June 25, 2024

Balkan Travellers

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Map of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, showing the intensity of maritime traffic in December and the various incidents reported since November 2023 in this region (Paz PIZARRO)

India is flexing its maritime muscles by strengthening the Arabian Sea

Dramatic drone footage showing Indian commandos chasing pirates after an attack in the Arabian Sea illustrates New Delhi's “significant” expansion of naval power that reflects global ambitions, analysts said.

The commandos were deployed this month from an Indian warship after an attempted hijack of a commercial cargo tanker, part of a major surge in naval forces in seas where rival neighbor China has long expanded its reach.

“It is important given the geopolitical context” and “aggressive use of maritime assets,” said Uday Bhaskar, president of the New Delhi-based Policy Studies Association.

In recent years, Beijing has negotiated infrastructure deals with countries surrounding the Indian Ocean as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Djibouti, where it opened its first overseas military base in 2017, raising concerns among Indian officials. .

Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is expected to be re-elected later this year, is looking to add to the global weight of India, the world's fifth-largest economy, which last year replaced China as the most populous country.

“As India continues to rise in the hierarchy of international great powers, it envisions projecting itself as a leading and responsible power,” said Don McLean Gil of De La Salle University in the Philippines.

Gill told AFP that its naval deployment comes within the framework of its “desire to play a greater and more proactive role as a responsible partner in the fields of security and development.”

– 'Very proactive move' –

Indian combat operations against pirates are not new.

The Navy has been deployed continuously off Somalia since 2008 with the escalation of piracy, as it bombed and sank pirate “mother ships” in areas extending from the coast of India to the Gulf of Aden. They boarded boats with helicopters and arrested dozens of militants.

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But the Navy's December deployment of a much larger force — including three guided-missile destroyers and P-8I reconnaissance aircraft to “maintain a deterrent presence” after a series of naval attacks — represents a rapid buildup of forces.

Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, during the launch of India's newest warship, to join a locally built fleet that includes an aircraft carrier and submarines, pledged to protect shipping “from the sea to the heights of the sky.”

The response followed a December 23 drone attack on the tanker MV Chem Pluto 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) off the coast of India, which Washington blamed on Iran — claims Tehran called “worthless.” .

The Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen launched dozens of attacks in the Red Sea, targeting ships linked to Israel in response to the Israeli war against the Palestinian Hamas movement, which Tehran also supports.

India, which has close trade relations with Iran, has not joined the US-led force fighting the Houthis.

US President Joe Biden said on Thursday that US and British forces launched air strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen in a “defensive action” after recent attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea.

The United States and nine of its allies said in a joint statement that their goal is to stabilize vital sea lanes and “protect the free flow of commerce” there.

But as international naval forces shift north into the Red Sea – raising fears that pirates will once again exploit the gap, with the first successful case of Somali piracy since 2017 recorded in December – New Delhi remains concerned about the impact on trade.

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One report from the New Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing Countries warned that India could lose $30 billion in exports this year – a six percent drop – if more shipping is forced to reroute through South Africa.

But Admiral Hari Kumar, the Indian Chief of Naval Staff, told reporters on Wednesday, during an event to showcase Indian-made long-range missiles, that India was taking “very proactive measures” to ensure that pirates do not venture into the Indian Ocean region. Unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

– 'Run away like a rat' –

On January 5, after the Liberian-flagged MV Lila Norfolk reported a hijacking attempt about 450 nautical miles off the Somali coast, an Indian destroyer and a surveillance aircraft tracked the ship and gave a “strong warning,” the Navy said.

By the time the special commando force mounted so-called “clearance” operations, the pirates had fled – but the footage was widely shared by the Navy as evidence of their “quick reaction” capabilities.

Bhaskar, a retired naval officer, said this showed that India is “capable of establishing a credible naval presence in the Indian Ocean region when required at short notice.”

Beijing and New Delhi are competing for influence across the Indian Ocean, and India has previously deployed patrols in the disputed South China Sea and the Western Pacific.

India also expanded its power in the Arabian Sea at a time when China, the rival Asian power, was more “cautious in its response given its concern not to damage its recently developing relations with the Arab world,” Gill added.

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Former Navy spokesman DK Sharma insisted that the deployment was only aimed at “miscreants exploiting the war between Israel and Hamas” by attacking ships.

“India believes in maintaining peace in the global commons,” Sharma said. “We have no ambition to say that the Indian Ocean is the Ocean of India.”

But he also expressed confidence that Beijing “took note” of India's swift response, which forced the pirates to “flee like rats.”

“China can look at it any way it wants,” he said.