Maritime security challenges


back to issue

OWING to factors rooted in the history of human endeavour over several centuries, the Afro-Asian countries lagged behind the West in terms of economic development, and the attendant state power to guarantee the welfare of their peoples and regulate their behaviour. In recent decades, most states of the Indo-Pacific region’s eastern periphery (East Asia and Southeast Asia) have to an extent overcome this adversity. However, the central and western periphery of the region still comprises most of the world’s least developed nations, struggling to ensure human security, and to establish and enforce an order for human behaviour. Considering the well known fact that the maritime domain is the most ‘unregulated’ realm on our planet, the ‘disorder’ manifests in the Indian Ocean in a major way.

Given the increasing salience of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), this bears significantly on all stakeholders in the region, including extra-regional ones. This essay attempts to examine the salient maritime security challenges prevailing in the IOR in the context of the growing geopolitical and economic salience of the region, and make some recommendations.

For many centuries now, the IOR has been a major source and sea route of natural resources – notably hydrocarbons – and thereby a major factor in shaping the global economy. It may be pertinent to recall the oft-cited quote that ‘the Indian Ocean carries half of the world’s container shipping, one-third of its bulk cargo, and two-thirds of its oil shipments.’1

Owing to many factors, the economic salience of the region is increasing further. The primary reason is growing trade. Currently, the intra-IOR trade is only 20-25 per cent of regional countries’ total trade with the broader world.2 Intra-South Asian trade is even more meagre – less than six per cent of the sub-region’s total trade. This indicates the high potential for intra-regional and intra-South Asian trade growth, which is being realized through seminal endeavours including the revitalization of IORA, the emerging concept of ‘Blue Economy’ initiated by the island nations, and intra-SAARC initiatives. Notably, during US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to India in August 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed his desire to ‘unite South Asia into an integrated economic community.’3 India’s initiative is likely to be geographically expanded beyond its immediate neighbourhood.4 The IOR’s extra-regional trade is also increasing in tandem. From 2001 to 2010, the share of the IOR in global trade increased from 8.6 to 11.6 per cent.5

Economic growth and infrastructure development in the region has led the IOR to become a major destination for marine tourism and cruise shipping. All these factors are increasing the stake of the international community in maritime security and safety in the IOR.


Piracy off the coast of Somalia was at its peak in 2011. While it was an adversity for extra-regional stakeholders, it severely affected the regional maritime-based economies (particularly island nations) and even the livelihood of common people engaged in fishing and marine tourism. Many countries like the Seychelles witnessed a fall in trawling activity due to fear among the fishermen that they would either be attacked by pirates or mistaken for them by the security forces. Some others like Kenya and Mauritius witnessed a sharp decline in cruise ships visiting their ports.6


Since 2012, the waters off Somalia have witnessed a significant drop in pirate attacks. The international naval counter-piracy effort and the Best Management Practices (BMP) adopted by the shipping industry are stated to be a major reasons for the decline. However, the threat cannot be dismissed. Considering that the naval assets of the participating navies are overstretched, these are likely to be withdrawn from counter-piracy missions, sooner or later. The continued designation of nearly the entire western Indian Ocean – including India’s entire western seaboard – as a ‘War Risk Zone’ is accompanied with multifarious adversities for the stakeholders and coastal states, both economic and security, and is hardly a solution. Until the causative factors for piracy are addressed, the threat is likely to remain dormant while the pirates await the withdrawal of navies from the area, or innovate to develop new tactics to circumvent these forces.

The drop in piracy is also being attributed to the increasing deployment of private security guards on board commercial ships.7 However, this practice has given rise to complex security and legal challenges of its own, leading to questions with no easy answers. Can the private sector take over the role of states for providing security? Who would authorize rules of engagement for the private guards?

Such practice establishes dangerous precedents in terms of the risk of inadvertent or accidental use of force. The case of MV Enrica Lexie is a case in point.8 Besides, the emergence of ‘floating armouries’ within the maritime zones of coastal states not only conflicts with their domestic laws, but also endangers their security.9


As per a report by the RAND Corporation, only two per cent of all terrorist incidents worldwide over the past 30 years occurred at sea.10 Barring a few isolated incidents, seagoing vessels have generally not been targeted by terrorists. The reasons are not difficult to fathom; notably, the objective of terrorism to achieve a widespread public reaction, the lack of adequate nautical skills and the inhospitable nature of the ocean realm. So far, the fears of a terrorism-piracy nexus have also proved unfounded.

