Africa and the Indian Ocean – II
by Ramtanu Maitra on 11 Feb 2009 0 Comment

The Indian Ocean Factor
Perhaps the most fundamental factor driving New Delhi’s policy toward Zimbabwe and Africa generally concerns the Indian Ocean and its place in India’s security. Simply put, the Indian Ocean is India’s lifeline. India’s access to the Americas, Africa, Europe and parts of East Asia requires a non-threatening Indian Ocean and friendly surrounding shores. It is also a reality that the Indian Ocean carries the fleets of the world’s most powerful states and the oil wealth of the Persian Gulf.

To strengthen this maritime access route near its shores, as well as to ensure security to the country, India has begun to take serious naval measures. To begin with, after years of hesitancy, New Delhi has firmly acknowledged the strategic importance of the Andaman Sea. The Indian Navy is setting up a Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) off Port Blair on the Andaman Islands - also known as the Bay Islands and located midway between the Bay of Bengal and the Malacca Strait - to give it blue-water status. It is evident New Delhi believes that the new strategic command will remain vulnerable unless the entire Andaman Sea is brought under the full control of the Indian Navy.

The FENC has another important purpose. The Malacca Strait has become the hunting ground of pirates. The US nudge to bring the Indian Navy to help patrol the strait would mean, according to some analysts, Washington’s tacit approval of India’s assertion of naval control over the Andaman Sea, the eastern mouth of the Indian Ocean and the waters that surround Sri Lanka. Although India is not party to any security arrangement for the Malacca Strait, the immediate purpose of any joint patrols would be to prevent smuggling, piracy, drug and gun trafficking, poaching and illegal immigration in the region.

There FENC is a well-thought-out development. When fully developed by 2012, it will have a chain of small anchor stations and three main bases. The command will include submarines. The upgraded naval ship repair yard at Port Blair already refits minor war vessels, and FENC will build and repair bigger ships. This will release more warships for operations and provide more operational space in alternative ports for fleet ships and submarines.

As for models, Russia has a similar base in the Black Sea, and the US naval base at Hawaii comes close. FENC will be larger than the former US base at Subic Bay in the Philippines, spreading from Narcondam to Indira Point. Car Nicobar will serve as the vital link for various FENC stations. FENC will have state-of-the-art naval electronic warfare systems that can extend as far as Southeast Asia. Also, the Russian Navy will likely assist in setting up a few armament projects.

The plan to set up FENC was set in concrete in 1995 following a closed-door meeting in Washington between then Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and former US President William J. Clinton. At the time, Pentagon officials made a formal request to the United Front coalition government in New Delhi to open the base, but for various reasons the Indian government did not respond. Washington is expected to partly fund FENC because it is considered part of a US-led security arrangement for Asia in which India plays a key role. American funding was cleared in 2000 when President Clinton visited India.

More Specific Threats

The FENC will provide peripheral and long-distance security to India. But the Indian Navy is also looking at other threats posed to the country via the Andaman Sea. For instance, the increased activities of Pakistan along the Myanmar coast trouble Indian authorities. According to Jane’s Defense, Pakistan has supplied Myanmar with several shiploads of ordnance and other military hardware, such as 106mm M40 recoilless rifles and various small arms over the past decade, and regularly trains Myanmar's soldiers to operate Chinese tanks, fighter aircraft and howitzers.

New Delhi has also noted that Myanmar’s officers attend Pakistan's Military Staff College at Quetta in Baluchistan province, and since 2001 a full-time Pakistani defense attaché has been posted in Yangon. That year three Pakistan Navy ships, including a submarine and a destroyer, called at Yangon, and this was followed by President General Pervez Musharraf's visit to Myanmar. The joint communiqué issued at the end of the visit mentioned the Jammu and Kashmir issue, raising concern in New Delhi because Myanmar rarely, if ever, comments on third countries. At least one security source said that Pakistan was negotiating to build an airstrip in the Chin region of Myanmar, which is contiguous to Mizoram.

Indian naval intelligence also claims that it is through these waters that guns are run into south Bangladesh and the northwestern coast of Myanmar, to arm Naga insurgents in India and the Rohingiyas of Myanmar along the Arakan Coast, as well as the Karens and the Kachins of northern Myanmar. In addition, India’s northeast, which has remained in deep turmoil for decades, has nurtured secessionist rebels using the waters of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.

