Why the Conflict in West Asia is Complicating India’s Maritime Security

25 Jan, 2024    ·   5866

Siddharth Anil Nair explains how New Delhi’s core security objectives are threatened by the conflict extending into the Indian Ocean

India’s fundamental maritime security objective is to deter conflict and coercion from the sea. Recent developments in its regional security environment have created new complications in this pursuit. The conflict in West Asia has extended into the Arabian Sea, affecting freedom of navigation and generating strategic risks to India’s maritime security.

Cause: Conflict Extension into Indian Ocean
Israel’s war in Gaza has triggered a transregional crisis that spans the east Mediterranean and the north Arabian Seas. While the war’s continental dimension is of security concern to India, its extension into the maritime domain poses a far more significant challenge.

The Houthis in Yemen—part of the “axis of resistance”—are conducting raids and drone attacks on fuel/chemical tankers in the Gulfs of Aden and Oman, in support of the Israeli-occupied territories. American and British warships stationed in the region are countering these attacks with intercepts and strikes on Houthi anti-ship and ammunition installations. At the same, both sides (predominantly the US and Iran) are seizing critical cargo ships in a tit-for-tat. These attacks threaten vital international sea lanes and supply-chains that deliver billions of tonnes of the world’s commodities and luxury goods. A zone of insecurity has grown over the past four months, as has international attention.

The US has a carrier strike group in the Red Sea in addition to its permanent patrol of US Coast Guard cutters in the Persian Gulf. Also in the area are three UK air-defence frigates conducting operations alongside the US-led multinational protection mission. Situated in both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf are warships of various types from European countries as well, including France and Italy. Outside these waterways, the Chinese deployed an additional task of six ships, including guided-missile destroyers and a supply-ship, very early on in Israel’s war. And, finally, there is a Russian presence in India’s east, with their ASW destroyers in the Bay of Bengal.

Consequence: Strategic Challenges to India’s Maritime Security
A rapidly deteriorating West Asian security environment and its ramifications for freedom of navigation in the Arabian Sea pose great strategic risks to India’s maritime security. These risks threaten New Delhi’s position as a net security provider and complicate the pursuit of deterring conflict and coercion from the sea.

For instance, attacks on oil tankers in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf have caused supply rates to dwindle to their lowest level in two years. This may be a reason why India—the world’s third largest crude oil consumer—has deferred a US$ 602 million initiative to fill up part of its strategic reserves. Similarly, the attacks on container ships have terrorised major merchants into diverting their vessels away from the Suez Canal and Red Sea to the Cape of Good Hope, many thousands of kilometres away. Recent reports suggest that if attacks continue, the costs of and insurance on India’s US$ 230 billion trade with the US, and countries in the EU, East Africa, and West Asia, will soar.

While these attacks haven’t yet affected India’s fishing and mining activities in the Arabian Sea, recent trends show a heightened potential for drone strikes and hijackings. This will affect us in terms of both lives and livelihoods. Such attacks also indicate greater operational costs for the Indian Navy: among the many warships in the Arabian Sea, nearly twelve, including five destroyers and an aircraft carrier, are Indian.

These varied maritime challenges not only impact our regional security, but also our international (or Indo-Pacific) security. Even more extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean exacerbate the situation. The sheer number of extra-regional combatants alone alters the regional balance of power. Of serious concern are the geopolitical hurdles their presence brings. These powers are intrinsically intertwined with the US-China competition or Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Although India’s maritime security posture is one of cooperation and coordination, it prefers to not be perceived as an entrenched or involved actor. That the Indian Ocean, or at least a significant portion of it, is less ‘stable and prosperous,’ could jeopardise this policy equidistance. Perhaps most importantly, India also has to be simultaneously vigilant to rivalrous Chinese military and scientific activity in and around the region. Entering 2024, India’s objective of being a net-security provider faces new challenges.


Siddharth Anil Nair is Researcher with IPCS’ South East Asia Research Programme (SEARP).