The Impact of Regional Conflicts on Maritime Security in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean
1. Introduction
The article investigates the impact of certain regional conflicts in the Arabian Sea and its direct and indirect implications for the security and stability of the Indian Ocean region. This is done through the application of the concept of the security complex and the delineation of regional security subcomplexes at both the interstate and the more local levels. The concept of the security complex refers to a set of states whose primary security concerns involve one another, while the security subcomplex refers to a pattern of alliances and conflicts between states on a particular security issue. The article asserts that conflicts in the Arabian Sea have tended to alter the state of the wider Indian Ocean security complex, with varying degrees of intensity.
The Indian Ocean is rapidly becoming a key strategic location for the maintenance of global and regional peace and prosperity—a fact evidenced by the increasing number of extra-regional states seeking a military presence in and around this vast body of water. In addition to traditional security concerns such as protection of sea-lanes, natural resources, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, littoral states are increasingly having to confront such non-traditional security challenges as economic exploitation, environmental degradation, illegal immigration, arms proliferation, narcotics trafficking, and international terrorism. The Indian Ocean is also a region of contested security, where different nations and interest groups may have different visions of what a secure and stable Indian Ocean should look like, and what kind of role they are willing to undertake in order to achieve it. The Indian Ocean has thus witnessed a plethora of conflicts which have variously actualized the security dilemma and entailed mutually hurting stalemates between the contending parties. These conflicts have tended to decisively alter the state of security in their own littoral areas, as well as having wider-ranging implications for the security and stability of the Indian Ocean region as a whole.
1.1 Background
This essay explores the impact of regional conflicts on maritime security in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. The Arabian Sea plays a crucial role in maintaining the global economy and is a key trade route between the European Union (EU) and the Middle Eastern states, as well as the surrounding Asian nations (UNEP, 2005). Also, 40% of the world’s oil tanker traffic passes through the Arabian Sea according to Symonds, which is a very high figure and indicative of the high reliance on the oil from these regions. Possession of resources and the reliance on oil and trade make the regions surrounding the Arabian Sea of high strategic importance for major and emerging powers. India and Pakistan have had two major conflicts concerning territorial disputes surrounding maritime boundaries, namely the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 and the Kargil conflict of 1999. This adds an element of hostility to the region and combined with the high reliance of both countries on oil, the security of oil routes becomes a key concern. According to the United States Energy Information Administration, as of 2014 India imports 189,600 barrels of oil a day from Iran and China 345,000 which is a high figure considering the proximity of these countries to the Persian Gulf. It is highly probable that any conflict in the Persian Gulf would disrupt oil supplies to Asian countries in the vicinity and according to Chansoria, it is in India’s interest to ensure secure oil supplies from the Persian Gulf to fuel its economic growth.
1.2 Objectives
To identify the nature and scope of the regional conflicts in South Asia and the Middle East and to examine their impact on maritime security in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
To identify the ways in which regional conflicts have affected and will continue to affect the state behaviour of littoral and regional states through an analysis of the political, economic, and military implications in which they have engaged in the pursuit of their respective security interests.
To analyze the impact of the shift in the strategic balance in favor of one state in a regional conflict and the implications of this for the opposing state(s), in particular the potential for arms racing, militarization, and conflict escalation and how this may affect the security of other states in the region. This may also involve an investigation into the role of third-party states in fueling or mitigating regional conflicts.
To examine and assess the relative importance of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean to the international community and global economy and the extent to which regional conflicts have compromised their interests and the security of the sea lines of communication. This will include an analysis of the international response to regional conflicts and the conflict behavior of outside states in relation to the affected state and region.
To identify future trends and scenarios of regional conflict and their potential impact on the security of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean and to assess their implications for the international community and the possibilities for conflict resolution and the restoration of security in affected areas.
