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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 7 February 17, 2024

Bab-el-Mandeb Strait Tensions: The Global Impact on Maritime Security and the Blue Economy | Santosh Mathew

Saturday 17 February 2024


The Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean via the Gulf of Aden, is now in international news. The Suez Canal which is the world’s largest man-made waterway is on the northern side of the Red Sea. The canal, which is 193 km long and now close to 200 meters wide, connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean Sea. The Houthis are attacking the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait within this, which is merely 26 kilometres wide.

Operation Prosperity Guardian, led by the United States, was launched to protect the Bab-el-Mandeb. The United States says more than 20 countries have expressed their willingness to join the bloc set up under its leadership to protect the movement of goods through the Red Sea. Yemen’s Houthis have launched attacks on Israeli-linked vessels in the wake of Israel’s offences in Gaza. This was followed by a move to protect the cargo ships.

Houthi leaders had made it clear that they would attack any ship with ties to Israel. In November and December 2023 alone, there were more than ten such attacks. A ship has also been captured by the Houthis. Though initially, Israeli-linked ships were the only ones attacked, now they are targeting ships carrying goods to Israel or coming from Israel. Houthis are of the opinion that if peace prevails in Gaza, then there will be peace in the Red Sea. However, if there is conflict in Gaza, then there will be conflict in the Red Sea as well.

The Red Sea lies at a distance of 1930 km. The Red Sea is a sea in between the Arabian countries on one side, and North Africa on the other. The Red Sea is usually dark greenish-blue in colour. But the presence of an algae called Trichodesmium Erythraeum gives the water of this Sea a brownish-red colour. Hence, the name Red Sea. From the Indian Ocean, it passes through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea plays a vital role in connecting Europe to the rest of the world. It serves as a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar, and to the United States through its coast.

Traditionally, ships circumnavigate the African tip before taking this route. However, the current situation presents many challenges for ships sailing around Africa. About 99% of the goods that arrive in Israel are transported by sea, and 40% of these come through the Suez Canal. The canal was closed in 1967 following the Egypt-Israel war but reopened in 1975. During the closure, 14 ships were stranded in the canal for eight years. The Suez Canal has a long and violent history even prior to this event.

The construction of the Suez Canal, which was started in 1859 by Frenchman Ferdinand de Lesseps, was completed and opened in 1869. It has also been a site of conflicts during World War I and II. During World War II, Egypt and the Suez Canal were under British control. In 1956, Egypt’s ruler Gamal Abdul Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. But Britain, France and Israel could not have accepted this. However, when the Soviet Union came out in support of Egypt, the US found it as a risk. That was the beginning of the Cold War. In the end, the US averted the crisis by pushing back Britain, France and Israel.

If it is 8400 nautical miles from Singapore or India to Europe via the Suez Canal, it would be 11700 nautical miles to circumnavigate the African Peninsular. It will take an additional 7-10 days to cover these 3000 nautical miles. Moreover, it is estimated that each trip will cost up to $2 Million additionally by traversing the African peninsular. Hence, there are many issues to be dealt with. These include re-estimating the cost rise, making contracts, insurance coverage, and passing through that area despite the risk. As the travel time increases, the prices of goods will also increase. This means it will be reflected in the market as well. This is the major route through which products, including grains, from Europe and the US reach Asia. This is also the route for fuel exports from Arab countries to Europe.
However, reports suggest that the trip may take up to a month more as one has to go around the African tip. It is the route through which 15 per cent of international trade passes. About 20 per cent of international fuel consumption passes through the Suez Canal through the Red Sea. It accounts for 30 per cent of international container ship traffic. 8% of international LNG debt is through the Suez Canal. In 2022 alone, 22032 ships passed through this route. This comes at a time when 330 ships passed through the month of November which indicates that more ships have begun to move out of this route. The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), the world’s largest shipping company, along with the second-largest shipping company, Merk and Hapag Lloyd, said it was suspending its travel through the Red Sea after its ships were attacked. These big companies handle more than half of the international cargo movement.

Decades ago, Alfred Mahen, an American oceanographic theorist, coined the phrase "Whoever rules the sea, rules the world," which has proved to be true. However, at the end of the First World War, then US President Woodrow Wilson proposed that the sea should belong to everyone. In 1994, he became a professor at the United Nations University.

