Arms Race: Gunship Diplomacy in the Indian Ocean

It is believed that piracy and the war on terror is a ruse for the heavy presence of naval forces in the Indian Ocean; the main reason could be the recent oil and gas discoveries in the East Coast of Africa, explains WANJOHI KABUKURU.

By Wanjohi Kabukuru- 2014-05-23, Diplomat East Africa

The main reason given for the increase in foreign navies prowling the Western Indian Ocean is that it is in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on US soil. But by 2008, the ‘war on terror’ in the context of the Indian Ocean had taken second place and was overshadowed by piracy off the Somali coast and the Gulf of Aden. Lieutenant Commander Jacqueline Sheriff, spokesperson of the European Union Naval Force (EUNAVFOR), acknowledges that the reason the EU established the naval force was in response to UN Security Council Resolutions agreed upon because of the rise in piracy attacks on merchant ships had gotten out of hand. The EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atlanta’s mandate covers some 3,700,000 square kilometres across the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean all the way to the Seychelles Archipelago.

“Our mission started in December 2008 when piracy was a real issue for the international community,” says Sheriff. “The EU set up a naval force made up of member states sending warships initially to the Gulf of Aden because that is an important strategic waterway where piracy attacks originated.” In the years after 2008, piracy became more sophisticated with the pirates getting better organised and more daring by venturing further into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. The inspiration for this, according to Sheriff, was lucrative ransom payments and that “pirate investors were basically putting more money into it.”


The Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Dr Carlos Lopes, shares the piracy sentiments but brings in geo-politics and commercial interests.

“Understanding the current militarisation of the western Indian Ocean requires grasping both the strategic nature of the region to global commerce and geo-political interests,” says Dr. Lopes. “First as a major sea lane for crude oil and global commerce, the greater Indian Ocean expanding to Asia has multiple chokepoints. This necessitates military presence particularly in areas such as Western Indian Ocean which is impacted by piracy to secure safe passage-ways for global commerce. The Somali piracy problem is in a way a global problem.”


Lopes who is based at the UNECA headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, explains the importance of the region to the world noting that part of the militarisation is aimed at curbing piracy and restoring safe access in the western Indian Ocean. He says the Strait of Hormuz carries 17 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), and Suez Canal 3.8 million bpd making this ocean sphere a vital ‘oil transhipment sea highway.’

That the Indian Ocean is one of the most geo-strategic areas in global commerce is a fact that dates back to history. The 14th Century Portuguese sailors and buccaneers upstaged the Arabic, Persian and African dynasties within the western Indian Ocean and ushered in some 400 years of colonialism in the entire region.

Their centuries old military history in the form of Forts, cannons and other memorabilia is well preserved from Mozambique to Goa. As a result, it has always been swarmed by inferences of dominance by various international powers at any given time in its long colourful history. “The Indian Ocean has always been strategic,” says Seychelles leading environmental defender, Nirmal Shah.

Just like in the past, this trend of military show of force has always been overt but elicited little discussion. Events within the sphere in the last decade illustrates that militarisation in the Western Indian Ocean has never relented.

In 2011, One Earth Future Foundation reported that the economic costs of Somali piracy to the global economy stood at $6.9billion annually. This was in addition to extra spending to support military presence in the region to the tune of $1.3billion, increased insurance premiums topping $635million among other maritime-related fees and costly changes in vessels engineering aimed at forestalling piracy.

Multiple scholars specialising in regional geopolitics and security reveal that there is much more to the piracy and terrorism narrative than that given by officialdom. They contend that the ‘war on terror’ is a ruse for economic dominance played out through heavy military presence.

“The importance of the Western Indian Ocean to players beyond eastern Africa and even India is increasing at a high rate due to international forces,” says Macharia Munene, a historian and international relations Professor at the Nairobi-based United States International University-Africa (USIU-A).

“Some positive and others negative. Piracy arising from fragmented Somalia has been a good excuse for various countries to have their navies patrolling the eastern African coast and even as is the case of Japan in Djibouti, build a naval base.”


Prof Munene’s inference of Japan refers to the 12-hectares Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF) base built at a cost of $473 million near Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport in Djibouti, which was inaugurated in 2011. Djibouti is strategically placed at the Horn of Africa bordering Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It shares the Bab el Mandeb (Gate of Grief) Strait with the two volatile nations of Yemen and Eritrea. In East Africa, Djibouti is referred to as a “garrison country” owing to the more than $100 million revenues it collects annually for hosting myriad western foreign military bases.

But Japan is not the only one with a military base in Djibouti solely aimed at safeguarding its interests in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden. If anything Japan is the ‘latest kid in the block’.

France has had a military base in Djibouti for the last 150 years. France has three main military bases in Africa, Dakar, Gabon and Djibouti. The French Forces in Djibouti (FFDJ), hosted in the Centre d’Entrainement Commando Art Plage, is the largest and home to over 3,000 troops at any given time. French Special Forces, Foreign Legion Units and dozens of French Mirage and Rafale fighter and combat jets are in this base and at Djibouti’s main airport of Ambouli.