1.3 Research Questions
What are the patterns of maritime conflict and terrorism in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, and which are the most significant threat to maritime security? What regional and global factors are most closely associated with these patterns, and what are the implications for policy makers aiming to enhance maritime security in this part of the Indian Ocean? What are the prospects for the regional states to improve their understanding of the causes of maritime conflict and to develop cooperative arrangements to prevent and manage conflictual episodes in the future? What role can extra regional powers play in enhancing maritime security in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean, and what policies are most likely to result in positive outcomes? How likely are future scenarios of a ‘maritime Great Game’ between India and Pakistan, and/or growing intervention by extra regional powers, and what are the potential implications of these developments for the international maritime order in this region? These are the key questions to be addressed in this project, which parallel traditional security analysis focusing on levels of threat to national security, the security dilemma and power transition, and seek to develop understanding and policy relevant theory about the security of states and societies as they interact with their external environment.
This project seeks to address questions relating to the causes of maritime conflict and terrorism and prospects for conflict prevention and resolution at both the macro and micro level, and to do so through comparative analysis of several cases of maritime conflict in the recent history of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Case study methodology is particularly useful for a project such as this, which seeks to unpack and compare causal and contextual factors in a variety of settings in order to develop broadly applicable theory about types and levels of threat to maritime security, and policy recommendations for those seeking to enhance it. This method combines the deductive approach of theory testing and development with the inductive approach of beginning with questions about specific events and the factors contributing to them and seeking patterns and generalizations from comparison of these events.
2. Regional Conflicts in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean
Somalia was once again left stateless, and conflicts over power and resources led to further instability in the region. More recently, it has been argued that the confidence gained by the TFG and Ethiopian forces could lead to Somalia being relatively stable and peaceful in comparison to how it has been for the past two decades. However, the recent escalation of conflict with the rise and insurgency of Islamist forces has led to an increase in piracy activities. This resurgence of threat has caused a mostly absent international maritime community to return to the task of reinstalling maritime security in the region.
The most enduring conflict in the Arabian Sea region has been the India-Pakistan rivalry. The wars in 1947 and 1965 were aimed at establishing a military solution to the territorial issue. Both wars ended inconclusively, but in the Bangladesh War of 1971, a military decision was reached when the Indian armed forces overwhelmed their Pakistani counterparts and secured the creation of the new state of Bangladesh. In each of these conflicts, the navies of both India and Pakistan aim, to a large extent, to merely survive the conflict, and thus sea denial is a primary strategy for both nations. Essentially, India accepts the need to secure a maritime advantage for a military decision in the state of conflict, and Pakistan aims to prevent this, particularly in the case of superior Indian naval forces. As such, the probability of naval conflict remains high.
The Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean region has been subjected to a substantial number of interstate and civil wars since the end of the Second World War. The future security dynamics of the region will, to a certain extent, be determined by the outcome of the Gulf War. Should Iraq emerge from the war significantly weakened, it will enhance the security of the Arab monarchies in the Gulf. However, the possibility of further unrest and conflict between Iran and the Gulf States, supported by Iraq, will continue to pose a threat to stability in the Gulf.
2.1 Conflict 1
Conflict 1 revolves around the long-standing sovereignty dispute between India and Pakistan over the region of Jammu and Kashmir. Possession of this territory holds considerable symbolic value for both states, particularly as it relates to national identity and self-esteem. While the act of war itself is not conducive to maritime security, the potential for conflict escalation to the nuclear level holds monumental ramifications for the security environment of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Since independence, India has adopted a “no first use” policy and Pakistan a conditional one, whereby a nuclear strike would be considered if there were strategic level inroads made into Pakistani territory. In the event of a nuclear exchange, it is conceivable that Pakistan would be decapacitated to a point where it could not effectively control its nuclear arsenal. This has led to fears of use them or lose them pre-emption, or even the possibility of non-state actors seizing nuclear weapons during a period of state collapse, and subsequently employing them so as to escalate or internationalise a given conflict. Such a scenario, albeit improbable, would have catastrophic effects on global security. In the more likely event of a conventional conflict spilling over into the narrowly defined escalation window, it is probable that both states would attempt to form regional alliances in an effort gain strategic depth and more favourable maritime access. The diversion of resources to naval build up, and the potential for a “war for the life lines” aimed at disrupting the opponents trade and energy supplies, would produce a complex multi theatre security environment. With many nations having stakes in the continued free flow of goods through the Indian Ocean, there would be wide variety of partisan interests and actions with corresponding implications for neutral states and non-state actors.
