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Indian Ocean could get choppy without regional security cooperation

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In Brief

The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is home to 75 per cent of the world’s oil, iron and tin reserves. India, Japan and China have all contributed to what they consider their national interest to keep these maritime trade routes open. All three nations have emphasised the strategic imperative of keeping sea-lanes secure in their various high-level strategic policy documents.


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The Chinese and Japanese openly state that the main task of their anti-piracy efforts is to look after their own merchant vessels. The Indian Navy asserts that it aims to provide assurances to both Indian and foreign merchant vessels alike. Yet all three navies have greatly contributed not only to the protection of their own merchant fleet but also to securing the global common that is the Indian Ocean.

As piracy has hampered the free flow of goods and services in the region, many countries have participated in policing operations — bringing about a steady decline in piracy activity. The International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau reported a drop in piracy of 40 per cent worldwide between 2011 and 2013 with incidents around the coast of Somalia dwindling from 237 to 15.

Approximately half of the vessels given patrol protection by China were from mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao. Of the approximately 3000 ships escorted by the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces, around 600 were Japan-owned or operated by Japanese shipping companies. And of the more than 2200 vessels escorted by India, a mere 269 were Indian-flagged.

Shipping companies do not have the time or the financial ability to pay for their ships to wait in ports for a convoy to become available. Merchant shipping requires navies operating in the area to adjust and cooperate wherever possible. China, Japan and India realised this when the three navies decided to work together by sharing information on their patrol movements and escort schedules in January 2012. This came about as part of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction initiative in an effort to greatly enhance the number of patrolled merchant vessels travelling through the Indian Ocean waters.

It is this kind of cooperation that is needed in the ongoing struggle against piracy. Despite a fall in the number of hijackings, piracy remains a source of concern. Pirates are mobile and flexible, and so the response must be too. And it is not just pirates that pose dangers to maritime security in the IOR: risks also include terrorism, smuggling, illegal fishing, sea levels rising and natural disasters.

The problem is that as long as it is perceived that navies come to the IOR to protect and advance their own national and strategic interests, the presence of national navies will be seen as competition at best or at worst as rivalry or as a threat. Yet collaboration between the navies is crucial in order to effectively advance their shared commitment to maritime and sea-lane security. China, India and Japan have the capability and interest to achieve this goal. But they need to institutionalise their commitment. The countries involved in the anti-piracy operations can work out best practices; discuss their priorities and modus operandi; build confidence; and find common understanding on risks and threats in the maritime domain.

Currently there are some regional maritime institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). But these institutions remain weak. They are not inclusive, not properly funded and staffed and they shy away from hard security issues. The IORA has recently begun to address maritime security but Japan and China, two countries with a huge stake in this, only have observer status.

The IONS aims to be the Indian Ocean equivalent to the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS), providing a platform for regional navies to discuss maritime issues. China and Japan are currently not included but, given their sustained presence in the IOR, should be invited to join this forum. It is no coincidence that the first meeting between the Japanese and Chinese navy chiefs in almost five years occurred during the April 2014 WPNS. Without consultation and dialogue as a careful first step, any progress towards a comprehensive approach of maritime security is unlikely to take off.

The Indian Navy prides itself as being the most powerful and important navy in the region. It is time for the new Indian Navy Chief Robin Dhowan to build a more inclusive approach to security architecture in the IOR. He could start by proposing that Japan and China join the IONS.

Peter van der Hoest is a PhD candidate at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS), Tokyo and currently a visiting international fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own.


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