Siddharth Varadarajan

New Delhi: The dramatic sinking of a pirate ‘mother ship’ by the Indian Navy on the high seas some 300 nautical miles off the coast of Oman has underlined not just India’s ability to protect the security of its own — and international — shipping in the region but also its willingness to step up to the crease while other navies with greater capabilities might be watching from a safe distance.

The timing of INS Tabar’s fusillade could not have been better for the morale of the average seafarer. On November 15, a very-large crude carrier (VLCC) was hijacked by a Somalia-based gang in the most brazen act of piracy the world has seen in recent years. The Sirius Star is carrying two million barrels of Saudi crude and was bound for the U.S. when it was seized some 400 nautical miles south east of the Kenyan coast. Its captors have since dropped anchor off the Somali coast pending payment of a ransom that is likely to run into tens of millions of dollars given the value of the cargo and the VLCC’s replacement cost for its owners and insurers.

This week also saw the hijacking by Somali-based pirates of a Thai fishing vessel and an Iranian cargo ship. Given the volume of cargo traffic transiting the region and the traditionally mixed nationality of shipping crews, it is fair to say there is no country that can hope to remain untouched if the menace continues.

Notwithstanding Wednesday’s successful action, the increasing arc of piracy makes it unlikely that the Indian Navy or even the United States Navy could deal with the problem on its own. Apart from Indian and American vessels, Russian and NATO warships have started patrolling the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region but Wednesday’s gun battle marked the first real hostile engagement with a pirate mother ship. And yet, the challenge posed by piracy needs much more than aggressive handling, necessary though the use of force in such situations might well be.

According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) — whose Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur is the only worldwide point-of-contact for distressed ships — 199 incidents of piracy were reported in the first nine months of 2008, with a noticeable spurt in the third quarter of the year compared to the previous two. These included 115 incidents where ships were boarded by pirates or robbers, and the hijacking of 31 vessels. The most vulnerable shipping regions were off the coast of Somalia, Nigeria and Indonesia, especially the Anambas/Natuna island area.

Though these figures are high by any standard, it is important to remember they represent a decline from the peaks recorded by the IMB earlier this decade. For example, there were 471 incidents in 2000 and 383 in 2002.

The one bright spot in the IMB’s data is the Straits of Malacca. Once dreaded by ship masters as the ‘piracy capital’ of the international sea lanes, the Straits have only witnessed two incidents this year, the same as for 2007.

One reason why the incidence of piracy in south-east Asia has come down is the unprecedented level of multilateral cooperation between littoral navies and wider regional powers. India, China, Japan and all ASEAN states are party to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). The Singapore-based Information Sharing Centre (ISC) serves as the nodal point for the exchange of information under ReCAAP.

Piracy in and around the Malacca Straits has also declined over the past few years in tandem with the economic recovery of its littoral states from economic crisis. Many analysts saw a link between the spurt in piracy after 1997 and the collapse of the Indonesian and Philippines economies following the financial meltdown.

Though New Delhi has taken the lead twice before in encouraging political and naval cooperation along the Indian Ocean littoral, the recent incidents off the Somali coast highlight the urgent need for a ReCAAP-like effort for the region to the immediate west of India.

In 1997, Mauritius hosted the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) but the grouping failed to cohere or take off. In February this year, the Indian Navy hosted the Indian Ocean Navy Seminar (IONS) with the participation of 29 littoral navies, including Pakistan and Iran. One of its objectives was to strengthen the capability of all nation states of the Indian Ocean Region to “address present and anticipated challenges to maritime security and stability.”

The Ministry of External Affairs needs to begin urgent intra-departmental and inter-governmental consultation on the feasibility of replicating ReCAAP for the Red Sea-Gulf of Aden region. The ISC could be hosted in Aden, Muscat, Mumbai or Kochi. Rather than the anti-piracy campaign remaining confined to ad hoc, unilateral actions by navies with the ability and willingness to act, it is far better for a multilateral initiative to take root built around the instruments of information sharing and joint patrolling.