The Suez Canal is used by about 19,000 ships every year, which transport 12% of global trade, valued at $700 billion. About 4.8 million barrels per day (mbd) of crude oil is transported both ways through the canal. Of this, about 500,000 barrels/day of crude is shipped to India through the Suez Canal from the US, Latin America and Algeria.

This makes India the largest crude importer through the canal. India is also the sixth-largest exporter of oil products through the Suez, after Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Libya and Algeria.

The total value of India’s merchandise trade that passes through the Suez is $200 billion, ie, one-fourth of India’s global trade. Besides oil products, Indian key exports are: chemicals, iron and steel, machinery, textiles, carpets and handicrafts.

The recent Suez Canal blockage has not only highlighted the importance of the Red Sea waterway, but it has also focused attention on the ongoing conflicts on both sides of the sea, which, if not managed successfully, could easily engulf the region and jeopardise safe passage through the sea.

The security situation on the Red Sea littoral is being influenced by two ongoing competitions in West Asia: one, the Saudi-Iran confrontation that now has reverberations in the Red Sea; and, two, the intra-Sunni competition that has Turkey and Qatar pitted against a Saudi-led coalition that includes the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

Given that the security of the Red Sea is crucial for India’s economic interests. what then should be the country’s approach to this contentious area? The Gulf and the Red Sea now constitute an integrated security landscape. This demands that India’s strategic approach should take a holistic view of the region.

In recent years, while India’s maritime focus has been on backing US interests in the South China Sea through the “Quad”, an area where India has negligible security interests, it has taken its eyes off the western Indian Ocean—the Gulf and the Red Sea littoral—where its crucial strategic interests lie.

The most significant development in the western Indian Ocean from India’s perspective is the emergence of China as an active player in regional affairs. In 2017, China joined the US, France, Italy and Japan in setting up a base in Djibouti, a small country of a million located at the Bab al Mandeb.

Though China refers to it as a “logistical facility”, it has deployed 2,000 military personnel at the base (can be increased to 10,000 when required). China has also been sending a naval task force to the Gulf of Aden every three months since 2011.

China has consolidated its regional presence with trade and investment. China’s trade with Red Sea states is about $100 billion, making it the principal partner for most of them. China’s main imports from the region are crude oil and liquified natural gas (LNG). As of now, China sees its regional role as promoting the maritime component of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that passes through the Red Sea to reach the Mediterranean and European ports.

China’s infrastructure development activity in the Horn of Africa includes construction of railways, dams and ports. As its connectivity projects fructify, the importance of the Red Sea for east-west trade will significantly increase.

The geopolitics

The Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea are linked by a relatively short and very narrow ribbon of sea water—the Red Sea. It connects the economies of Asia with those of Europe and North Africa, and then, across the Atlantic, with North and South America. The Red Sea is just over 2,000 km long and has an average width of 280 km. But the sea is tightly enclosed at both ends—the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the Indian Ocean end and the Suez Canal at the Mediterranean.

Completed in 1869, the Suez Canal cuts through the Suez Isthmus that links Asia with Africa. The canal is 193km long, 205m wide and 24m deep. At the other end, the Bab al Mandab strait is just 26-29 km wide. Its name means “Gate of Sorrows”, possibly a reference to the sailors killed in its turbulent waters.

The Red Sea littoral states of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, taken together, constitute the “Horn of Africa”. This region over the last few decades has witnessed unrelenting violence and great suffering due to civil conflict and inter-state wars. These conflicts have resulted from fragile state formation, inter-tribal rivalries and support enjoyed by fissiparous groups from external sources.

The Horn of Africa was afflicted with maritime piracy from 2000, which continued till 2017 and ended only with the cooperative efforts of 33 nations. It is also home to the extremist group, Al Shabaab, in Somalia, that launches lethal attacks in East Africa and has ties with the Boko Haram extremists in Nigeria.

Over the last ten years, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), particularly Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, have effected a major change in their foreign policy approach. They now aggressively seek to expand their influence in the areas of the Red Sea littoral.

Saudi Arabia initiated the conflict in Yemen in 2015 to stem the tide of Iranian influence in a country with which it shares a soft 1,400-km border. The six-year war has caused the deaths of about 100,000 people, while several million face a humanitarian disaster, with no signs of an effective peace process. The UAE is supporting the Saudi military effort with mercenaries from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.