The term ‘blue economy’ was first used in the book ‘The Blue Economy 10 Years 100 Innovations 100 Million Jobs’ written by a Belgian economist named Gunter Pauli. According to him, the key components of the blue economy include sustainable fishing, preventing over-exploitation, and food security.

India has a coastline of 8118 Km and sovereignty over an area of 2.01 million square kilometres. There are 118 minor ports and 12 major ports. About 1400 million cargo is also transported through these ports annually. There are 665 species of fish caught on a commercial basis in our seas and 40 lakh fishermen who make a living in connection with it. About 17 crore people live in the coastal areas. However, our fishing alone is 35 lakh Tonnes on average. According to estimates, approximately 3.12 lakh vessels are operating in the Indian Ocean. The crux of the Blue Economy lies in the utilization of sea resources for economic growth. Modern industries require sea minerals. They are mostly required for things like computer chips. Deep sea mining for such raw materials can adversely affect the sea environment. Oil, natural gases, manganese nodules, copper, nickel, cobalt and polymetallic products can also be mined and extracted from the sea. Blue Economy is a policy brought in by the Central Government aiming at the proper utilization of all kinds of resources, including minerals, and natural gases in the sea.

The Spanish trawlers who worked in the sea of Senegal by paying a paltry license fee swept the sea there. Ten years later, workers in Senegal caught 95000 Tonnes of fish in 1994. About 50-60 per cent of the fisheries were laid off at the fish processing plants, following which Senegal withdrew from the fisheries cooperation agreement. The disaster, which fisheries researchers term as ‘Senegalization’, is continuing in neighbouring countries such as Morocco, Sierra Leone and Cape Verde.

The territorial waters are recognized as the territorial waters of the coastal state with a boundary of up to 12 nautical miles from the coast. The ‘UN Convention on the Loss of the Sea’ defines the EEZ as a waterline of up to 200 nautical miles. While India has ratified the UN Convention document, it has not been ratified by the US. The United States views the claim of sovereignty by coastal states in the region as an ‘exclusive maritime claim’, or intrusive right.

The US views any country’s non-territorial waters (the sea beyond 12 nautical miles) as the public property of the world or the ‘public way’. The US claims it has the right to pass freely there and, if necessary, conduct military exercises. But for India, up to 200 nautical miles of maritime boundary is the property of the coastal state. Only the coastal state has the right to mine minerals, carry fishing and take necessary safety measures from that area. While passing through, the warships must inform the coastal country and obtain permission to conduct the exercise. The territorial waters are recognized as the waters of the coastal state with a boundary of up to 12 nautical miles from the coast. The ‘ UN Convention on the Loss of the Sea’ defines a waterline of up to 200 nautical miles as exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The UN Convention document, however, has not been ratified by the US. The current maritime laws were formed following the United Nations’ discussions on the Law of the Sea from 1973 to 1982. According to this treaty, 12 nautical miles (22 km) of the coastline (territorial sea) from the land and 200 nautical miles (370 km) beyond that is covered by the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of the respective countries and beyond it is the Outer Sea (High Sea).

According to the Blue Economy document, India should work jointly with other countries with the objectives of shipping joint naval exercises, deep sea exploration and repelling pirates in the vast Indian Ocean, which stretches from Seychelles to Samoa in Africa. There are 665 species of fish caught commercially in our seas and 40lakh fishermen who make earnings out of it. About 17 crore people live in the coastal areas. There are about 20 lakh cubic meters of oil and natural gas at the bottom of our ocean. India’s blue economy policy also states that activities such as the MALABAR Exercise, a joint military exercise being conducted with the US in the Arabian Sea since 1992, VARUNA, which has been with France since 2001, KONKAN, which has been partnered with Britain since 2004, JIMEX with Japan since 2012, and AUSINDEX, which has been jointly conducted with Australia since 2015, should also be strengthened. These actions are aimed at countering China, which is taking huge strides in the economic and maritime spheres. The QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue), which was recently jointly recognized by India, Japan, the United States and Australia, is a major step forward in this field.

India and the US recently signed agreements that mandated them to inform each other about defence operations. Critics of the Government say that not announcing the move of the 7th Fleet, despite such a close relationship, is an expression of the American attitude of seeing India only as a stooge. Notably, the incident was after India became a full member of the US-led ‘QUAD’ alliance formed as part of the ‘Encirclement of China’ project. Japan and Australia are the other members of the QUAD. They are using India as a pretext for America’s military interests and adopting a negative stance towards India’s interests. The double standards of the US, which has been vocal on the eastern Ladakh issue between India and China, have come to the fore. There is no doubt that the impact of this will be severe in the field of diplomacy as well.

