Zanzibar - dhow caught in the late afternoon light 

The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh will be arriving in Tanzania today . This visit , part of a six day trip in which he has attended the Indo-African summit too, is seen primarily in the context of India’s outreach to African nations. However, rather than carrying out the business and strategic dialogue between India and the East African countries under a general Indo-African dialogue, Indian interests could be served better by  reviving and strengthening the ancient trade and strategic links that once pervaded the Indian Ocean.

Unlike the Atlantic or the Pacific, Indian Ocean has been less of a barrier than a uniting force. It was a shared space , an arena for three way interaction between the Indian , East African and South East Asian cultures. The regularity and convenience of monsoon winds not only aided in navigation, but also helped bring about a diffusion of languages, cultures, people and ideas through out the vast Indian Ocean region. These ancient links had endured for centuries, until the arrival of first the Portuguese and then the English all but decimated them. As the major powers such as India, Indonesia, Oman , Kenya, came under foreign rule , the links between these countries were also severed. The economic decline of these major powers also led to a decline in the intraregional trade in the Indian Ocean community.

The situation is very different now. The major powers of the Indian Ocean region viz India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Oman, Bangladesh, Kenya, Tanzania are all economies which are growing at a scorching rate. Not only is their trade with the developed world growing, the south-south trade is also booming.  They have also increasingly begin to share the same security and strategic concerns , be it the prevailing piracy near the Horn of Africa and the associated problem of the failed state of Somalia,  the security of vital sea lanes or the rising Chinese influence. These cultures also , and very importantly , mostly speak the same language : English and are by and large democratic, secular nations.

India has a central role to play in this community. As the pre-eminent naval power in the region , and also the largest economy , it is India’s responsibility to lay the foundations for a strong economic as well as strategic partnership with the Indian Ocean rim states. Not only would it make eminent economic sense, but also provide India with a framework to protect its interest in the Indian Ocean which it considers its backyard.

India has already made some progress in this direction.Much of it has however been in the characteristically lackluster and lethargic way which has been a hallmark of Indian foreign policy. The Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation has been dead for years now though lately there has been some talk about reviving it. The Indian navy is slowly expanding its capabilities as a blue water force but much of its focus has been directed towards the East Asian region. Indian naval engagement with East Africa has thus far only consisted of some basing agreements with Madagascar, a multi lateral naval exercise with South Africa and Brazil , and some flag showing visits by the ships. The navy should redouble its efforts to effectively project power on the East African coast , particularly so in the context of the rising threat of piracy . The various multilateral events like the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium should also be further expanded in scope. But above all , what is needed is a strong will and a genuine desire from New Delhi to shed its usual ambiguity in foreign policy and closely integrate with other stake holders in a close knit economic and security framework.

It is inevitable that in the twenty first century , the Indian Ocean will eclipse  both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans  and retake its place in the history as the most important trading and strategic region in the planet. The question is whether the Indian leadership has the vision and the energy to reestablish India as the preeminent power in the region.

Kandahar again

April 21, 2011

India is facing a Kandahar like situation again .However, this time it is not set in the bleak wind blown barrenness of Kandahar , but in the warm tropical waters of Indian ocean off the coast of Somalia.

Over the weekend, a group of pirates holding the Asphalt Venture, a Panamanian-flagged merchant vessel, were supposed to let the ship’s Indian crew go after receiving a $3.5 million ransom. But in a first for Somali pirates, the brigands decided they wanted to punish India for its aggro anti-pirate stance.

The pirates kept the money and released only eight hostages, holding onto seven. They then demanded India swap their 120 comrades captured by the Indian navy over the past weeks, vowing to hold onto any Indian nationals taken until then.

 

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And true to its style , the Indian government doesn’t appear to know what to do yet. On Monday, it announced that the INS Talwar, which conducts anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, will set sail for the eastern coast of Somalia towards the Asphalt Venture. Officially, the Talwar won’t launch any swashbuckling boarding operations, as it’s just there to “keep a close eye on the situation.” Officials have ruled out using their special forces to free the hostages.

Whether the Talwar launches a raid to free the remaining hostages or not, it’s clear that some kind of threshold has been crossed here. The pirates holding the Asphalt Venture aren’t just looking to pressure a company for ransom now, but to scare off India from launching rescue missions later.

This could be just another example of pirate solidarity which was much threatened but never actually carried out. Or perhaps this is another manifestation of the commonly held perception of  India as a soft state which can be easily cowed into submission. Or perhaps it could be part of a wider terrorist-pirate complex with wider aims and probably backing from some powerful third party actors.

But whatever it is , it is no less an ominous portent then Kandahar was . As Kandahar singled out India as a soft state to the terrorists and convinced them to redouble their efforts in trying to destabilize India, this incident too is going to decide whether India , the logical custodian of Indian Ocean , can establish its will on the waters of its ocean.

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Piracy is a growing danger.  India is already facing more pirate attacks closer to its shores and a further proliferation of piracy would be disastrous for India’s trade much of which passes through these waters. Moreover, India has over 35,000 nationals employed globally as seamen on commercial ships sailing under various flags. If pirates now won’t release Indian hostages, this may have an effect on insurance premiums for ships employing Indian crew.

However, appeasement definitely wont work . Any bad precedent set by the Indian government, as was set in Kandahar, would only further embolden pirates. This could turn out to be even more worrisome if there is a sort of pirate-terrorist alliance which would have more than monetary reasons to target Indian shipping.

India needs to aggressively  take the lead in stamping out piracy . This might not be a painless process in the short term but would help protect not only our vast seaborne trade but also consolidate India’s profile as the pre eminent naval power in Indian Ocean.

But perhaps I dream too much. In this country , fixated with Amar Singh and his political shenanigans, this incident is not even front page news.