Paris pays Djibouti $38 million annually as rent for these facilities. Strategically positioning itself in the Indian Ocean, France has what is referred to as ‘quadrilatere Francais‘ (France Quadrilateral). This is a euphemism for the four French military bases in the Indian Ocean found in Mayotte, Djibouti, Abu Dhabi and Re Union.

Re Union and Mayotte are departments of France, with Mayotte having seceded from the Union of Comoros in a referendum in 2011. Comoros, a former colony of France, is still demanding that Mayotte reverts to the Union of Comoros consisting of the islands of Moheli, Anjoun and Grand Comore.

The 28-member security bloc, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) runs an anti-piracy operation code-named ‘Operation Ocean Shield‘ which too is based in Djibouti covering a similar area as that of EUNAVFOR and drawing its mandate from the UN Security Council Resolution 2020 of November 2011. The US which is also a member of NATO has four critical naval bases within the Western Indian Ocean rim.

The Naval Support Facility (NSF) in Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago is the largest naval base in the Indian Ocean where the US Navy runs a huge submarine facility and airbase. Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, where the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) is headquartered, is yet another US military facility within the Indian Ocean region. The US African Command (AfriCOM) is expected to move to Camp Lemonnier from its headquarters in Germany.

The other US bases within the western Indian Ocean include Combined Joint Task Force 150 in Bahrain and the smaller Manda Bay Naval Base in the Lamu archipelago in Kenya. Other than the French military, the other countries with military bases in Djibouti justify their presence in this fringe nation using ‘piracy’ and ‘war on terror’.

Other navies propping their might within the western Indian Ocean are China, Germany, Italy, India, Australia, Russia, South Africa, Iran, Kenya and Pakistan all who have cited terrorism and protection of their maritime lanes as a reason for their presence.


“The militarisation of the Western Indian Ocean beyond the piracy challenge is induced by a convergence of a number of forces,” say Lopes. “The continued interest for access to strategic energy and mineral resources, particularly in the Middle East and Africa; ensuring permanent accessibility of maritime and commerce routes from all threats and the emergence of new deep sea mining and energy opportunities enabled by new technology advances like deep sea drilling.”

International relations and security studies expert, Professor Samuel Makinda, also sees more than piracy in the Indian Ocean naval maneuvers’. “The naval presence in the Western Indian Ocean cannot be explained in terms of one thing,” he says. “Piracy maybe one of the factors but it is not the only one. Deep sea mining might be another factor, but it has to be explained in terms of a specific country and a specific corporation. The naval presence may also be for signaling purposes. No major power wants to be overshadowed by others.”


Makinda heads the School of Management and Governance at Murdoch University, in Australia.

Prof. Munene is of the opinion that piracy is a ruse for the heavy presence of naval forces in the Indian Ocean. He says the real reason for the heavy military presence in the Indian Ocean is the recent oil and gas finds in the East Coast of Africa covering Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. “More important than ‘piracy’ is the ‘discovery’ of oil and other energy sources in Eastern Africa. Both onshore and offshore, which whets the appetite of global industrial players.”

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and Madagascar are the emerging oil and gas frontiers in the world. These resources together with fisheries are what make the Indian Ocean to be described as ‘the heartland of the world.” Thirty one socially, economically, politically and linguistically diverse nations share the Indian Ocean accounting for 40 per cent of the world’s population. “Securing resources on land and at sea is the reason for the big power military presence in the Indian Ocean,” opines Munene.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) defines western Indian Ocean as ‘FAO fishing Area 51’ which is the entire part of the western Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. Indeed, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, UAE, Yemen, India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, Maldives and France through its overseas departments of Re Union, Mayotte, Tromelin, Europa, Juan de Nova and Bassas de India are all defined as being within the western Indian Ocean area.

In terms of fisheries, the Indian Ocean again plays a crucial role supplying 24 per cent of the global tuna demand. According to the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), which is based in Victoria, Seychelles, 1.3million tonnes of Albacore, Big eye, Swordfish, Skipjack and Yellowfin tuna are caught annually in the Indian Ocean.

Presently, the EU is the top major tuna fishing entity in the Indian Ocean followed by Sri Lanka, Maldives, Indonesia and Iran. In total, the EU has paid some €8.7 million through its ‘fisheries partnership agreement’ to Comoros, Seychelles, Mozambique and Madagascar to allow more than 40 tuna purse seiners and over 50 long liners to fish in their exclusive economic zones. However, piracy attacks on fishing vessels have led to a reduction of European purse seiners in the Indian Ocean.

“The EU fisheries fleet has been considerably impacted by the piracy surge in 2009 and, consequently, a part of the fleet was redeployed in the Atlantic Ocean. From 39 EU-registered purse seiners in 2007, only 22 are still operating in the Indian Ocean and were allowed by their respective EU member states governments to embark protection teams on board of their vessels,” says Natalie Donikian of the EU Delegation to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros based in Port Louis, Mauritius.