2.2 Conflict 2
During the period of the 16th to the 19th centuries, the Arabian Sea was both a highway and a battleground between Muslim empires of the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. This struggle for maritime security was centered on contestation over regional and littoral power, which would allow the dominant state the ability to control the sea and therefore the trade that passed across it. The Portuguese entered the region in 1506 and quickly established naval superiority over the combined navies of several Indian sultanates. Portuguese success in the Arabian Sea was due to their ability to project power from Europe with a fleet that was still superior to anything available in the region. In combined operations between their warships and their forts along the coast, the Portuguese were quickly able to destroy the naval power of any state that opposed them, and by 1515, they were effectively the only major power in the sea. This was the first time in history that any power had achieved sole control of the sea and its entire rim, and it marked the beginning of an era of European involvement in the region. Although control of the Arabian Sea by the Portuguese has been seen as the single most important factor in the era of 16th-century Indian Ocean history, the following century still saw considerable conflict between local powers for control of the sea. By the mid-17th century, the Portuguese hegemony of the first half of the century was already under threat, and in 1660, they were ousted from Bahrain by the Safavid Persians. 1661 saw the beginning of 30 years of war between the declining Portuguese and the rising naval powers of the Marathas and the Siddis. Despite these naval conflicts, the decisive changes in regional power that ended Portuguese control of the sea came from wars between land-based empires. The Mughals had already taken the initiative by ousting the Portuguese from the Konkan, and in 1683, they captured Bombay. This was a major blow to the Portuguese as it was quickly occupied and then ceded to the East India Company of England, marking the beginning of British involvement in the region. In 1739, the Iranians under Nadir Shah captured the strategic island of Qeshm near the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and it was his capture of Bahrain in 1743 that finally ended over two centuries of the Portuguese presence in the Arabian Sea.
2.3 Conflict 3
In April 1948, when Pakistan started the first war with India over the disputed territory of Kashmir, it featured the basic instruments of sea power in the area. The Indian Navy, though not a primary combatant, imposed a blockade on the Pakistani coast which at that point in time, was East and West Pakistan. This was done with considerable success. India used naval force again particularly against East Pakistan in their 1971 war. Here the apparently superior resources of the Pakistani Navy in East Pakistan were nullified by shore-based air power and the overwhelming Indian presence at sea. In the words of the then Commander in Chief of the Indian Navy, Admiral S. M. Nanda, “the Navy won India’s only decisive victory in the 1971 war.” This was achieved by an almost bloodless blockade of East Pakistan with the maritime forces at the disposal of the three services of India.
The potential for sea power as a tool of regional influence is well recognized by contemporary authorities. In Pakistan’s 1999 document “Sea Power in the Twenty-First Century,” it states “It is imperative for a country to acquire the knowledge of sea power to safeguard its economic and strategic interests.” This has been further clarified by Vice Admiral Taj Khattak, former Chief of Naval Staff for Pakistan who stated, “the most apposite instrument of national power will be the maritime power.” This view is mirrored by current Indian naval policy which seeks to establish itself as a dominant force in the Indian Ocean. Thus, lessons learned and scars imprinted on the above-mentioned nations as a result of their experience in sea power will undoubtedly be seen as the basis for any future conflict in the region.
3. Spillover Effects on Maritime Security
The spillover of regional conflicts onto the realm of maritime security has a number of implications for both regional and extra-regional states. As states gear their military strategies toward maritime capabilities, a naval arms build-up is fueled. The prospect of an arms race among states in regions of conflict is highly likely. For example, the naval balance of power between India and Pakistan has caused concern for many states external to the region, in particular the USA and China, who believe an increase in their own naval capabilities may be necessary to protect their interests in the Indian Ocean. This has significant implications for the distribution of power at the global level. Increased military presence in contentious areas increases the likelihood of violent encounters at sea. With this comes an increased threat to commercial shipping and oil trade, the life-line of many states in the modern era. Any disruption to the flow of these resources can have crippling effects on modern states’ economies, which are highly dependent on a steady flow of imports and exports. The notion of natural resources in contested areas becomes a contentious issue, with the prospect of resource looting or destruction a very real threat. This increases as sea lanes become highways for arms and contraband, the common war-time activity of weaker states. An often overlooked effect is the damage done to the maritime environment. With naval vessels and military aircraft constituting the majority of the technology used in modern warfare, there is a high risk of military activity causing detrimental effects to the marine ecosystem. This kind of pollution is usually not isolated and can affect states nowhere near the conflict, posing a transnational issue.