Notwithstanding, an analysis indicates that the recent developments relating to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) represent an intensification of religious radicalism in the north-western Indian Ocean, and a likelihood of it spilling over to the maritime domain.11 The possibility of terror strikes on ships at sea – particularly oil tankers, LNG carriers and cruise shipping – and fixed offshore assets cannot be discounted. It is important to note that the oceanic expanse beyond territorial waters lies beyond sovereign state regulation. In the IOR context, for reasons mentioned earlier, the probability for maritime terrorism to manifest is higher than any other region of the world. Such potential leads to a severe risk of causing mass casualties, and economic and commercial reverses for all those who have vital stakes in the IOR.


Although maritime terrorism has rarely manifested so far, commercial vessels at sea – particularly container ships and larger fishing vessels – bear immense potential to be used as vectors of terrorism and its means.12 The Mumbai terror strike of November 2008 remains a grim reminder of this fact. Therefore, the fear of illegal weapons of mass destruction (WMD) transfers via such vessels – leading to, for example, a dirty bomb attack– remains real.

The possibility of terrorists, drug traffickers and arms smugglers forging symbiotic relations cannot be ignored either. The seaborne routes for transportation of narcotics through the Indian Ocean are well known, and so is the fact that the finances that accrue from such transfers nourish terrorist activity, including through illegal purchase of small arms.

The increasing use of ‘floating armouries’ to supply arms to private security guards deployed on board commercial ships (to counter piracy) may also be used as a cover for arms trafficking, or even as depot ships for terrorists and other militants.13

Another facet of maritime trafficking is human trafficking or smuggling, depending upon whether it is forced or otherwise. While forced trafficking is a heinous issue, illegal immigration seems to be of greater concern. The 2013 case of the ‘boat people’ adrift in the Bay of Bengal has become well known as a major humanitarian issue. According to a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman, the Rohingyas from Myanmar and Bangladesh were among the ‘estimated 13,000 people… including women and children… that boarded the smugglers’ rickety boats in 2012... (of which)… close to 500 died at sea when their boats broke down or capsized.’14


Illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing by foreign vessels is a major concern for East African states and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Such irresponsible activity impinges upon the food security and livelihood of local fishermen, causes economic loss to the concerned coastal state, and leads to irreversible degradation of fish stock and biodiversity in the area. Most states lack the capacity to prevent fishermen to undertake such irresponsible activity. The current mechanism of monitoring, control and surveillance (MSC) and information sharing is grossly inadequate. Marine biodiversity plays a critical role, not only in maintaining the productivity of living marine resources, but also makes the sea habitats more resilient to environmental change. However, the balance among the marine species is becoming increasingly unstable due to overfishing, besides marine pollution.

Considering that the Indian Ocean encloses major transit routes for tankers carrying crude oil and other petroleum products, oil spill pollution becomes another major factor for degradation of fragile marine ecosystems in the IOR. Recent study reports have confirmed that the world’s oceans, particularly the Indian Ocean, face grave risks due to, inter alia, pollution, over fishing, acidification, and low level of dissolved oxygen creating dead zones.15


It is well known that the IOR is prone to natural disasters. The Bay of Bengal is particularly susceptible to nature’s fury, with cyclones being as frequent as two to four in a year.16 The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004-05 indicated that maritime disasters of even greater magnitude are possible. The affected countries were caught unprepared in terms of an early warning mechanism and its management. Until 1991, few Indians were aware of the existence of an active volcano in their country until Barren Island (Andaman and Nicobar Islands) erupted.17 These developments remind us that the earth’s tectonic plates under the northeastern Indian Ocean are highly prone to turbulence, adding to the potential for disaster.

In the longer term, this challenge is likely to be aggravated by the irreversible effects of climate change. The rising sea level may cause large-scale displacement of people – largely from low-lying island states like the Maldives – leading to mass migration via the sea, and the related issues of human safety and security.


A common thread runs through the many security threats mentioned above. The risks of terrorism, piracy and various forms of maritime trafficking flow from political factors, meshed with socio-economic instabilities and fundamentalist ideologies. The risk of unsustainable exploitation of marine resources and conservation of the marine environment emanate from the prevalent disorder at sea, whose root cause also lies in socio-economic-political factors, besides a lack of state will or capacity to enforce order. Of course, natural disasters and sea level rise represent a different dimension of the challenge, which are tied to climate change and global warming. But these root causes are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.

