In the waters of the Indian Ocean, international warships keep watch against Somali pirates — but in the long run, newly arrived navies from India, China, Russia and elsewhere may be as much rivals as allies.
The US Navy estimates that on any given day as many as 30 to 40 warships are engaged in operations to keep shipping safe from young Somalis in skiffs with AK-47s and ladders.
While US, Nato and European Union forces make up the majority, the last two years have seen a growing presence from China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea and others.
While piracy — which has redrawn shipping routes and driven up insurance costs — is seen the main driver, all are seen also wanting to stake a claim to increasingly important sea lanes.
Certainly, the build-up says much about the way some powers are taking a more muscular role in world affairs.
But none of the relatively new entrants yet comes close to challenging the regional military dominance of the United States, which usually has at least one aircraft carrier in the area with enough firepower to sink almost all the other navies.
“These are still relatively smaller forces,” said Christian la Miere, naval expert at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “But if you’re looking forward over the next few decades, there is no doubt Asian navies will have a larger presence in the Indian Ocean relative to Western forces.”
The region is seen as becoming increasingly important. It accounts for 20% of global sea trade — and a much higher proportion of energy and container shipments.
It is the key shipping route for oil supplies from the Gulf, Chinese and Asian exports to Europe, and African resources — potentially food as well as minerals.
Western forces in the region may have their other agendas as well — from keeping tabs on potential Iranian weapons smuggling to monitoring extremists and militants in Somalia and Yemen — but for the emerging powers the key interest is seen as trade.
“The Indian Ocean is becoming a central sea lane,” said Nicolas Gvosdev, national security studies professor at the US Naval War College. “China does not trust leaving this vital link in the hands of the US Navy, and wants to guarantee its access.”
China’s task force — a permanent presence of three ships running convoys most days via Aden — is its first in the area since eunuch admiral Zheng He sailed in the 15th century.
Beijing’s modern naval commanders have suggested opening regional naval bases to support antipiracy operations on top of other new port projects in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Burma.
That will alarm India, which has long regarded the ocean as its backyard. Like most Asian powers, it is building its naval forces just as Western navies cut back.
Russia’s presence, usually a couple of ships, also marks an increase in naval deployment outside its immediate region.
Japan’s presence of ships and patrol aircraft is described by analysts as the first of its kind since World War II.
Admirals point to the deployment as a promising example of international cooperation. While there is no one overall commander of international efforts, there is coordination through monthly meetings and a secure internet chat room.
Some complain some of the emerging navies are too closely focused on safeguarding only their own national shipping, and could be used more effectively if coordination was better. Most emerging nations concentrate on simply escorting their own national flag shipping — although India is particularly keen to stress it has escorted vessels of all nationalities.
Certainly, while the warships have had some success disrupting attacks, the number of pirates is seen still rising.
But overall, shippers say the naval build-up is good news.
Comrades in arms?
“This is about protection of the trade routes,” said Peter Hinchcliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping. “We absolutely welcome the naval cooperation. Navies that were if not actually at war with each other then definitely rivals are working together and are comrades in arms.”
But some also see the rush of warships to the region — which largely began in 2008 after the hijacking of a Saudi oil tanker and a Ukrainian ship carrying battle tanks — as partly fuelled also by a worrying growing international rivalry.
“I don’t think it necessarily has to be one or the other,” said Naval War College’s Gvosdev. “It can be both.”
Meanwhile, cannier governments around the region may use the new focus on the Indian Ocean to their benefit. Chinese financial support was key to Sri Lanka’s victory in its three decade war with Tamil Tiger rebels after Western countries pulled back support over alleged human rights abuses.
To the concern of New Delhi, Beijing has helped fund a port at Hambantota on the island’s southern tip — although Sri Lanka has been keen to stress its civilian nature.
For those already concerned by rising international tensions over currencies, commodities and cyber warfare, Indian Ocean rivalry could yet prove another potential flashpoint.
“I do not want to join the dots on this because I do not like the implications,” said Michael Power, global strategist for South African Investec Asset Management. – Reuters