Maritime security in the Indian Ocean

APRI Fellow Peter Cozens gives an overview of maritime security in the Indian Ocean in preparation for a research project which is being planned in cooperation with the South Asia Institute of the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Of the three temperate oceans of the world, (Atlantic, Pacific and Indian), the Indian Ocean probably presents the most tricky problems for security management. The end of the Cold War reduced tensions in the North Atlantic and to a large extent in the North Pacific Oceans. The significant point is that for the navies of NATO and the Western Alliance the demise of the Russian threat means that there is now no obvious enemy to contain. The application of "sea-power", that is, the use of sea control or sea denial in the SLOC's in the North Atlantic and the containment of SSBN's, in the absence of a known menace or malevolent force, has reduced Cold War style naval tasks. The area encompassing the western seaboards of the European Union and North America now enjoys an enviable strategic serenity. Ongoing difficulties are manifest in East Asian waters but a number of stratagems are in place, including the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and Naval Confidence Building Measures to mitigate their malevolence. The Indian Ocean however, seems to be bereft of any collective maritime security arrangements.

From whichever direction, entry into the Indian Ocean is constrained by geographic imperatives. For example, Southeast Asia is an archipelagic crossroad where east meets west and through which commerce has flourished and flowed since antiquity. Inevitably perhaps it is also an area where many differing cultures, religions, ideologies and political systems compete and struggle to survive or expand their own interests. Today it is one of the busiest highways in the world for the commercial exchange of commodities, capital, manufactures and services. Likewise the routes through Aden and Hormuz have been used since antiquity for purposes of trade and communication.

A huge proportion of this trade is carried by sea. It raises the important question of what is the strategic response by regional navies to ensure the safe and efficient carriage of these cargoes. Indeed, there are also countries outside the immediate region who are also dependent on secure shipping. Thus they too have a legitimate interest in fostering a regime of cooperation and calm. Some do not see military threats to this shipping because of the interdependence of all in the region on maritime trade. Reliance on such a notion however has obvious shortcomings. Rather than leave security management to chance it is axiomatic that it is in the interests of all to build a maritime security mechanism to promote an ocean wide orbit of confidence and serenity. Regional navies in determining their various strategies have a vital role to play. It should be appreciated that:

"... maritime strategy has a peacetime dimension....".1

Maritime strategy unlike any other purpose is idiosyncratic. In one particular respect concerning navies it is fundamentally and significantly different - it is unique.

"... Navies have always been noted for their versatility and, in particular, their utility in situations short of conflict. This versatility comes from the characteristics of reach (including sustainability), adaptability (including the capacity to threaten and apply force in a finely graduated way), and acceptability (in that warships are diplomatic instruments unlike any other kind of armed force...." ....".2

Recent economic turbulence in the economies of South East Asia suggests that a prudent and cautious approach to the matter of maritime security is required. Indeed when economic growth has been charging along at high rates and prosperity seemed assured for all, it naturally tends to reduce voices of protest and disquiet especially in authoritarian regimes. 3 The present political discord in Indonesia is symptomatic of that contention. It is difficult of course to predict accurately what the next stage will be - but it is fairly obvious that economic growth will necessarily rely to some large extent on the use of SLOCs. What then are the latent and potential areas of friction which could surface to threaten freedom of navigation or otherwise impede the free flow of trade in the SLOCs of the area? The following topics represent some insecurities:

There are some tasks not readily appreciated or understood which are grouped under the collective title of Maritime Confidence Building Measures, as follows: 5

Transparency measures

Cooperation measures

Incidents at Sea Agreements

The fact that these measures are suggested as necessary illustrates a degree of "uncertainty-based planning" in the Indian Ocean. This is not to suggest the beginning of an arms race but rather the convergence of at least two important motivators. The first is that since the ratification of UNCLOS III, governments are acutely aware of the importance of their rights and sovereignty over their respective Ocean Territories. The second is that in order to exercise those responsibilities countries need "sea-securing resources" - in other words ships capable of exercising seapower. It is into this arena that Indian Ocean Navies and others will need to insert sea control platforms as a contribution to reducing insecurity at sea, thus demonstrating a firm resolve to maintain and preserve good order at sea. The costs of disrupted trade flows are probably incalculable but enormous, the effects unpredictable, but deleterious to all in the Indian Ocean and beyond nonetheless. This work will be ongoing and as the impact of the provisions of UNCLOS takes effect and as the changing strategic landscape of the Indian Ocean unfolds, the need for a stable secure environment increases. Clearly there is a reason to conduct a feasibility study for a system of collective maritime security in the Indian Ocean.


1: McCaffrie, Jack Maritime Strategy Into The Twenty-First Century: Issues For Regional Navies , Working Paper No. 297, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, Australia National University , Canberra, August 1996. p.7.

2: ibid p.4.

3: Christopher Lingle, The Rise & Decline of the Asian Century, Asia 2000 Limited, Hong Kong 1997 p 55.

4: Mark Valencia, Asian Maritime resources: The Potential for Conflict and Cooperation - A Paper presented at Oceans Governance & Maritime Strategy Conference, Canberra 18/19 May 1998

5: Eric Grove, Maritime Confidence & Security Building Measures in Sam Bateman & Stephen Bates (eds) Calming the Waters, Canberra papers on Strategy & Defence No 114. Chapter 5.

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