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Evaluating India-Africa Maritime Relations

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Asia Defense

Evaluating India-Africa Maritime Relations

Partnering Africa requires that India work with it in the maritime realm.

Evaluating India-Africa Maritime Relations
Credit: Indian Navy

On October 26, leaders of 54 African nations gathered in New Delhi for the third edition of the four-day India-Africa Forum Summit – an event billed in the Indian media as India’s most ambitious outreach program towards Africa. On the eve of the high-level conclave, reports indicated that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposed launch of “a new era of India-Africa relations” included a plan for the comprehensive development of Africa’s littorals. In keeping with India’s expanded focus on Africa’s maritime economic potential, commentary in the media suggested, the Indian government was keen to formalize a wide-ranging maritime partnership.

Indeed, the past few years have witnessed a reorientation in India’s nautical outlook towards Africa. With increasing emphasis on developing maritime relationships with Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Seychelles and Mauritius, India has reached out to African states through offers of greater military aid, capacity-building and training assistance. With its economic engagement in the African continent growing rapidly, New Delhi has also sought to widen its sphere of influence in the Western Indian Ocean. In a display of a more purposeful maritime diplomacy, Indian naval ships have increased their port visits to Africa’s East coast and smaller Indian Ocean island states.

Yet, India’s essential approach to maritime cooperation has revolved around anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. While it has provided security assistance to small island states in the Indian Ocean (undertaking regular patrols in the Exclusive Economic Zones of Mauritius and Seychelles, carrying out hydrographic surveys, even providing assistance in the establishment of a coastal radar network) the Indian Navy’s larger security initiatives have been animated by the need to safeguard energy and resource shipments in the waters off Somalia. Consequently, India’s most significant achievement in Africa has been the naval escorting of more than 3000 merchantmen since 2008, in the pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa.

Not surprisingly then, India’s security role in the Africa’s continental littorals has struggled to move beyond the set parameters of anti-piracy collaboration. With Indian naval ships constantly involved in collective maritime patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the East African coast, capacity building efforts – in terms of the provision of security and surveillance assets and critical technology to African navies and coast guards to help them perform basic constabulary functions – have remained rudimentary.

New Delhi’s inability to raise its security game in Africa, however, is only a smaller adjunct to its wider failure to leverage Africa’s huge maritime economic potential. With rising economic development and the gradual integration of African states into the global economy, Africa’s maritime sector has shown great promise. But even as African institutions and governments come together in a rare show of unity to secure the nautical commons, New Delhi has been lacking in its appreciation of Africa’s maritime developmental needs.

More crucially, Africa’s efforts to evolve a harmonizing vision for the continent’s economic sector have received little help from New Delhi. In January 2014, the African Union announced an Integrated Maritime Strategy- 2050 and “Plan of Action,” outlining a blueprint to address the continent’s maritime challenges for sustainable development and competitiveness. The strategy, meant to systematically address Africa’s maritime vulnerabilities, marked a declaratory shift away from a period of self-imposed sea blindness. While the plan differed from the individual maritime strategies of Africa’s other security communities – each having their own unique vision of comprehensive maritime developmental – there was hope that experienced maritime partners like India would assist in reconciling key divergences to develop a more coherent maritime vision for the continent.

Unfortunately, security discussions in New Delhi have continued to revolve almost exclusively around India’s political influence along the Africa’s Indian Ocean Rim. With a rise in pirate attacks in the Gulf of Guinea and India’s inability to contribute substantively to West Africa’s security needs, an impression has been created that New Delhi remains reluctant to provide security assistance in spaces deemed geopolitically unimportant.

Gulf of Guinea Piracy

Since 2012, the Gulf of Guinea has emerged as one of the most pirate-infested waters in the world, posing an urgent security threat to the maritime environment. Following a substantial decline in Somali piracy, growing attacks on the West coast of Africa have caused great public alarm. With an assault on local shipping nearly every second week, the Gulf of Guinea has emerged as the new epicenter of global piracy.

Attacks in the Gulf, however, have followed a template different from that observed in the waters off Somalia. On the east coast of Africa, pirates captured ships and crews for ransom, venturing deep into the Southern and Western Indian Ocean. In contrast, attacks on West African shipping have been localized, with assailants mostly targeting anchored vessels for cash and cargoes of fuel. But this has also meant that assaults are better planned, with gangs working to a precise strategy including short attack spans and foolproof get-away methods.

The lead role in tackling piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has been played by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Commission. The thrust of its efforts has been to establish a better system of regional surveillance and joint patrolling. In March this year, with the help of international assistance, the ECOWAS setup a multinational maritime coordination center (MMCC) for a maritime zone christened Pilot Zone E. The new center covers West Africa’s most sensitive security hot-spots, spanning a vast region comprising Benin, Niger, Nigeria and Togo and was deemed an important milestone in the implementation of the ECOWAS Integrated Maritime Strategy (EIMS).

As expected, India did not offer any assistance for the creation of the new station. New Delhi seems oblivious to the fact that West African states have been seeking credible partners in the maritime domain. Assistance was forthcoming only from the U.S., European Union and the International Maritime Organization, but the Indian Navy is poised to offer greater patrolling assets and remote surveillance systems to monitor the endangered maritime spaces. India’s maritime policymakers, however, haven’t displayed the strategic imaginativeness to generate goodwill and political capital in West Africa by offering greater capacity-building assistance.

The Way Ahead

It is now clear that Somali piracy cannot be the pivot of India’s maritime security efforts in Africa. With piracy levels in the waters of Somalia dipping dramatically, the Indian Navy needs a fresh approach to the continent. In its new role, hard-security contribution is likely to be subordinate to capacity building efforts. As the rise in armed attacks in the Gulf of Guinea have shown, the malady afflicting African coastal states today isn’t so much the lack of security at sea, but the absence of authority and governance, exemplified by insufficient institutional capacity and an underdeveloped maritime economy.

Today, there is a growing realization among Africa’s coastal states that their major maritime challenges stem from a lack of effective governance in the maritime commons. It is the illegal capture of resources – overfishing in the African EEZs, rampant exploitation of the seas, drug smuggling, arms trafficking, and the widespread pollution of coastal waters – that has thwarted African efforts to build an effective maritime governance system. Africa needs not only maritime administration frameworks and the local capacity to enforce regulations, but also a model for sustainable “blue-economy” development that does not result in the destruction of its natural maritime habitat. In this, it could benefit from India’s assistance.

There is now a developing view among Indian analysts and policymakers that India’s growing maritime influence, and African expectations of increased commitment by partner states in supporting regional maritime initiatives, leaves New Delhi with little option but to bolster its involvement in coastal Africa. India’s recent stress on security in the South Western Indian Ocean – through its capacity building efforts in the Indian Ocean archipelago, as well as its flagship endeavor, the IBSAMAR exercises – shows that New Delhi has been recalibrating and updating its maritime policy towards Africa.

If India hopes to partner Africa in striving for a prosperous future, it must work with it in the creation of a maritime system. Through infrastructure creation and the strengthening of legal frameworks and institutions, New Delhi can join with African states in the effective governance of Africa’s maritime commons. India’s guiding text is the African Union’s Agenda-2063 document spelling out Africa’s vision over the next five decades, aligned closely with its own “development goals” and “international aspirations.”

But New Delhi is also aware that other than hard security tasks, it must play a role in developing a comprehensive continental strategy that can improve the lives of African people by creating a model of sustainable maritime development.

Abhijit Singh is a fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses at New Delhi. He can be followed on @abhijit227.