Russia has differing opinions about the Indo-Pacific and the QUAD strategic alliances led by the US. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that the idea of an Asia-Pacific would be more inclusive than the Indo-Pacific alliance. Russia, on the other hand, agrees that all sea routes should be free and inclusive. It will also benefit the Chennai-Vladiovostok maritime corridor project signed by the two countries in 2019. There have been different interpretations that Russia is distancing itself from India and getting closer to Pakistan, highlighting Russia-Pakistan relations. An important thing that they hide is that after the partition of India, it was the US that took Pakistan to India’s enemy side, joined multiple military alliances, provided arms and funds, and secured an anti-India bloc.

While the much-touted India-US strategic friendship is strengthening, it should not be forgotten that the US is still financing aid for arms in Pakistan. The relationship, which began with India’s independence, became stronger when Nikita Khrushchev took office. While the US viewed with suspicion the non-alignment adopted by Nehru as India’s foreign policy, the Soviet Union took more of a sympathetic approach to India’s foreign policy. India can never forget that in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Kashmir issue was raised at the United Nations, the Soviet Union used a veto in India’s favour. When India liberated Goa from Portuguese control in 1961, it was the Soviet Union that stood by India at the United Nations. The MiG-21 fighter jets and other weapons provided by them since 1963 helped India win the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Peace between the two countries was established through negotiations in Tashkent under the leadership of Alexei Kosygin, then Prime Minister of the Soviet Union. It was the Soviet Union’s naval deployment that helped India deal with the threat of the US 7th Naval Fleet, which was deployed to put pressure on India during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war. India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya was purchased from Russia in 2004. Russia still supplies more than 60 per cent of India’s weapons. Bhilai, Bokaro Steel Plants and Bharat Heavy Electricals, which laid the foundation for India’s industrial development, were contributed by the Soviet Union. The Bhilai Steel Plant was the first aid given by the Soviet Union to a non-communist nation. Until the 1980s, the Soviet Union was India’s main trading partner.

According to the SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) policy document, India must urgently build six new submarines, 30 warships, 150 fighter jets and helicopters in addition to today’s two aircraft carriers to strengthen its defences at sea. As part of the Sagarmala project, there are plans to construct six new ports. As part of the SagarMala project, 609 massive building complexes, 14 coastal development zones, 12 coastal tourist circuits and 2000 Km of coastal roads are coming up. The United States also understand the significance of the Diego Garcia military base has diminished as the neighbouring countries in the maritime domain have distanced themselves from India. Further China has built ports in Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The International shipping route starts from the Malacca Strait, the world’s leading freighter, and passes through Lakshadweep to the Gulf and Africa. This is also the reason why the US is interested in turning the island into a military outpost.

On April 7th, the commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet revealed that it had crossed 130 knots west of Lakshadweep and had not obtained India’s permission. The ship, USS John Paul Jones, was sailing across India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). India’s claims were interpreted by the US as an ‘excessive maritime claim’ that warships of other countries can only enter the EEZ with the prior consent of the coastal State. The Seventh Fleet consists of 50-70 ships, 150 aircraft, and about 20,000 sailors. The incident in the Lakshadweep Sea highlights that while there is a consensus on the South China Sea and other international maritime freedom issues, there are differences of opinion between India and the US on some of the core maritime sovereignty issues - mainly on matters relating to the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The ocean covers 70% of the Earth and is home to millions of species. It plays a crucial role in producing over half of the world’s oxygen. However, the ocean is also affected by human activity that emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which the ocean absorbs about 25% of. This has led to an increase in ocean warming and acidification. It is important to realize that if the ocean dies, we will also face the same fate.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed concern about the depletion of the ocean and called it a global maritime emergency. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 14 emphasizes the need to maintain marine habitats and resources sustainably and safely. In response, six countries, including the US, Canada, and Norway, have announced their national maritime economy policies to address this issue.

The blue economy serves as a road map for the conversion of waste from organic matter into energy and the sustainable and equitable development of the 100-business model with the cooperation of the public at large. The Bab-el-Mandel issue has reiterated the significance of oceanography.

(Author: Santhosh Mathew, Associate Professor, Centre For South Asian Studies,, School of International Studies&Social Sciences, Pondicherry Central University, India.)

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