India’s maritime engagement with Africa set to grow

The East coast of Africa is an integral part of the Indian Ocean littoral with its waters washing the shores of 10 nations in that continent., all of which are heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean for their sustenance and economic well-being .

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More than 90% of their trade travels over its waters and their resource-rich EEZ also lies in the Indian Ocean.

By Commodore Anil Jai Singh, 

The Indian External Affairs Minister, Dr S Jaishankar’s recent visit to Kenya at the invitation of the Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs Ambassador Rauychelle Omamo, SC EGH from June 12-14, 2021 not only underlined the deep historical and civilizational links between the two countries but also brought into focus the priority India attaches to its engagement with the African continent. This was highlighted by Prime Minister Modi in his landmark speech in the Ugandan Parliament in 2018 where he outlined the 10 Principles that will guide the future of India-Africa engagement and focussed on India taking the lead in a cooperative and inclusive multi-sectoral approach towards capacity enhancement. India has always been at the forefront of championing Africa’s cause on the global stage it supported the struggle against apartheid it has advocated representation from the African continent in the UN Security Council and it has invested more than USD 13 Bn in capacity building efforts which has contributed significantly towards economic and social development in the region.

From a maritime perspective, working together for ensuring the freedom of the oceans with an inclusive and cooperative approach underpinned by India’s SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) is included in the guiding principles. The East coast of Africa is an integral part of the Indian Ocean littoral with its waters washing the shores of 10 nations in that continent., all of which are heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean for their sustenance and economic well-being . More than 90% of their trade travels over its waters and their resource-rich EEZ also lies in the Indian Ocean. They also provide access to the sea for many of the landlocked nations in the African continent which is also a significant source of revenue. Hence these countries share India’s commitment towards ensuring a rules-based international order for the safe and secure passage of maritime trade across the SLOCs of the Indian Ocean. Maritime security is therefore an important constituent of the India-Africa engagement.

In the last two decades or so which coincided with China’s rise, India’s eastern focus manifested through its Act East Policy, the revitalisation of its relationship with ASEAN, involvement in the security dynamics of the Indo-Pacific and the increasing traction generated by the Quad led to the perception that India was not giving the western Indian Ocean the attention it deserved despite this region being critical for India’s economic and energy security. It is the source of the largest share of remittances from the Indian diaspora and contributes significantly to India’s healthy foreign exchange reserves while also offsetting India’s major trade deficits with most leading nations of the world. More than 60% of India’s energy requirements are either sourced from West Asia or travels on board tankers transiting from the west. Pakistan remains a major irritant. Its strategic dependence on China including military support and investment in the CPEC make it a convenient and willing proxy for China in sniping at India’s heels while China pursues its intent to dominate the Indian Ocean.

While India’s attention to the west seemed to lack the momentum one saw in its engagement with the east, China was steadily increasing its footprint in the Indian Ocean through a permanent naval presence but more significantly through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. While the economic viability of the project was being debated, less attention was being paid to the strategic underpinning of this development model which gave China access to strategically important ports from its mainland in the Pacific to Rotterdam in Europe including the Kenyan port at Mombasa. Chinese economic largesse and investment in Africa led to a significant reduction in the Indian influence in that continent.

East Africa is of great interest to China as it is rich in natural resources and mineral wealth which are required in increasingly larger quantities by China to meet its insatiable requirement to retain its dominance in global manufacturing and emerging technologies. It has pumped in large amounts of money across the length and breadth of the African continent and the sea routes passing through the region are key to the strategic success of its Belt and Road Initiative. China’s base in Djibouti which is reportedly being expanded to enable the berthing of an aircraft carrier clearly signals the Chinese intent of projecting maritime power and shaping the regional security contours in the western Indian Ocean with its rapidly expanding navy while challenging India’s naval primacy in these waters.

Beijing’s relentless pursuit of its hegemonistic global ambition with its multi-pronged strategy in the Indian Ocean encompassing a quest for resources and markets, establishing military, diplomatic and economic influence, revising the existing rules- based order and controlling the strategic choke points and critical sea lanes is therefore of serious concern.