Indian Ocean’s new frontier of power which is likely to heighten the military race is the clamour for deep sea mining and exploration licences from the International Seabed Authority (ISA). Created under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the ISA is a UN agency headquartered in Kingston, Jamaica and is mandated to administer mineral resources in the sea floors in international waters. Of the 17 deep sea mining licences issued by ISA covering Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, only three were issued for the Indian Ocean. These went to the governments of India, South Korea and the China Ocean Mineral Resources Research and Development Association (COMRA). In effect, the ‘Scramble for the Sea’ in pursuit of resources is on.

The quest for undersea exploitation is motivated by a yearning for minerals such as petroleum and gas, iron-manganese and placer deposits among others. In this scramble, the major powers are seeking to expand their ‘spheres of influence’ generating more interest in the region. “Interest in deep sea methane hydrates has been visible in the US, Japan, China and Russia,” says Lopes. “The opening of deep sea oil and gas exploration from Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique to Seychelles and Madagascar means that competition and securing these resources will intensify with part of that playing in the region through military presence.”

Commander Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri, a research fellow attached to the ‘China Cell’ at India’s National Maritime Foundation, notes that in the last 10 years China has invested heavily in maritime research and exploration vessels. He cites Kexue the 100-metre advanced oceanographic research vessel commissioned in 2012 and the deep sea-manned submersible Jiaolong inaugurated in 2010 as cases of Chinese advancement in oceanography. “Having conducted credible deep sea exploration activities in the South western Indian Ocean ridge since 2005, China submitted a bid for allocation of suitable blocks for deep sea mining rights to the ISA,” he says. Cdr. Agnihotri has also worked at the China Desk at the Indian Army headquarters in New Delhi.

COMRA, a state-enterprise, was granted a 15-year licence in an area in the South West Indian Ocean ridge between the Madagascar Plateau and Crozet Basin. The area covers 10,000 square kilometres and will be explored in search of cobalt-rich iron and manganese crusts. These crusts are said to be rich in titanium, cobalt, nickel, platinum, molybdenum and other rare earth metals. “The allocated area is estimated to have 420 million tonnes of poly metallic nodules rich in copper, iron, lead, zinc, gold and silver of which about 3 million tons can be exploited in the next two decades,” he says.

India’s licence is for a 7860-square kilometre area in the Central Indian Ocean basin said to contain 4.2 million tonnes of copper, 4.7 million tonnes of nickel and 92 million tonness of manganese among other metals. South Korea was licensed for a 75,000-square kilometre area in the Clarion-Clipperton zone in the Pacific Ocean. Seoul has another deep sea mining licence in the mid-Indian Ocean ridge.

While the US and its allies have a military presence in the Indian Ocean, a new power play between India and China is gaining prominence and almost overshadowing that of the US-European military axis. Other than the deep sea mining interests, Lopes sees the increased militarization, especially from China and India, as being fuelled by energy demands back at home.

“Western Indian Ocean is increasingly becoming a hotspot as reflected by the daily discoveries of oil and gas resources in the sub-region. From Mozambique to Somalia, energy resource discoveries are drawing global attention,” says Lopes. “Gas discoveries in Mozambique and Tanzania, oil deposits and new discoveries in South Sudan and Uganda, offering of deep ocean exploration rights in Madagascar, Tanzania and recently in Seychelles – after a 2 years moratorium, have opened the western Indian Ocean region to energy resource interests, including from China and India.”

EIA’s findings have put India as the fourth largest energy consumer after the US, China and Russia. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) Energy Outlook report issued in mid-October 2013 notes that the Asia-Pacific nations will need $11.7 trillion worth of investments in the energy sector in the next 25 years to meet their energy demands.

“China and India are in a stage of their growth which is still very much resource intensive, as their respective middle class expands and consumer requirements grow,” explains Lopes. “To satisfy these needs, new infrastructure has to be built and consumer goods such as cars and electronic appliances, among others provided, which all require minerals, including oil and gas.”

Even though China and India are major mineral producers on their own right, he contends that the two Asian giants will need “to secure diversified supply of mineral resources from abroad” to meet their rapidly growing economies. “It is true that India and China have increased their political economic and diplomatic presence in Africa in the past few years driven by their economic growth,” say Makinda.


From his vantage position of leading the UN economic think tank in Africa, Lopes says that the volatility in the Middle East has forced both India and China to be robust and seek new sources to meet their energy demands back home. Munene concurs with the assertion that the importance of East Africa and western Indian Ocean energy sources has been increasing owing to the precariousness of the Middle East.

“The geo-strategic interests and presence of China and India in the western Indian Ocean is induced by multi-dimensional considerations,” say Lopes. “These can be viewed in terms of the continued deepening of Afro-Asiatic trade, discovery of globally noticeable levels of energy and mineral resources, and existing fishery resources in western Indian Ocean, as well as domestic policy considerations.”

Supported by Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR)

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