In September 2008, a registered merchant vessel travelling from Hong Kong to Europe was attacked by pirates and taken to the Somali coast. On board were 22 crew members, 18 of them Indians.
This was by no means the first hijacking by Somali pirates and as events have proven since then, not the last attempt either. And yet, this incident is seen as a turning point in the international efforts to curb piracy on the high seas, especially in the Gulf of Aden area, since it was then that the Indian government was forced to shed its inhibitions and order its navy to join the anti-piracy fight.
It was important for India to launch the operation, given that the country’s trade is heavily dependent on sea traffic. According to Indian government figures, annual Indian imports through the Gulf of Aden route alone are valued at $50 billion while exports are pegged at $60 billion. Therefore, the safety and unhindered continuity of maritime trade through this route became a primary national concern, since it directly impacts India’s booming economy.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
India’s shipping ministry estimates that about 24 Indian-flagged merchant ships travel the Gulf of Aden every month. Although this accounts for only 13 percent of India’s trade ( the remainder is carried in foreign ‘bottoms’), the crew of most foreign flagged vessels comprise Indian nationals, as India’s large seafaring community (approximately 100,000 in number) accounts for 6 percent of the world’s merchant mariners.
So since October 2008, an Indian warship has been consistently stationed in the Gulf of Aden, primarily assisting Indian-flagged merchant vessels to safely navigate the most vulnerable stretch in the internationally recognized seaway. But that’s not all. In addition to escorting Indian flagged ships, ships of other countries have also been provided protection by the Indian Navy.
Merchant ships are escorted along the entire length of the (490 nm long and 20 nm wide) Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) that has been recognized for use by all merchant vessels. According to the Indian Navy, 1603 ships (175 Indian flagged and 1428 foreign flagged from different countries) were escorted by Indian Naval ships in the Gulf of Aden between Oct 2008 and January 2011.
During this deployment for anti-piracy operations, the Indian Naval ships managed to prevent 31 piracy attempts on merchant vessels. But the Gulf of Aden is not the only area where the Indian Navy was deployed. Since 2009 it has also deployed ships and aircraft regularly for anti-piracy patrols in the EEZ of Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius, at the request of these governments.
Close on the heels of India’s decision came the path-breaking step by the PLA Navy to send its warships to the Gulf of Eden, signaling for many strategic thinkers the beginning of a new phase of India-China rivalry, this time in India’s backyard. But Indian Naval officers were quick to point out that Beijing was well within its rights to try and protect its own merchant vessels or merchant vessels carrying goods for China.