Neighboring Myanmar has a number of powerful insurgent groups that are interlinked with the Indian northeastern rebels. A large portion of illegal weapons that come into northeast India originate in Cambodia. The underground route to South Asia is said to begin on the Ranong islands off the Thai coast, from where the arms are shipped through the Andaman Sea to Cox’s Bazaar along the Bangladesh coast. From here, the weapons are divided up into smaller consignments and carried to various destinations in Myanmar and northeastern India through different routes.

In early April 2004, on a tip-off, Bangladeshi joint forces seized 10 truckloads of submachine-guns, AK-47 assault rifles and other firearms and bullets in a swoop on the Karnaphuli coast in the port city of Chittagong. It was the largest-ever arms haul. Police and coast guard forces found the new submachine guns, AK-47 rifles, submachine carbines, Chinese pistols, rocket shells and launchers, hand grenades and bullets stuffed in some 1,500 wooden boxes.

But long before the big haul was reported, it was widely known that international arms smugglers were active in the coastal belts in Chittagong and Cox's Bazar. The vast coastline in the bay near Ukhia in Cox's Bazaar and border points between Bangladesh and Myanmar had become a sanctuary for arms smugglers, mainly in the absence of an adequate security watch. The smugglers were bringing in sophisticated firearms, including military hardware such as AK-47 and M-16 rifles, long-range pistols, revolvers and grenades, among other items.

A Positive Thrust

India’s strengthening of its presence in the Andaman Sea is not only a response to negative developments in the region. New Delhi’s interest in, and involvement with, Southeast Asia has been growing steadily over the past decade, and its concern for development of the Andaman basin has grown accordingly. The planned building of a deep-sea port in Sittwe in Myanmar, together with a new highway connecting it to Kanchanaburi in Thailand, will no doubt contribute further toward closer trade and commercial links between the two regions.

These developments can also be put under India’s broad “Look East” policy involving the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and “rim” states farther afield such as Japan and South Korea. India’s diplomatic success with these nations, in large part due to its naval diplomacy, can be seen as a model for New Delhi’s approach to Africa.

The Indian Navy has been exercising with its counterpart in Singapore for more than a decade, and in recent years with the Indonesian Navy and the Thai Navy. MILAN 2003 saw naval units from Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Singapore exercise with the Indian navy. The substantive naval exercises Malabar 07-2 saw Indian ships arrayed around the Andaman Islands during September 2007, the aircraft carrier INS Viraat and six other warships joining American, Japanese, Australian and Singaporean vessels. Typical of India’s emerging maritime power projection in these eastern reaches of the Indian Ocean was the dispatch of a powerful naval group, consisting of INS Viraat, accompanied by the guided missile destroyers INS Rajput and INS Ranjit, the indigenously built missile corvette INS Khukri and the replenishment  tanker, INS Shakti.

In a 2005 briefing paper, “Cooperative Security in the Strait of Malacca: Policy Options for India,” Vijay Sakhuja, a visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and a former Indian Navy officer, drew attention to the positive impression that India’s naval patrolling has had on the Malacca littorals. “Many regional countries have seen the Indian Navy’s vessels patrolling the Malacca Strait and are confident about its cooperative approach and its capability to challenge forces inimical to the safety and security of maritime enterprise in the Strait of Malacca. The Indian Navy has managed to play a highly positive and balanced role, fully cooperating with and augmenting the regional efforts, but always, as it were, from behind - from a secondary position. In fact, the Indian Navy’s adaptable approach has won the confidence of the regional nations on the viability and the efficacy of coordinated patrols with the Indian Navy.”

Outlining the kind of role that the Malacca littorals would like India to play, Lawrence Prabhakar, associate professor at the Madras Christian College and research fellow at the maritime security programme at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, points out that these countries would prefer joint exercises with the Indian Navy and Coast Guard in the region.

