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.
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.
Indiaand China in fact agreed informally in late 2008 that in the absence of any clarity on an UN-mandated Flotilla for anti-piracy operations, it was imperative for individual nations to take appropriate steps to protect their national interests. Accordingly, the PLA Navy dispatched two of its latest guided missile destroyers, the 5,850-tonne Luhai class Wuhan (No 169) and the 6,100-tonne Luyang class Haikou (No 171) and its largest 23,000 tonne fleet replenishment ship Weishanhu (No 887) for anti-piracy operation in the region.
Admiral Wu Shengli, chief of the PLA Navy that time remarked: ‘It is the first time we are going abroad to protect our strategic interests armed with military force, and it is also the first time for us to organise a naval force on an international humanitarian mission, and the first time for our Navy to protect important shipping lanes far from our shores.’ Rear Admiral Du Jingcheng, commander of what is China’s first expeditionary fleet in over a century, commented that the deployment marked a new chapter for the PLA Navy, which has traditionally focused on the defence of coastal waters.
China’s decision was understandable. Like India, it is largely dependent on sea traffic for its huge trade. In 2008 alone, 1,265 merchant vessels flying the Chinese Flag or those bound for China transited through the waters off Aden. Seven of them were hijacked.
Besides the Indian and Chinese naval deployment, an American-led Task Force (TF) 151 is specifically stationed in the area for anti-piracy operations.
As a result of this combined pressure, pirates found it difficult to target merchant vessels in the Gulf of Eden so by mid-2010, the Somali and Yemeni operatives shifted their attention eastward.
The incidents of hijacking in the East Arabian Sea suddenly witnessed an increase from November 2010. Now the Indian navy had a new task on hand.
To counter this new trend, Indian substantially increased its anti-piracy deployment in the East Arabian Sea since November 2010.
As a result, the Indian Navy apprehended two pirate mother ships on January 28 and February 5. A total of 43 pirates were apprehended and 44 fishermen rescued by Indian Navy in these two incidents.
Further success awaited the Indian Navy. In a major operation on March 12, the Navy intercepted pirate mother ship Vega 5 in Arabian Sea. It caught 61 pirates. Thirteen crew members were rescued. In the most recent incident, a hijacked fishing vessel Morteza was intercepted by the Indian Navy on March 26 with 16 pirates caught and 16 fishermen rescued.
That a total of 120 pirates were arrested and 73 fishermen rescued in less than 4 months shows how serious the threat of piracy has become. More worryingly for India, all these incidents happened very close to Indian shores, creating a new headache for the Indian Navy.
Aware of the implications of the new threat, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the country’s highest decision-making body on matters of security decided to tweak the existing rules of engagement for the Indian navy deployed for anti-piracy operations. The CCS, chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and attended by the ministers of Defence, Home (internal security), External Affairs and Finance, approved a series of measures including legal, administrative, and operational aspects of combating piracy.
Among the moves at the meeting was the formulation of suitable standard operating procedures (SOPs) for the navy and for its coordination with other navies engaged in anti-piracy operations. The CCS also approved the Indian Navy’s demand that it be provided powers to take all action within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas and in keeping with the best practices of other navies that are patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast.
As the piracy threat continues to grow—and as the pirates themselves become increasingly audacious—India is showing its willingness to be at the forefront of this international fight even as it continues to develop its role in the broader war on terror. Piracy may provide a challenge, but it's also giving India another opportunity to show it is willing and able to step up as co-operative regional and perhaps one day global power.
Nitin Gokhale is Defence & Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster, NDTV 24×7