India, as the pre-eminent resident Indian Ocean power and a net security provider has to develop a strategy to counter not only the Chinese threat but also to address the numerous traditional, non-traditional and transnational maritime security threats that bedevil this region. India lacks China’s economic muscle and therefore has to calibrate its approach towards countering the Chinese influence by building confidence amongst the countries in the region as a trusted partner with the common objective of regional development through an inclusive and collective approach towards capacity enhancement.

The western Indian Ocean region is riven by political instability, economic deprivation, ethnic strife, internal power struggles and a trust deficit amongst nations. This makes the region vulnerable to external influences which undermine not only the security of individual nations but also the security dynamic of the entire region. Various initiatives have been taken from time to time to address these challenges with an inclusive multilateral approach eg., the Djibouti Code of Conduct which was signed in January 2009 and provided a mechanism to counter piracy in the region. In 2017, this code was amended at Jeddah to include the development of the Blue Economy as a source of sustainable development and to counter the emerging challenges including maritime terrorism, IUU (Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing) etc.

The African Union has also developed an Integrated Maritime Strategy 2050, the vision statement of which reads “The overarching vision of the 2050 AIM Strategy is to foster increased wealth creation from Africa’s oceans and seas by developing a sustainable thriving blue economy in a secure and environmentally sustainable manner”. This is a very ambitious long term strategy in which all stakeholders will have to make a sustained and sincere effort to ensure its successful and timely implementation which in itself will be its greatest challenge. This is an opportunity for the African continent, which despite being rich in natural resources and blessed by a long coastline has rarely performed to its potential for a host of reasons, both internal and external. It is expected to come into its own in the 21st century and it is for countries like India which must provide the means, through capacity and capability enhancement, in the larger interests of the entire Indian Ocean region.

India has been at the forefront in encouraging African participation in various multilateral framework in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), an Indian- led initiative headquartered in Mauritius includes eight African members including the strategic island states like Comoros and Madagascar. The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, a multinational naval mechanism established by the Indian Navy in 2008 to develop a closer understanding amongst the navies of the region and foster greater interoperability and a shared awareness of the maritime domain while addressing security issues at an operational level also includes six African member states – Kenya, Mauritius, Seychelles, Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa.

India must encourage greater African participation in global multilateral organisations. Kenya and India are presently non-permanent members of the UN Security Council for two years; this could be an opportunity by these two large regional powers to forge a joint approach towards addressing regional maritime concerns, particularly on global issues like climate change which are posing an existential threat to the small island states in the western Indian Ocean. India’s forthcoming Presidency of the G20 will be another opportunity for India to strengthen its credentials as the leading Indian Ocean power and demonstrate its inclusive approach by highlighting the issues impacting this region and garnering the support of 20 of the most influential nations of the world.

The Indian Ocean region remains India‘s primary area of responsibility. As a net security provider in the region, it has been at the forefront in encouraging capacity building efforts through an inclusive approach that builds confidence and encourages trust, both of which are important in a region characterised by a deficit of both. India’s efforts at maritime capacity building include training, hydrographic surveys, offering maritime security assistance, responding rapidly to offer Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), and various other measures aimed at developing a comprehensive approach to securing the maritime interests of the countries in the region.

India has also been at the forefront in developing a Maritime Domain Awareness network in the region through frequent naval deployments and port visits, enhancing synergy between regional navies and coast guards through exercises, by establishing an inclusive regional maritime security infrastructure with the willing participation of the strategically located island states and frequent interaction at the operational level. India has established a robust information sharing mechanism to monitor the Indian Ocean region through facilities that have been established in key strategic locations and off critical choke points which dot the western Indian Ocean.

India’s engagement with East Africa is set to grow. There is a shared concern for the maritime security of the western Indian Ocean region from a range of security challenges and vulnerabilities, some of which threaten the very existence of the small island states in the region and some which jeopardise sovereign assets. The region is constrained by its inherent inadequacy of resources for nations to address these individually, thus necessitating a comprehensive and inclusive capacity building approach towards mitigating these vulnerabilities collectively. India’s maritime primacy in the region is also likely to face a challenge. Hence an inclusive and cooperative approach led by India is an imperative to mitigate these vulnerabilities

(The author is an Indian Navy Veteran & a submariner. Presently, he is, Vice President of the Indian Maritime Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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First published on: 17-06-2021 at 13:13 IST