The Maritime Matrix and Africa

India’s maritime needs have long been stressed in some quarters. Interestingly, this echoes the late American geo-strategist Alfred Mahan’s advocacy and stress, at the end of the nineteenth century, on the potential efficacy of “sea power.” Mahan viewed the sea, and in particular the Pacific Ocean, as the domain in which America must stride forth, and strongly advocated the construction of long-range ships, “the modern monsters of the deep.” His vision of the Pacific Ocean was geo-political, but also geo-economic, where “the convergence there of so many ships… will constitute a centre of commerce, inter-oceanic encounters” between states, “one whose approaches will be watched jealously, and whose relations to the other centres of the Pacific by the [maritime] lines joining it to them must be examined carefully.”

Today the Indian Ocean and its extensions can be viewed as ocean ranges to be similarly traversed and moulded by modern-day equivalents of Mahan’s blue water “monsters.”

To begin with, the Indian objective is to have a reasonably strong presence farther south along the east coast of Africa.  India has activated a key monitoring station in northern Madagascar, complete with radar and surveillance gear to intercept maritime communications. The post was made operational in July 2007 as part of the Indian Navy’s strategy to protect the country’s sea lanes of commerce. Under construction when India took on a lease from Antananarivo, the monitoring station will link up with similar naval facilities in Kochi and Mumbai to gather intelligence on foreign navies operating in the region and facilitate possible manoeuvers by the Indian Navy there.

While the station will also monitor piracy and terrorist activities, its primary aim is to counter-balance the growing Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. The station is India’s first in the southern Indian Ocean that is gaining importance due to increasing oil traffic across the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel route preferred by supertankers. India has also set up listening stations in Mozambique, in part to monitor Chinese movements, Indian defense analyst Rahul Bedi notes, and has announced plans to have a fleet of aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines at sea in the next decade.

In addition, New Delhi is looking at developing another monitoring facility in the near future on an atoll it has leased from Mauritius. Mauritius is of great naval strategic importance. Like other islands and territories in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was all-important to Britain as well as to France, South Africa and, later, the United States, because of the trade routes (particularly the Gulf oil tanker routes), possible off-shore oil deposits along the East African coast, and for monitoring Soviet shipping and submarine activity during the Cold War.

The island of Mauritius, which lies about 500 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, is only 40 miles from north to south and 25 miles from east to west at its widest. Yet with a population of more than one million, it is one of the most densely populated areas of the world. Formerly a French colony, it was ceded to Britain in 1814.  The country was granted self-government in 1964; and in March 1968 it became fully independent, but on condition that the British government be allowed to purchase the Chagos Archipelago, which lay 1,500 miles to the northeast and was administered from Mauritius. This transaction was forced upon the government of Mauritius despite a UN resolution passed by the General Assembly in December 1965, which called on Britain to take no action that would dismember the territory of Mauritius or violate its territorial integrity.

Elsewhere in the western Indian Ocean, India forged its first military relationship with a Gulf state in 2002, when New Delhi and Oman agreed to hold regular combined exercises and cooperate in training and defense production. They also initiated a regular strategic dialogue and, in 2003, signed a defense cooperation pact. The pact provides for the export and import of weapons, military training, and coordination of security-related issues.

India and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also have signed a Framework Agreement for Economic Cooperation and have begun negotiations on a free trade pact. New Delhi’s connections with Oman and the five other GCC states, however, still are relatively undeveloped. As one Indian observer noted recently, “With our growing dependence on imported oil and gas, stability in this region is crucial for our welfare and well-being. Around 3.7 million Indian nationals live in the six GCC countries. They remit around $8 billion annually.” On an earlier occasion, India’s commerce minister offered the same view: “India has successfully pursued a ‘Look East’ policy to come closer to countries in Southeast Asia. We must similarly come closer to our western neighbours in the Gulf.”

The navy has already made its presence felt along the African coast with regular warships deployments to monitor piracy and terrorist movements. “With berthing rights in Oman and monitoring stations in Madagascar, Mauritius, Kochi and Mumbai, the navy will effectively box in the region to protect sea lanes right from Mozambique and the Cape of Good Hope to the Gulf of Oman,” an Indian official pointed out recently. Last year, India also inked an agreement with Mozambique to mount periodic maritime patrolling off its vast coast. In 2003, the Indian navy provided seaward protection for the African Union summit in Mozambique.

India has also been active in forging a close relationship with the Maldives, another South Asian nation. This linkage has been reinforced by India’s considerable material and other assistance in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami. These island-nation initiatives were strengthened in September 2005 by the creation of a new defense ministry office headed by a two-star admiral charged with assisting such states. According to the Indian naval chief, these states are “vital to India” and “friendly and well disposed,” but their security remains fragile.