The above analysis leads to two pertinent questions about the role of major extra-regional powers: (i) For how long can maritime security in the IOR be based on US naval dominance in the region? The contemporary imperatives indicate that the regional littorals and other stakeholders may not be able to adopt a free-rider approach any longer. This is due to increasing US strategic commitments in areas beyond the IOR, its diminished dependence on energy resources of the IOR and severe financial constraints to augment its military power. (ii) Could IOR states invite another extra-regional power such as China to fill the void due to a US drawdown in the region? Such a proposition is inherently risky for regional stability due to its potential to intensify jostling among extra-regional powers for resources or a favourable regional balance of power.


Hence, the IOR littoral countries would need to fend for themselves. However, the maritime capacity of most IOR littorals vis-à-vis security challenges is grossly insufficient. Even in the case of larger IOR states, their naval power is largely oriented to respond to traditional military threats rather than asymmetric and low-intensity threats. Furthermore, most of the emerging maritime threats are transnational in nature.

Given the above realities, it becomes imperative for the IOR states to resort to cooperative security arrangements, based on multilateral forums. The overarching Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) would need to be complemented by the region with the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), further supplemented by localized initiatives like the Galle Dialogue, the ‘Milan’ (congregation) of regional navies at Port Blair and the five-nation (India, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles) maritime security cooperation agreement.

Such cooperation would also need to incorporate capacity building of smaller IOR states. It may also be necessary to tap the niche capabilities that the navies of some smaller states possess, such as the counter-maritime-terrorism capability of the Sri Lanka Navy. Together, the regional states need to establish a new maritime order and norms of conduct in the IOR using the ‘least common denominator’ and consensual approach. The willing external powers like China may be co-opted in the mechanism, albeit under stringent conditions for them to adhere to the established order and norms to prevent extra-regional jostling for resources or a favourable balance of power in the guise of maritime security.


* The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy or the NMF.


1. Address by Sarath Amunugam, Head of Sri Lanka delegation, 11th IOR-ARC Council of Ministers Meeting, Bangaluru (India), Daily News (Sri Lanka), 15 November 2011, at

2. Ibid.

3. ‘Interest of Poor Above Trade Pact, Modi tells Kerry’, Times of India (New Delhi), 2 August 2014, p. 11

4. It may be recalled that while inviting the SAARC heads of governments for the inauguration of the new government at New Delhi, PM Modi had also extended an invite to Mauritius.

5. Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC): A Study of India’s Trade and Investment Potential, Exim Bank Occasional Paper 157, September 2012, p. 16, at

6. Sheena Arora, ‘Initiatives of the African Union (AU) Against Piracy and Armed Robbery at Sea: An Appraisal’, NMF website, February 2014, at http://www.maritime

7. International Maritime Bureau, Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships: Report from 1 January-31 December 2013, London, January 2014, p. 22.

8. In February 2012, two Italian Marines protecting MV Enrica Lexie against pirates accidentally shot two Indian fishermen within Indian EEZ.

9. Aditi Chatterjee, ‘Private Security Companies at Sea: Solution or Threat?’ NMF website, 28 July 2014, at http://www.

10. Michael D. Greenberg, Peter Chalk, et al, ‘Maritime Terrorism: Risk and Liability’, RAND Corporation, 2006 at http://www. graphs/2006/RAND_MG520.pdf (Accessed 3 August 2014).

11. G.S. Khurana and Saloni Salil, ‘The Emerging Threat of Maritime Jihad’, Defence and Security Alert, April 2015, pp. 61-63.

12. Ibid.

13. Op. cit., fn. 10.

14. ‘UNHCR Urges Action to Prevent Boat People Tragedy in Bay of Bengal’, UNHCR, 22 February 2013.

15. These include a preliminary report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) and Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX). Pandurang Hegde, ‘With Reckless Development, Indian Ocean at Risk of Pollution’, Deccan Herald, 6 August 2014, at

16. The Bay of Bengal Pilot (Sailing Directions), 1978.

17. It has subsequently erupted on many occasions, the latest being as recently as in May 2006. Gurpreet S. Khurana, Maritime Forces in Pursuit of National Security. IDSA/ Shipra Publications, Delhi, 2008, pp. 43-44.