By Assad Bhuglah
The economic health and survival of Mauritius are intricately linked with maritime security in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius, which nourishes the ambition of becoming a regional maritime hub, critically needs an ocean free of conflicts and piracy.
For millennia the peoples living around the Indian Ocean have benefited from its rich trade, while the interaction resulting from these maritime exploits invariably influenced their lives fundamentally. These traditional patterns of trade and communication changed drastically when first the Portuguese and then other European powers began sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to establish trade links and empires in the East. The Indian Ocean became a platform for power rivalry and conflicts among European naval forces. However, during the course of the 19th century, European navies played an important role in maintaining good order at sea, eradicating piracy and countering slavery.
The decolonisation process after the Second World War ended British hegemony in the Indian Ocean. Indian Ocean security is now no longer the domain of colonial states or superpowers, but has become vulnerable to power vacuum, a fertile ground to proliferation of piracy and maritime insecurity. Maritime piracy, which includes hijacking for ransom, robbery and criminal violence, is very prevalent in the Indian Ocean. In the early 1990s, attacks on ships using shipping lanes around South-East Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) and Africa began to increase as organised crime became involved. Although incidents of piracy seem to have decreased in the wider Indian Ocean since 2003, it increased along the east coast of Africa in the latter years of the first decade of this century owing to increasing activity linked to Somalia.
The Indian Ocean region is rich in energy resources and minerals such as gold, tin, uranium, cobalt, nickel, aluminium and cadmium, and also contains abundant fishing resources. Oil and gas traversing the Indian Ocean is of great importance to the global economy. Roughly 55 per cent of known oil reserves and 40 per cent of gas reserves are in the Indian Ocean region. The Gulf and Arab states produce around 21 per cent of the world’s oil, with daily crude exports of up to 17,262 million barrels representing about 43 per cent of international exports. Indian Ocean ports handle about 30 per cent of global trade and half of the word’s container traffic traverses the ocean. However, the Indian Ocean has some of the world’s most important choke points, notably the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca, and the Bab el Mandeb. As these choke points are strategically important for global trade and energy flow, a number of extra-regional states maintain a naval presence in the Indian Ocean.
As the scourge of maritime piracy manifested itself in the mid-2000s off the Horn of Africa, the international community demanded a viable response. Pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1851 (2008), the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was established on January 14, 2009 to facilitate the discussion and coordination of actions among states and organizations to suppress piracy off the coast of Somalia. This international forum has brought nearly 80 countries and several international organizations to participate in the Contact Group, including the African Union, the Arab League, the European Union, the International Maritime Organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and various departments and agencies of the United Nations, all working towards the prevention of piracy off the Somali coast. Although pirate attacks in the region have subsided considerably, members of the group have agreed to preserve the work and the brand name.
Cooperation on maritime security is essential, since virtually all nations benefit from maritime activity. Indian Ocean countries have a long history of trade, culture and military interaction with the rest of the world. Today the Indian Ocean’s traditional status as an international trade highway is more significant than ever before, while international military presence in the ocean is unprecedented. The reason for the latter is the region’s vast resources, specifically energy resources, the strategic importance of the shipping traversing its waterways and the maritime security problems being encountered. Although the Indian Ocean region is experiencing marked development and economic growth, security concerns often dominate the agendas of its states.
The maritime security problems that have arisen are to a large extent linked to failed or weak states. Specific challenges are piracy, threats, the illegal trafficking in people, the smuggling of arms and drugs, resource security and environmental threats. Because the region’s maritime security problems have the potential of disrupting the global economy, energy security and SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication), they have become important international issues. Many extra-regional powers have a stake in Indian Ocean maritime security and deploy forces in the area. To fight piracy, the UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions calling for international assistance and various multinational task forces and independent naval units operate in the waters off the Horn of Africa
The Turkish Navy has recently assumed command of a counter-piracy multinational naval task force operating under the 25-nation coalition of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF). With participation from Turkish, Japanese, South Korean and Pakistani naval forces, the task force operates in the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean and off the eastern coast of Somalia, covering an area of approximately 830,000 square nautical miles. In accordance with United Nations Security Council resolutions, and in cooperation with non-member forces, the combined task force’s mission is to disrupt piracy and armed robbery at sea, to engage with regional and other partners to build capacity, to improve relevant capabilities for protecting global maritime commerce and to secure freedom of navigation. This task force was set up in response to piracy attacks in shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia.
The Indian Ocean has an area of around 73.5 million square kilometres. Maritime security is a major challenge for the poorer coastal and island countries of the Indian Ocean Region. In particular, those that have large zones of maritime jurisdiction. The Exclusive Economic Zone (“EEZ”) of Mauritius extends over an area of about 2.3 million Km. Mauritius cannot afford to address its maritime security concerns in solo and in isolation. Cooperation is key to securing maritime security in the Indian Ocean.