The coasts of Somalia and the Gulf of Aden have been home for some of the worst acts of piracy for years, costing lives and billions of dollars in damage every year and threatening Indian Ocean trade and shipment in one of the most vital trade routes in the world.
But this part of the world is also emerging as an area of cooperation between (sometimes rival) countries and an opportunity to project power for others. Whether it is the U.S. Navy rescuing Iranian fishermen, or Iranian naval forces rescuing American commercial ships, it is interesting to note that such actions often coincide with heightened diplomatic tension suggesting that combating piracy might at times be used as a means to demonstrate goodwill and diffuse tension between political rivals.
American and NATO warships, European NAVFOR task force, Iranian and Arab navies patrol the waters between the Strait of Hormuz and the coasts of Somalia. In the past few years, a number of navies, particularly Asian navies, have chosen to patrol the region and escort commercial ships for protection. What started out as a major maritime security issue is turning into a convenient opportunity for a number of countries aspiring to project power and influence beyond their shores.
Asian economies rely on trade to a great extent, and being resource-poor makes them heavily dependent on oil and gas imported and (usually) shipped from Africa and the Arab region. Securing a safe passage has, therefore, always represented a priority. Repeated piracy incidents in the Strait of Malacca in the 1990s have put them at the forefront of anti-piracy operations.
Three countries ― Japan, China and India ― began coordinating naval efforts to combat piracy in the western Indian ocean and established the Escort Convoy Coordination in January 2012. South Korea, which has suffered from repeated attacks in the Gulf of Aden, has recently requested to join as well and contribute to maritime security in the region.
On June 19, Seoul also assumed command of Combined Task Force 151, established in 2009 under the control of Combined Maritime Forces based in Bahrain and tasked with detecting and deterring piracy in the region. Since 2009, the country has been maintaining a 300-member unit off the coasts of Somalia to protect civilian ships from pirates.
In 2009, after several attacks on Chinese vessels, China decided to join anti-piracy operations and deployed a number of ships in the Gulf of Aden in what represents its first patrolling mission outside the Pacific. The stakes for China are high and it is believed it will continue to dispatch naval forces to the western Indian Ocean and will seek increased military cooperation with countries in the region.
Perhaps the most interesting case is Japan. For years, the country has been participating in international efforts to fight piracy not only by deploying ships in the region but also by establishing a military base in Djibouti in 2011. The opening of Japan’s first military base abroad signals a strategic shift in its defense policy. Although it was established for self-defense, energy imperatives and the rising power of neighboring countries indicate that it was only a matter of time before Japan reconsidered its defense policy. International cooperation for ensuring security, whether under U.N. mandates or to combat piracy, is a perfect start.
For its part, India, which sent 4,500 soldiers to Somalia in 1994 and naval forces to patrol its waters under a U.N. mandate, is among the most active countries in fighting piracy. Not surprising in itself, considering that pirates are increasingly expanding their area of operations, getting dangerously close to Indian waters. The country has had at least one of its warships patrolling the waters continuously since 2008. India, which considers China as one of the main countries with which it has to compete for strategic space, viewed Chinese intervention in an area bordering the Indian subcontinent with suspicion, which also explains the establishment of the Escort Convoy Coordination earlier this year, highlighting once again piracy as a threat and an opportunity for cooperation at the same time.
While American officials are shifting attention to Asia, even announcing that up to 60 percent of U.S. warships would be stationed in the Asia-Pacific theater by 2020, Asian countries are showing increased interest in an area where the U.S. has traditionally reigned supreme. Piracy is an issue virtually all rival powers seem to agree there should be a minimum cooperation in combating.
By Mona Sukkarieh
Mona Sukkarieh is a specialist in geopolitics and strategic studies at Middle East Strategic Perspectives, an institute based in Beirut that provides experts with a strategic outlook on regional developments. ― Ed.