3.1 Economic Implications
For the case of India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, unrestricted sea areas have given an incentive to exploit resources in its area. With fish stocks declining worldwide, increased fishing effort has led to over-exploitation and depletion of fish stocks. Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) have been a contentious issue amongst countries, particularly India and Sri Lanka, which led to many arrests of fishermen crossing into rival countries’ waters. Such conflict in the debate of ownership of the resources within their EEZ has led to uneasiness and direct confrontations. Loss of fishing grounds as a result of not having secure access is a clear economic loss for these fishermen and their countries. In the case of India, it has been estimated that a loss of around US$100 million annually. Fishing disputes also have the potential to escalate to more serious and dangerous encounters, which will be discussed in further detail in the threat to sovereignty.
Economic activities have been the cornerstone in determining a country’s development. It has also been a yardstick in determining a country’s well-being, as success in achieving economic prosperity ensures a secure and safe environment for its citizens, providing them essential needs and at the same time upholding the country’s sovereignty and position in the international system. Conversely, failure to attain economic stability may result in dire consequences. Taking into context of South Asia and its regional conflicts, the spillover effects have caused great adverse implications on many countries’ economy. With some countries still heavily relying on their sea-based economy, the spillover effects have caused serious implications for maritime security and the economic stability of states, particularly in the Asian region.
3.2 Threats to Maritime Trade Routes
The Malacca Straits, linking the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea, are amongst the most pirated waters in the world. A dramatic surge in attacks on merchant shipping in recent years has seen the littoral states attempt to create a security framework to stabilize the region. Joint sea patrols involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore have had some impact, but the underlying economic and social factors contributing to piracy remain. The different categories of actors involved in piracy, varying from small village-based groups to more organized criminal or politically motivated groups, combined with the complexity of defining and proving acts of piracy, make it a difficult challenge to address. This has led some of the affected states to take matters of security into their own hands and adopt extraterritorial measures. For example, in October 2003, the Straits of Malacca were declared a zone of security by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, allowing the armed forces of these states to conduct hot pursuit of attackers onto the territory of its neighbors. Furthermore, a direct consequence of a perceived lack of security in the Straits, in a September 2004 meeting between the US and the Prime Minister of Malaysia, it was announced that US troops would provide anti-terrorism training to Malaysian forces. This was met with opposition from some regional states including Indonesia and led to a policy reversal and the eventual cancellation of the program. Measures disputed and deployed to mitigate the piracy problem in the Malacca Straits have caused some tension between the regional states. This situation is illustrative of the complexity of dealing with a security issue, where spillover effects from regional conflicts can lead to further instability in the attempt to address the original problem.
3.3 Environmental Concerns
The environmental impact of regional conflicts on maritime security is largely evident in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. Environmental security focuses on the links between ecosystems and the societal and political dynamics in the context of conflict. The Earth’s oceans are a fundamental part of the global ecosystem. Primarily, conflict has taken its toll on the marine life and ecosystems in the form of oil discharge. The Persian Gulf, which is a strategic and economic essential to the states in the Arabian Gulf because of its oil resources, is an area that has suffered substantial damage from oil spills. Although these spills were not a result of conflict, they have caused the marine life in this region to suffer. During the Gulf War, the most significant damage to the marine environment was in the form of oil pollution from oil spills into the Persian Gulf. While not all oil discharged at sea is a result of conflict, it is generally agreed that war and conflict may cause widespread and severe pollution because of the strategic nature of oil resources and the reluctance of a defeated enemy to prevent environmental damage in the process of retreat. This is seen as an inexpensive and effective method of denying the use of resources to the enemy, especially if a blockade of ports or destruction of oil refineries is likely to incur further damage to the marine environment from which it may take decades to recover. The use of oil as a weapon of war is by no means limited to the contamination of the enemy’s resources. It is highly probable that, as demonstrated in the Gulf War, oil tankers in the vicinity of conflict zones or those transporting oil from a state involved in war, may become victims of direct attacks in an attempt to damage the marine environment and the oil resource. This may take the form of bombing or the mining of vessels, both of which would cause widespread and potentially irreparable damage to marine and coastal environments.