A friendly African coast is also a necessity for India’s emerging commercial and security relations and the related need to pursue linkages further west. India’s pre-colonial relationship with coastal Africa has remained intact.  New Delhi’s key connections today are with some of the states in the Horn of Africa, South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique and, especially, the Islands off the African coast, including Mauritius and the Seychelles. In the Horn, India is providing the force commander and the largest contingent of troops for the UN mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea. India also just concluded significant naval manoeuvers in the Gulf of Aden, featuring drills with allied Task Force Horn of Africa units and a port call in Djibouti.

The need to develop naval linkages with nations further west can no longer be ignored. For instance, Israel also has an Indian Ocean footprint that apparently encompasses the Bab-el-Mandeb, the southern entrance to the Red Sea and a key choke point, and probably points beyond. India’s aim here is to link itself with another powerful state whose sphere thus intersects its own. At the same time, New Delhi also seeks the advanced military equipment, training, and other help - probably including technology and advice on nuclear weapons and missiles - that Israel can sell or provide. The official publication of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, World Affairs, claims that India is acquiring technology from Israel for its Agni-III missile as well as for a miniature nuclear warhead, which India would need were it to deploy a sea-based (i.e., Indian Ocean–based) strategic nuclear deterrent.

At the other end of the continent, an important connection is developing with South Africa, through bilateral arrangements and a trilateral (India-Brazil-South Africa) relationship. Developments in the security arena are striking and were emphasized in late 2004, when the Indian Air Force conducted a combined air-defense exercise with its South African counterpart - the first combined air exercise ever conducted by India on the African continent. The participating Indian Mirage 2000 fighters, deployed from north central India flew with help from newly acquired Il-78 aerial tankers, to South Africa via Mauritius. India and South Africa conducted combined naval drills off the African coast even more recently, in June 2005.

In recent years, India has developed a very important bilateral relationship with South Africa, through bilateral arrangements as well as a trilateral tie: India-Brazil-South Africa. Developments in the security arena are striking. This came out in the form of the India, Brazil, South Africa Dialogue Forum (IBSA), a functional cooperation between the three major developing powers belonging to three different continents.

“IBSA is a process,” Brazilian Foreign Ministry Undersecretary-general for Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East Roberto Jaguaribe said on the occasion of the second IBSA summit in 2007. “It is dynamic, not static.” IBSA was created in June 2003.

For all practical purposes, IBSA will be a trade and developmental node. However, the proliferation of such trade will depend upon the long-term security of the Indian Ocean and Atlantic Ocean. As Jaguaribe pointed out, “Brazil’s global foreign trade has grown at about 20 percent annually for the past four or five years, and now totals some $250 billion. This growth has been faster in non-traditional areas, such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Concerning Africa, our trade with the continent has grown by three times over the past five years. Our trade with India has also grown strongly…”

Military co-operation, though discussed at senior levels by both India and Brazil, appears not to have produced the same level of cooperation found in the diplomatic and economic spheres. Certainly, the spectacle of joint military exercises with the Indian and Brazilian navies, agreed at the last IBSA summit, will raise the stakes for those wishing to achieve a closer degree of cooperation between South Africa and China. Moreover, South African weapons producers are by some accounts in competition with their Chinese counterparts for markets in Africa, including Sudan.


In conclusion, the deliberate forward-positioning policies of New Delhi are designed not in contravention of its traditional rhetoric of the Indian Ocean as a “zone of peace,” but to help implement that policy. In reality, a strong presence on the part of India in the Indian Ocean, and along the East African coast, would ensure peaceful maritime traffic through those important sea lanes - in much the same way the US Navy successfully pursued Alfred Mahan’s vision for the Pacific in the years past. 

New Delhi’s position vis-à-vis the internal turmoil in Zimbabwe, and the South African, and, in a broader sense, the African Union, engagement in a dialogue to end the turmoil, is part of a strategy to maintain a strong Indian presence in the East African coast.

(This article was written for Agni in August 2008, but retains a larger relevance for Indian strategic thinkers – Editor)
The author is South Asian Analyst at Executive Intelligence Review News Services Inc.

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