Expert Speak India with Africa
Published on Mar 28, 2021
Leveraging experience in capacity building, information sharing, and HADR in the Western Indian Ocean In recent years, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has been witnessing sweeping changes and considerable turbulence in power competition, as more external powers attempt to establish a permanent presence. The region is confronted with pressing challenges to transnational security issues like piracy, smuggling, illegal fishing, sea level rise, natural disasters, and maritime terrorism. These challenges demand proactive maritime policies and responses. Hence, it has become an imperative for India, being a resident power in the IOR, to create a secure maritime environment by bolstering naval capabilities. In this endeavour, the Indian Navy has been proactively engaging with like-minded countries to harness the capabilities of each IOR littorals and to develop collective maritime competence with a view to engender SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region). Since the vast expanse of oceans is global commons, there is always an intrinsic interest to collaborate and cooperate with like-minded nations to build capacities. An emerging theatre of growing Indian nautical presence is the Western Indian Ocean Region (WIOR) that includes the East African littorals and the African Indian Ocean island nations.Since the decade of 2000, the rise of new, transnational maritime security challenges has brought the WIOR to the forefront of international attention.Both from a geostrategic and geo-economic point of view, the WIOR holds immense value. The region is home to high marine biodiversity and has an active maze of sea lanes that carry significant portions of the world’s container and oil shipments. For decades, Indian ships and merchants have traversed the waters of the WIO and conducted maritime trade with countries in the region. It is, therefore, natural for two close maritime neighbours like India and the African WIO littorals to forge a stronger maritime partnership with each other. This will help supplement India’s strong political and diplomatic relations with countries in the region and provide a fillip to India’s Africa outreach. Map of the Western Indian Ocean Region Source: Safeseas

India’s approach thus far and associated challenges

Despite having strong trading links with its littorals and viewing the region as part of its extended neighbourhood, the WIOR has received scant attention within the Indian maritime security calculus. Indian engagement in the region has been ad hoc in nature and limited to conducting anti-piracy patrols since 2002; providing training to African naval personnel, defence officers, and civilian personnel engaged in maritime administration in Indian institutes; goodwill port calls; and development of monitoring stations (Agalega in Mauritius, Assumption in Seychelles, and in northern Madagascar), and conducting hydrographic surveys. Additionally, ensuring resource security has also been driving Indian engagement in the WIOR. The discovery of rare earth materials, oil plants, and a vast array of natural resources through seabed mining and deep-sea excavation on African eastern shores has captured the Indian imagination. African countries like Tanzania and South Africa have a decent presence of rare earth reserves. Various Indian private and public players have also invested in diverse sectors, including the extractive resource sector. Several Western Indian Ocean littorals are members of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and participate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). Such cooperation helps to improve interoperability between navies and enforce common norms and rules. India has also recently become an observer to two regional groupings: The Indian Ocean Commission (COI), and the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) and its 2017 Jeddah Amendment. There are also several challenges and limitations confronted by the Indian Navy in its engagement with African countries. Despite being more networked and technology-enabled than in the past, the Indian Navy continues to face budgetary constraints which hinder India’s efforts to bridge the gap between its commitment and implementation.Out of India’s tri-services, the Indian Navy continues to get the least allotment. In this year’s defence budget (2021–2022), the Indian Navy has been allocated INR 33,253 crores, while the Indian Army and Air Force has received INR 36,481 crores and INR 53,214 crores, respectively. The Indian Navy also needs to streamline the process of allocating its resources. It needs to prioritise the funding it receives for foreign assistance and promptly share with the relevant executing agencies.

