation’ become our own.If that be the case I am sure that India’s National Interest is heading the wrong way.Piracy is in Mallaca Straits also and India’s trade passes through it,then should we start securing Mallaca Straits also.Mallaca straits is also a choke point. My question is should we take up the initiative of protecting every flag that passes through a choke point especially in the present case where it happens to be a Japnese company which owns the ship.That it had Indian crew onboard is incidental.It is not about taking/ not taking a risk but as to how much to invest on the risk.
    Secondly there is no underlying prickliness about co-operating with the US which never was a point of discussion,and if there is a need to co-operate by all means co-operate if the cost-risk-benefit analysis is in our favour.threats to Indian shipping per say specifically has never been there at any of the choke points.If there have been any incidents from piracy related threats then its been all across the board for all flags.As far as movement of Jehadis are concerned it is not only limited to somalia but other places as well and these chokepoints happens to be one of the many routes that may be used. May be it would help us to find out what percentage of the tonnage passing through the red sea is ours.

  21. @ghana

    You sounded reasonable until your last comment. Dude, where have you been? Have you any idea what the Indian Navy has been doing near the Straits of Malacca? If your point is that we ought to do in the Red Sea what we are doing in Malacca St, then your original argument falls flat.

  22. Mallaca staits piracy should be left alone as India can manipulate it as an useful ‘strategic excuse’ to choke-o block the Mallaca strait if the need arises.

  23. @Mr.Udayan,

    probably ‘ you’ are not aware of the role Indian Navy is playing in the Mallaca Straits.The ARF as of now has only invited Inadian Navy in a participatory and that too only in multilateral naval exercises.As the chinese also have a stake in keeping the Mallaca straits secure an only ‘Indian Navy’ rather India trying to enforce her presence in the Mallaca straits can upset the balance and ARF in no way would want that and therefore they continue to maintain a strong regional show of strength against piracy.And I hope this will propel you to spend more time on global geopolitics and be knowledgeable to make comments.lets not be wishy washy.

  24. @Mr.Udayan,

    Since you have asked for expounding,i will do so.INS Sukanya and INS Sharda
    were deployed in the Mallaca Straits for protecting US convoys as the US was pre occupied with ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ and US combatants were required in the Arabian Sea. the US threat perception in the Mallaca Straits at that point of time was from the Islamic Terrorists present in the rim countries of the Mallaca Straits as a fallout of the ongoing operation.that was a one time measure and not aimed at combating piracy.At best it was a bilateral arrangement and India did well to assist on a specific mission.

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