The UAE has also taken control of some of Yemen’s ports—Mokha in the Red Sea, and Aden as well as Mokalla on the Indian Ocean. As Iranian naval activity has increased in the Gulf of Aden, the UAE also set up an air base on Perim Island at Bab al Mandeb, eight miles off Yemen.

The GCC countries are investing heavily in the region to maintain local political alliances: the UAE and Saudi Arabia have courted Egypt with $120 billion in aid and investment since 2003. Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea have benefited to the extent of $18 billion from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar. These investments have been in sectors such as oil refining, infrastructure, real estate and, above all, food production.

The regional sparks

There is a serious downside to these West Asian interventions. Since they reflect ongoing competitions in West Asia, the Gulf states seek to reshape regional politics to their own advantage. Thus, both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have set up bases in Eritrea and Somaliland to launch air and sea attacks on the Houthis and their Iranian allies.

Again, West Asian rivals are competing to influence domestic politics in Sudan which has a fragile military-civilian administration. Turkey is seeking to develop the Ottoman-era port of Suakin, which is being opposed by Egypt and its Gulf allies who are backing the country’s military leaders.

This significant involvement of GCC states in the Red Sea littoral has expanded the arc of political contention and instability into the broader western Indian Ocean, jeopardising both regional security and safe passage through the sea and constituting a threat to India’s interests.

As mentioned earlier, the regional security scenario has been complicated by two developments that have recently emerged in the Red Sea littoral. One is the increasing frequency of relatively low key skirmishes between Iranian and Israeli vessels in the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean over the last two years, involving both commercial and naval vessels.

As Israel becomes more aggressive in opposing Iran’s nuclear activity and possibly seeking to provoke Iran into an aggressive response, these skirmishes could easily escalate into a major conflict that could block the Bab al Mandeb.

The other threat to regional peace is the sharpening divide between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 2011, Ethiopia began the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile river, largely to provide electricity to the power-starved country. Egypt is concerned that the dam would reduce water supply for its own population. Observers have not ruled out an Egyptian military attack on the dam or, alternatively, encouragement to Ethiopian rebels to sabotage the project.

Clearly, the regional political order in the Red Sea littoral is fragile and is marked by internal and inter-state conflicts amidst continued concerns relating to extremism and maritime threats, particularly trafficking—human, drugs and weapons.

Options before India

Given this volatile situation, and India’s preoccupations with the “Quad”, we should have concerns about Indian Ocean and Red Sea ports coming under the control of Gulf nations which have no navy worth the name. These ports could be increasingly used by Western, Chinese or Pakistani navies whose interests and actions might not be congruent with those of India.

India has several options to safeguard its interests. One, it has already built close links with several Indian Ocean island nations, including Mauritius, Seychelles, Madagascar and Reunion. But, given its location at the heart of the Indian Ocean, India does not really need a base. Bases tend to evoke resentments among local populations and are subject to the vagaries of local governments.

Perhaps, India’s interests would be best served with more support vessels, long-range missiles deployed on the mainland, and improved aerial surveillance.

Two, the Suez blockage has also focused attention on alternative routes for east-west trade. India is at an advantage here with the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that links Indian ports via the land route from Iran’s Chabahar port to Moscow, through Azerbaijan. Greater Indian alacrity in pursuing its own connectivity initiatives rather than bemoaning the success of China’s BRI projects would better serve national and regional interests.

Finally, given the sharp divisions between Gulf states and their heightened activism —economic, military and maritime—across the western Indian Ocean, India, too, needs to recalibrate its ties with them to provide greater focus on the maritime factor in the relationship. Here, the policy approach will need to be holistic territorially, while avoiding joining regional contentions.

This calls for an entirely different diplomatic approach. A stable regional environment would yield enormous benefits not just for the littoral states, but for other regional players which have a crucial interest in Red Sea security.

In fact, the Gulf states, gripped today in existential contentions, are also pursuing initiatives that would make the Arabian Peninsula the global hub for innovation and economic diversification, an urgent need in the post-pandemic era. Thus, the challenge is for India to shape, in alliance with regional players, a comprehensive security management order to promote dialogue and conflict-amelioration.

One way forward would be to reshape the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), of which India is a founding member, into an effective regional security platform by revamping its mandate and expanding its membership.

Besides India’s long historical links with the region and its significant naval and merchant shipping capacities, it has excellent bilateral ties with all the major role-players having a stake in Red Sea stability. India is well-placed to pursue this initiative successfully.

The author is the former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

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