Atul Aneja

Focus has shifted from Strait of Malacca to Indian Ocean’s western stretch

DUBAI: Hit by piracy off the Somali coast, India is weighing its options on how best to tackle this menace.

With 18 Indian sailors still in captivity in the Japanese ship MT Stolt Valor, India has sent a warship to the port of Salalah in southern Oman. The ship is equipped with helicopters and has marine commandos onboard, is now closer to the Gulf of Aden, an area where the pirates operate freely.

“There has been a shift in the pattern of piracy, which earlier dominated the area around the Strait of Malacca in the east. The centre of gravity of piracy has definitely shifted towards the western stretch of the Indian Ocean,” a diplomatic source told The Hindu.

On Saturday, the pirates allowed food and water on to the MT Stolt Valor. Andrew Mwangura of the East African Seafarers’ Assistance Programme was quoted as saying the ship had been anchored on the east coast of Somalia, near the town of Eyl.

Navy’s options

Notwithstanding the deployment of the warship, India is yet to fully define a roadmap for enforcing a credible response to piracy in the Indian Ocean, said the sources. So far, New Delhi has been considering three possible options to make commercial shipping in the area safer.

One way to counter piracy is by strengthening the presence of the Navy, by deploying a larger number of ships around the Gulf of Aden. This view finds favours in some sections of the Indian security establishment, added the sources. However, considerable amount of naval diplomacy would be required before this task can be accomplished. Littoral states in the Indian Ocean would have to be taken into confidence before the Indian Navy can take on this task unilaterally, said sources.

The second option is to have Indian warships join an international coalition battling piracy in the area. So far, a multinational Combined Task Force 150 (CTF-150) has been dominant in the area.

The countries participating in CTF-150 include the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Pakistan. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, contributes ships to CTF-150, which has Djibouti as its logistical hub.

Seven more NATO ships have now arrived in the area, following a UN Security Council sanction for deployments on October 7. India is likely to disfavour joining such a coalition because of the dominant presence of the Americans and their allies. “Joining a coalition which is steered by the Americans would become a politically sensitive issue and would echo strongly in India’s domestic politics,” observed the sources.

India is also considering a regional response that could include deployment of warships and sharing of information by countries belonging to the Indian Ocean community.

This force could consider coordinating its activities with CTF-150 without joining the western flotilla. In February, the Navy had established the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) — a forum of regional naval chiefs — to counter threats to Indian Ocean security, including piracy, through coordinated action.