n Institute for Security Studies Papers - Maritime security in the Indian Ocean : strategic setting and features

Volume 2012, Issue 236
  • ISSN : 1026-0404



For millennia the peoples living around the Indian Ocean have benefited from its rich trade, while the interaction resulting from these maritime exploits, whether of a cultural and religious nature, or of conquest and slavery, invariable influenced their lives fundamentally. These traditional patterns of trade and communication changed drastically when first the Portuguese and then other European powers began sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to establish trade links and empires in the East.

Initially Africa was little affected by European maritime activity as the focus was on trade with the East. Africa's primary value was to provide refuge and provisions along a long and often hazardous route. The formidable warships of the European naval powers were rapidly able to establish dominance in the Indian Ocean and projected their influence to the furthest corners of region. Naval forces were crucial for the establishment of national interests and for countering the activities of other European nations. Over the centuries, the British in particular, because of their effective utilisation of sea power, were able to create a large Indian Ocean empire. During the course of the 19th century, European navies also played an important role in maintaining good order at sea, eradicating piracy and countering slavery.
The decolonisation process after the Second World War ended British hegemony in the Indian Ocean. The subsequent Cold War was again marked by superpower rivalry in the region, enhancing the region's global strategic value. When this period came to an end, Indian Ocean countries to a certain extent rediscovered some of the economic, social and cultural facets that made the ocean the bridge between Africa, Asia and Australasia. However, regional interaction and cohesion still leave much to be desired.
Indian Ocean security is now no longer the domain of colonial states or superpowers, but has become multifaceted and dynamic. New role players such as India and China have become major powers, and new national alliances are changing the scene. But current global realities have introduced maritime security problems as non-state actors are influencing security in the area directly and fundamentally. This is a serious development since the rich Indian Ocean maritime trade, which includes much of the world's energy trade, is crucial to the global economy. It seems that many of the lessons of centuries gone by are again being learned - rather than doing battle, navies have to project power and play a diplomatic role to maintain good order at sea.
Maritime security is a broad, somewhat amorphous area of focus, and the relevant literature covers everything from physical safety and security measures to port security, terrorism and more. A coherent definition is therefore difficult to determine, but, for the purpose of this paper, maritime security deals with the prevention of illicit activities in the maritime domain. It could be linked directly to the national security efforts of a specific country, or it could cover regional and international efforts to enforce maritime security.
This paper centres on the strategic value of the Indian Ocean and the relevant maritime security characteristics and threats. Particular attention is given to issues relevant to Africa. The paper concludes with possible solutions and highlights the importance of international and regional cooperation.

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