Going forward

The Indian Navy’s engagement in the IOR has always been driven with the aim of developing friendly, accommodative, and supportive relationships. Since the beginning of the 2000s, security concerns over the rise of piracy and concerns over securing sea lanes and commercial trading routes have been the foremost pullfactor driving Indian engagement in the WIOR. Given the transnational nature of crimes, myriad non-traditional threats and capacity constraints on the African side, India’s maritime security engagement in WIOR has now diversified. India is placing emphasis on building purposive partnerships with like-minded WIOR littorals on emerging areas of cooperation like the blue economy, mapping of the continental shelf, transfer of naval hardware, and sharing of best practices. Despite having a long-established presence in the WIOR, India till now has not been able to capitalise on its strong political, diplomatic, and trading links with countries in the region. African nations are encouraging India to play a more proactive role as a security provider in the region. Therefore, India’s engagement in the region must aim to be in accordance with African needs and priorities, as outlined in the 2050 Africa Integrated Maritime (AIM) Strategy. Viewing maritime security cooperationwith African countries only through the lens of hard security will be counterproductive. Taking this into consideration, Indian engagement with countries in the WIOR must revolve around three dimensions where the Indian Navy has considerable experience. 1) Capacity building: In recent years, the WIOR has become a testing ground for capacity building projects that emerged as a response to the upsurge of Somalia-based piracy. Capacity building is now emerging as an alternative to development assistance, peacebuilding, or security sector reforms. Indian engagement with WIOR littorals has endeavoured to build capacities to tackle maritime insecurity at the regional level and contribute to sustainable economic development of the regional states.India has regularly provided countries like Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar, and Mozambique, with concessional lines of credit to facilitate their maritime capacity building. India has also gifted Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), Fast-Interceptor Boats (FIBs), and Dornier Do-228 surveillance aircraft. Since India has considerable expertise in shipbuilding, deals can be entered into with Indian shipyard companies to supply more patrol vessels to the coast guards of these African countries. India also organises workshops and provides courses on coastal management and coastal engineering techniques to Mauritius and Seychelles through the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. Additionally, India is conducting theme-based seminars on topics such as “legal provisions of IUU fishing”, “preservation of MPAs and LMMAs”, and workshops on fisheries management for countries like Somalia.These issues are of particular concern to African countries whose abilities remain constrained due to their limited maritime capacities. Since African countries lack the much-needed domain expertise, India can explore deputing retired naval and coast guard officers who have operational expertise to provide training to African naval and defence personnel on the ground. 2) Information Sharing:Strong maritime domain awareness (MDA) is an essential prerequisite for effective maritime enforcement capacity. Nations rely on multilateral information sharing to promote marine safety, protect vessels in distress, and deterring illegal incursions by foreign vessels. This provides an opportunity for India and WIOR countries to embark upon a cooperative and collective venture to create a common operational picture in the IOR to respond to regional maritime threats. India already has white shipping agreements with 21 countries in the Indian Ocean and is also posting  naval liaison officers (LOs) at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar and the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz(EMASOH) in Abu Dhabi. Countries like France and the US, with whom India has signed maritime intel-sharing pacts will be important partners for India to deepen MDA in the WIOR. India has also recently launched the Sindhu Netra satellite which will help to monitor suspicious ships operating in the IOR. India is also encouraging African countries like South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and Madagascar to depute naval liaison officers at India’s Information Fusion Centre for the Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR). 3) Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR):One of Indian Navy’s most prominent roles is to address non-traditional threats by undertaking HADR, NEO, and SAR operations. The IOR and its hinterland is prone to natural disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, and cyclones (Diane inMadagascar and Reunion, and Cyclone Idai in Mozambique), and man-made disasters like the MV Wakashio oil spill off Mauritius in 2020. Without distinguishing between natural or man-made disasters, the Indian Navy has assumed a benign role and has deployed assets to combat disasters in its maritime neighbourhood. HADR operations is now being incorporated by the Indian Navy as of one the foremost elements of India’s vision of SAGAR. By deploying ships in mission-based patterns, the Indian Navy has been able to assume the role of ‘first responder’ in the event of a disaster. African countries have been beneficiaries of India’s HADR operations, as was the case when India launched ‘Operation Vanilla’ to help flood-hit Madagascar. Even during the Wakashio oil spill, India promptly sent technical response team with specialied equipment like blowers, booms, and skimmers to assist in the cleanup efforts. The WIO’s marine and coastal ecosystem is fragile, despite being rich, diverse, and distinctive. The region is prone to natural disasters and any untoward incident risks bringing devastating consequences to the region’s ecosystem. Ensuring swift and coordinated responses with local authorities on ground remain key to mitigate such disasters. As India’s economy continues to growin size and openness, its contribution as a first responder through HADR operations in the WIOR will increase.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra

Abhishek Mishra is an Associate Fellow with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis (MP-IDSA). His research focuses on India and China’s engagement ...

Read More +