Amid Red Sea clashes, India and Asean must work to secure the Indian Ocean

Amid deepening trust, India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations elevated ties to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2022. This came as India’s desire to be a more prominent security partner in the Indo-Pacific intersected with Asean’s motivation to work with alternative sources of security amid the polarising geopolitical dynamics in the Pacific.

Since then, several important developments have occurred, including the first docking of an Indian submarine in Indonesia in February last year and the inauguration of the Asean-India maritime exercise in May.

Notably, most of the security-driven collaborations have centred in the Western Pacific. This is due to Southeast Asia’s immediate concerns about the security conditions in the South China Sea and the unfolding US-China strategic competition.

Similarly, India recognises the need to bolster its geopolitical position in the Western Pacific. Thus, while the Indo-Pacific concept integrates the Indian and Pacific oceans into one strategic region, dominant discourses of the region remained primarily centred on the latter.

The clashes in the Red Sea, however, have triggered a renewed focus on Indian Ocean geopolitics. A reorientation of India’s engagement with Asean members and vice versa should be prioritised, with a renewed focus on the Indian Ocean.

The stability and security of the Indian Ocean region are undeniably important to Southeast Asia. The ocean covers 80 per cent of the global maritime oil trade. Developing countries in the Pacific depend on crude oil imports from the Middle East that transit through the Indian Ocean.

According to the Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia, Asean’s oil demand is expected to increase swiftly, growing 4.1 per cent per year to 2040. At the same time, regional production is anticipated to decrease significantly.

As emerging net fossil fuel importers, Southeast Asian governments are likely to be financially burdened. Given the Indian Ocean serves as a transit point for energy exports from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, the Houthi attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea are raising severe concerns within Asean.

Second, many seafarers come from Southeast Asia. For instance, the Philippines is the top provider of seafarers and officers, while Indonesia is in third place for ratings (sailors who work in navies) and fifth for officers.

These Southeast Asian seafarers are often at the receiving end of non-traditional security threats in the Indian Ocean region, like piracy. Filipino seafarers are more at risk of being held hostage by Somalian pirates than those from any other nation. With security conditions in the Indian Ocean likely to degrade without further action, the safety of Southeast Asian seafarers remains a worry.

An armed Somalian pirate looks out to sea as the Greek cargo ship, MV Filitsa, is seen anchored off the coast of Hobyo town, in northeastern Somalia, where it was being held by pirates, on January 7, 2010. Photo: AFP

Given these critical challenges, it is in the best interest of Southeast Asian countries to secure their vital interests in the Indian Ocean. Yet most of them have a limited and reactive diplomatic presence in the Indian Ocean.

And with the intensifying US-China strategic competition in the Pacific, Southeast Asian countries prefer not to collaborate directly with either side, concerned about their intentions being misconstrued. This is especially as the responses of both countries are at opposite ends of the strategic pendulum, with Washington taking a confrontational position while Beijing has a quieter, more neutral strategy.

China’s inaction over Red Sea shipping attacks could exact a high price

Among Asean’s dialogue partners, India holds a unique position as a resident power and a first responder in the Indian Ocean. On January 5, the Indian navy rescued a Liberian-flagged vessel from being hijacked by pirates in the Arabian Sea. The ship had 21 crew members, six of whom were Filipinos.

Moreover, India’s role in the Indian Ocean region has always been based on equitable cooperation and strategic autonomy, rather than bloc politics. Given the growing stakes for Southeast Asia, both Asean and India have the potential to operationalise their comprehensive strategic partnership towards ensuring Indian Ocean stability, sustainability and prosperity.

There are several key areas for collaboration. First, joint maritime surveillance and information sharing can be developed, establishing a comprehensive system to monitor and address security threats.

Second, India and Asean members can collaborate on capacity-building initiatives, including training programmes, workshops and joint exercises. This would not only enhance Southeast Asia’s maritime capabilities but also share best practices and expertise in maritime domain awareness, search and rescue operations, and disaster responses.

Singaporean sailors wave as India’s INS Delhi sails past Singapore’s RSS Supreme at the week-long Asean-India Maritime Exercise in May 2023. Photo: Facebook/Singapore Navy

Third, joint anti-piracy operations such as coordinated patrols and joint naval operations can combat piracy and armed robbery in Indian Ocean.

Fourth, establish a framework for joint humanitarian and disaster relief operations, prioritising Indian Ocean emergencies by developing and maintaining a network to deploy assets and resources quickly.

Fifth, Asean members must deepen engagements within Indian Ocean institutions. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are part of the Indian Ocean Rim Association; it would be beneficial for other Asean members to engage as dialogue partners. Accordingly, India can facilitate the integration of Southeast Asian non-members in the association.

This can hardly be an exhaustive list given the growing concerns of Southeast Asian countries over Indian Ocean stability and security. The time is ripe to maximise the utility and scope of the Asean-India comprehensive strategic partnership when it comes to the Indian Ocean.

Dr Shristi Pukhrem is deputy director (academics and research) at the India Foundation

Don McLain Gill is a Philippines-based geopolitical analyst, author, and lecturer in the Department of International Studies, De La Salle University, the Philippines



Read More

Leave a Reply