3.4 Impact on Regional Stability
The effects of these conflicts on regional stability are often linked to the endangerment of the security of a state or other actor in the region through a spread of the conflict into other forms of traditional security or through non-traditional security. This has often resulted in a spiral of conflict due to the expectations of other states preparing for the worst-case scenario in order to ensure their own security. An example of traditional security conflict has been the Iran-Iraq war, which lasted 8 years and had an effect on maritime security in the northern Indian Ocean.
It is arguable that the more longstanding effects on the security of the region stem from threats that have been imposed on another state’s sovereignty. This has been the case with India and Pakistan over the last 55 years. The threat of intervention has often been manifested with Pakistan’s funding of various militant groups in an attempt to incite insurrection in the disputed Kashmir region. Although these conflicts have not been maritime in nature, their effects have had a significant impact on the security of the Arabian Sea and the states surrounding it. This is because threats to occupation and the funding of insurgent groups have often resulted in an escalation of the conflict into limited warfare. This has most recently been the case with the standoff between the two states in Operation Parakram following an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. During this period, both states mobilized large military forces along their shared border. The proximity of these forces to the sea meant that their primary concern was to secure the sea lines of communication and deny the enemy passage by sea. This had a substantial effect on the security of the region and the states involved, but it was not without some effect on maritime security.
Historically, regional conflicts have had significant repercussions on the stability of the areas concerned. It is often argued that in order to understand this phenomenon, it is essential to study the various dimensions of security. By looking at how conflicts impact the security of the state and the region, it is possible to gauge the severity of the conflict. Traditional security, involving state versus state conflict, requires an evaluation of the military effects of the conflict and the impact that this has on the security of the state in question. Non-traditional security, which deals with threats to the identity and welfare of a state, is becoming increasingly important in understanding the security of a region. These concepts are useful in understanding the effect of regional conflicts in both South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula on the security of the region and the states within it.
4. Mitigation Strategies and International Cooperation
Although naval security operations have, at times, had a positive impact on the security of specific shipping routes, the broader lasting effects of such operations are difficult to quantify, and at times, the presence of naval forces has drawn pirates to change tactics and target shipping in areas away from naval patrols.
Naval operations in the region have been undertaken in response to the specific security threats to shipping in locations such as the Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Malacca. Naval task forces have been organized by both coalitions of states and individual state actors with differing mandates and levels of cooperation with the shipping industry. EUNFOR, in conjunction with the Combined Maritime Forces, commenced Operation Allied Protector, an operation with a primary mandate of protecting food aid shipments to Somalia; this operation was later merged with the larger EUNFOR naval deployment. The United States-led Combined Task Force 150 has had a prolonged deployment to the Indian Ocean since November 2001 with an evolving mandate focused on security in the GWOT and broader maritime security operations, often involving the protection of shipping from security threats. These operations have, at times, received and mandated from the shipping industry, including armed security teams, which reflect the security measures taken by the industry to protect its assets.
The Indian Ocean has seen the establishment of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2008, which was a congregation of naval leaders from littoral states designed to increase maritime security cooperation through information sharing regarding recent security developments in the region. In 2009, the Interregional Coordination Center based in Mombasa, Kenya, was established to facilitate cooperation in the provision of security to shipping off the coast of Somalia between the Combined Maritime Forces and the European Union Naval Force (EUNFOR). Both of these agreements reflect a concerted effort to increase security cooperation regarding maritime security in specific regions with an emphasis on information sharing and coordination among naval operations.
