Recent developments in the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca help reveal India’s emerging challenges and opportunities on the maritime front. To the west of the country, international shipping is on high alert amidst the escalating tensions in the region between Iran and its neighbours on the one hand and between Tehran and Washington on the other. According to some estimates, at least 17 countries have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by the recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf region.
To the east, China has put its commercial shipping passing through the Straits of Malacca on a high alert. While the tensions in the Gulf centred around Iran are visible, the littoral states of the Malacca Straits are mystified at the Chinese decision to put its ships on alert. The three littoral states of the Malacca Straits — Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore — say they see no evidence of a real or potential threat.
Some believe that the Chinese decision might be based on intelligence about a local terror attack on its shipping. Others suspect this could be a prelude a larger move by China to establish a significant naval presence at the Malacca Straits that is seen as Beijing’s economic “life line”.
Every year, nearly $500 billion worth of trade passes through the Straits of Hormuz. The value of commerce flowing through the Malacca Straits annually is estimated at more than $3 trillion. Threats to the shipping in the straits of Hormuz and Malacca, however, are not new. What is new, though, is the US insistence that Asia pay for its energy security in the Gulf. In a tweet last month, President Donald Trump said Asian countries “should be protecting their own ships.”
The US has long been guarantor of maritime security in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Trump is now questioning the costs and benefits of this historic American role. This is very similar to the US pressure on its European allies to contribute a greater share of the costs for the maintenance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. That allies “free ride” on American shoulders has been at the heart of Trump’s world view. And he has been determined to ramp up the pressure against its partners in Europe and Asia to change the relative security burdens.
That the US is no longer dependent on oil imports from the Middle East and has become a major hydrocarbon exporter, have created the new economic context for Trump’s questioning of traditional American commitments to the Gulf. On his part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly told Trump at their meeting in Osaka last month that he has ordered the Indian Navy into the Gulf to escort the Indian oil tankers.
Since the Osaka talks, the story has moved on. Senior US officials, including General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have unveiled plans to build an international coalition to secure the Gulf. Japan and South Korea are reportedly considering participation in such a coalition.
While Tokyo and Seoul are ambivalent about incurring additional costs to secure their oil imports, Beijing might be better prepared — in terms of capabilities as well as ambitions — to take larger responsibility for security in the Gulf. A decade ago, when piracy threatened international shipping in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, China initiated naval deployments that have turned into a permanent military presence in the region.
Since then, China has set up its first foreign military base in Djibouti. Beijing has intensified its military engagement in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea littoral. The US’s demand that Asians do more for securing the flows of energy, provides China with an unprecedented opportunity to carve out a larger role for itself in the Gulf.
The opportunity should be equally attractive to India. After all, Delhi is closer to the Gulf than Beijing and is in a better position to raise its maritime profile in the littoral. It has big stakes in the Gulf as well as a longer tradition of providing security to the region. Meanwhile, the countries in the Gulf region are looking to diversify their security partnerships as an insurance against potential downsizing of American security commitments. But the public debate in Delhi is focused rather narrowly on the implications of the Gulf crisis for its planned investments in Iran’s Chabahar port and on finding ways to appear neutral.
One hopes that the Modi government is thinking a little more boldly about India’s strategic possibilities in the Gulf amidst a historic churn shaking up this oil-rich region and its relationship to the world. More broadly, as Asia rises and the US rethinks its role in providing public goods in the Indo-Pacific, Delhi must aim to do more for maritime security on its own as well as through coalitions of like-minded countries. After all, Modi has often suggested that India must aspire to become a “leading power” and take greater responsibility for regional security in India’s neighbourhood.