Commentary

The Indian Ocean: A Critical Arena for 21st Century Threats and Challenges

in Program

By Ellen Laipson – Think of the Indian Ocean as a geographic region, where more than two dozen states along its rim interact as neighbors and sometimes competitors, where outside powers pass through, for economic and strategic purposes, and where resources vital to international trade and environmental stability must be managed and protected. Are we confident that the rules for governing this region are fair and accepted by all the key players? Where do states’ interests intersect with global interests? How do questions of sovereignty get resolved in maritime space? Does everyone know the rules and abide by them?

These are some of the questions explored at a workshop in Dubai in October, which gathered experts from Indian Ocean states as diverse as Kenya and Indonesia. Experts from the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Malacca, as well as Sri Lankans, Indians and Pakistanis were included. The topics ranged from fisheries to coastal zone management to piracy and prospects for regional cooperation on traditional and non-traditional security problems. Eventually, all discussions came back to questions of governance.

The nature of the problem

There is no doubt that the Indian Ocean is becoming a more critical area of the world, when measured by the share of the world’s energy and commerce that crosses it. Roughly one third of the world’s population resides in states that have a coast on the Indian Ocean. One fifth of the world’s energy supplies travel across it, largely in a west (Persian Gulf) to east (India, China, Japan) direction. In reverse direction, superships carry manufactured goods from Asia to Middle Eastern and European destinations

The sea itself is an economic resource. Fisheries issues vary across the region: in some cases, overfishing in the sea has been replaced with inland fishing, or, in the dramatic case of Somalia, a displacement of fishermen to illicit activities, including piracy. In other cases, fisheries provide a small portion of national income, but a significant portion of the economy for coastal communities, and their interests sometimes conflict with national development plans and the larger scale fishing activity of outside powers. Environmental concerns include the degradation of coastal mangroves, erosion of coral reefs, and the disappearance of a startling 70% of biomass, across the entire Indian Ocean region.

In recent years, this compelling economic and ecological story has been complicated by other trends from the dark side of globalization: human trafficking, smuggling of illicit goods and materials, movement of proliferated weapons and weapons components, and piracy. The prosperity of the Indian Ocean rim states and the economic value of the cargo that plies the seas have stimulated various forms of predatory and exploitative behavior that risks lives and livelihoods, and adds cost and risk for those that use these vital trade and commercial sealanes.

An asymmetry of interests and power also compounds the challenge. Great powers use the high seas for strategic objectives, including energy security. They are less sensitive to the impact that their economic and security-driven activities have on the sea itself, as compared to rim countries with developing economies and island states for which the sea is vital to survival. Priorities for preservation of natural habitats and for preventing maritime pollution are not shared among the Indian Ocean’s users. The Indian Ocean and its adjacent bodies of water (the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf) play a role in conflicts: the Sri Lankan struggle with Tamil separatists has a naval dimension; India and Pakistan have had maritime disputes as part of their long-standing rivalry, and Gulf Arab states share the narrow and strategic Gulf waters with the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and with Iranian Revolutionary Guard naval forces, to name a few.

Finding Solutions and Addressing Governance Gaps

It is a daunting task to balance economic, environmental and security interests at the national level. Countries around the Indian Ocean approach maritime policy in sharply different ways:

  • For Kenya, maritime policy is driven by economic interest and the centrality of the port of Mombasa as an entry point for African trade. The navy is a minor player.
  • For Sri Lanka, the conflict defines maritime policy. Coastal areas are off-limits to civilians, who forgo rich fishing opportunities to allow the government to deny the Tamil Tigers use of the sea for insurgency operations.
  • For Singapore, the stewardship of vital sealanes is its highest national security mission, and has led to productive cooperation with Malaysia and Indonesia, to ensure safe passage for commercial ships.
  • India sees the maritime space as an important dimension of its rising power status, and this will have consequences for how its neighbors view the Indian Navy and its ability to contribute to regional peace and security.

Maritime policy can be seen as the purview of coastal defense, so that a navy or coast guard would have the lead or sole role in determining policy. Maritime policy can also be deeply domestic, directed by those responsible for tourism, or fisheries, or other basic economic interests. Few countries have addressed the challenge of integrating complex and diverse national interests into a coherent maritime policy. Even large countries with long coastlines concede that their border with the Indian Ocean is often considered the hinterland, not the heartland, of the nation, and policy-making reflects a passive or underdeveloped approach to maritime governance. Archipelagic states like Indonesia or small countries with strong seafaring traditions like Oman are important exceptions.

At the regional level, there are many positive examples of cooperation and ad hoc regional organizations created to manage a distinct maritime issue, such as:

  • the Gulf organization on port security and control (2004 Riyadh Memorandum of Understanding, headquartered in Oman),
  • an anti-pollution institution of eight Persian Gulf states based in Kuwait (1981 Regional Organization for the Protection of the Marine Environment – ROPME),
  • a fisheries management initiative based in Kenya (the 2004 South West Indian Ocean Fisheries Commission), or
  • an anti-piracy coalition to guarantee free movement in the Strait of Malacca (2004 MALSINDO – the Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia organization).

These efforts have narrow mandates and can readily identify the stakeholders and the official counterparts in each participating state. One should applaud such initiatives, but also hope that they can be lashed up with other national and regional maritime players, in the cause of information sharing and coordination. Often well-intended actions in one sphere can unintentionally have adverse effects on another: destruction of mangroves, coastal tourism and other activities to promote development, for example, exacerbated the effects of the tsunami in Sri Lanka and in other Indian Ocean islands.

What is missing are initiatives at both the national and regional levels that take an inclusive and comprehensive approach to maritime cooperation, to grapple with the difficult tradeoffs between short-term economic interest and the long-term stability and viability of the Indian Ocean as a natural resource for littoral states and communities, or the security of local actors vice the strategic interests of great powers. Economics, environment and security interact in the Indian Ocean in dynamic and potentially destructive ways. Today the region has generated many well-intended but incomplete forms of governance – national, regional and global regimes and mechanisms are not as robust as need be for the tasks of maintaining the Indian Ocean as a sustainable zone of commerce, energy security and peace. 


Ellen Laipson is the President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia/Gulf project.  She is also a contributing author to Stimson’s Regional Voices project, which is studying maritime security issues in the Indian Ocean. 

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