Between the years of 2008 through 2010, a widespread effort was made to combat maritime piracy due to its direct impact on globalization and international trade markets. This has been facilitated by increased levels of international cooperation in security provision. A number of multilateral agreements and initiatives have been organized to address regional security issues. Such agreements oftentimes involve the pooling of resources and information to combat threats to maritime security in the region.
4.1 Multilateral Agreements and Initiatives
The concept of maritime security as it is understood today in international relations encompasses far more than the precepts of military power and fortification. It encompasses the maintenance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, the protection of life and property, the upholding of law in the seas, and the facilitation of free flow of commerce and increasingly, resources. Given the wide ranging issues of traditional and nontraditional security faced within the region, comprehensive maritime security cannot be achieved by any one state. Due to the transnational nature of the maritime environment and the resources and issues at stake, multilateral agreements and initiatives from an institutional and normative perspective are viable methods to achieving lasting security. From multilateralism in this context is meant the participation of three or more states that have common objectives and come together to work on a common problem. This can take place within formal institutions, or can be a more ad-hoc affair. Multilateral agreements are formal commitments by states to do or refrain from doing a specific act, while initiatives can be seen as cooperative activities and projects with the same intentions. Both methods are complimentary to each other, and the combination of the two has potential to strengthen security in the region. This paper will that these methods in relation to the concept of comprehensive security as a framework to address security concerns in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean. While the focus will be on these initiatives and institutions themselves, the paper will also take into account the contextual limitations and possibilities presented by the states involved.
4.2 Naval Operations and Security Measures
The US is now conducting Operation Enduring Freedom, the purpose of which has now been broadened to include helping Afghanistan to build a stable and secure environment and providing a base for continued global and regional efforts against terrorism. Although the operation has had its critics and has pointed to the limitations of modern warships in combating insurgents and small groups of terrorists, it has been an overall success in increasing maritime security in the North-West Indian Ocean. This has been done largely by deterrence whereby US and Coalition ships have conducted Maritime Interception Operations to prevent Al Qaeda and Taliban supporters from leaving or entering Afghanistan by sea and to deter smuggling which was a large source of income for opponents of the Coalition and the new government in Afghanistan. This has led to a reduction in the threat of terrorist attack on other states in the region using hijacked vessels coming from Afghanistan and has made the sea routes near Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf safer for merchant shipping.
After the Cold War, the Indian Ocean has seen increased naval activity. The third world arms race countries greatly contributed to increasing the amount of weapons and naval vessels in the region. The events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent US-led operations in Afghanistan have heightened the need for security cooperation in the region with a number of countries offering naval assets for coalition operations and others providing basing and over-flight rights. These naval operations, particularly those against global and regional terrorist networks, have had both positive and negative impacts on the security of the Indian Ocean. Measures taken by individual states to enhance their own security have also had an impact on their maritime neighbours. The most important naval operations in the Indian Ocean in recent years have been those undertaken by the United States.
4.3 Diplomatic Efforts and Conflict Resolution
There have been several encouraging findings that have arisen from studies on conflict resolution. Firstly, it has been suggested that conflicts which are ended through negotiation and compromise have a lesser chance of returning to violence. This is particularly relevant for South Asia and the Middle East, given the prevalence of historical conflicts and ongoing tension in present-day simmering below the surface of open warfare. An indirect approach to conflict resolution recently emerged through globalization theory, arguing that a global market economy can bring peace and stability to a region by opening avenues of prosperity and interdependence. Although this is not strictly considered “diplomacy,” it is an important point to note for the future, given that globalization is a key factor that has changed the security dynamics of the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean for the 21st century.
The international diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts in the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean have been varied and, in some cases, a difficult process. In some cases, diplomatic efforts have taken the right form, producing peaceful outcomes. In other cases, attempts at conflict resolution have degenerated into greater violence and instability in the short term, despite the best intentions of those involved. This section will look at the different forms of diplomatic efforts attempted at resolving regional conflicts and the extent to which they were successful. Diplomatic efforts represent a direct approach to conflict resolution and are often underpinned by a desire for stability and order in the long-term future of a region.

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