The great game of hunting pirates
"Sir, you have done India proud." That was how the anchorman of a television channel in Delhi addressed the Indian navy chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, on the victorious sea battle by warship INS Tabar with would-be hijackers as dusk was falling on Tuesday evening in the Gulf of Aden.
Those words would have made Sir Francis Drake, the 16th-century British navigator and slaver-politician of the Elizabethan era, truly envious. Sir Francis had bigger claims to fame in a life cut short by dysentery while attacking San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1595.
Unsurprisingly, the patriotic Indian media dutifully expressed its gratitude and confidence once again in the armed forces. The armed forces, too, gained an opportunity to look away from a raging controversy over alleged involvement of servicemen in terrorist activities by Hindu fundamentalists. The Indian navy has seen "action" after a long interlude of 37 years since the Bangladesh war.
A carefully worded navy statement suggested that pirates attacked the Tabar and the latter "retaliated in self-defense" and opened fire on the mother vessel. The pirates "made good" their "escape into darkness" while the Indian warship sunk a pirate boat. The incident received wide international attention. But it also raises some questions.
Sea piracy off the coast of Somalia is looming large on the radar of world opinion. The recent hijacking of the oil tanker Sirius Star - a supertanker big enough to hold a quarter of Saudi Arabia's daily production (2 million barrels) - has dramatically highlighted the expanding dimensions of the problem. The barely functioning government of Somalia is unable to curb the pirates who sail from its ports and seize cargo ships that ply past.
The pirates on board the Sirius Star have issued a US$25 million ransom demand, and warned of "disastrous" consequences if the money is not paid.
A scourge that was believed to have taken shelter in comic books and movies has come back to haunt. But unlike bygone buccaneers, Somali pirates are well-armed and organized into two or three syndicates. They may halt maritime activity from the Indian Ocean into the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Insurance premiums for ships plying between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have skyrocketed as much as 10-fold and additional costs could total US$400 million annually.
On Thursday, Maersk, the world's largest shipping company, announced it would no longer put its tankers at risk to pirates off Somalia. Maersk said it would reroute its 50-strong oil tanker fleet via the Cape of Good Hope off the tip of southern Africa - a much longer and more expensive route.
The naval presence by foreign powers cannot solve the problem. There are about 14 warships from various countries including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) deployed off the Somali coast, whereas over 20,000 ships are estimated to pass through the Persian Gulf annually. Moreover, there are question marks about the legality of the operations by these warships. While NATO secured a request from the United Nations secretary general for undertaking interdiction work in international waters off Somalia, the same cannot be said for Russia or India. Russia claims the Somali government sought its assistance but there is no one really in charge in Mogadishu. It is noteworthy that the Indian navy statement has made it a point to underline that its warship "retaliated in self-defense".
The obvious thing to do is to act under a United Nations mandate, preferably involving the African Union and the littoral states, which may have capabilities or may be assisted to develop capabilities. But this hasn't happened, lending to strong suspicion that a Great Game is unfolding for control of the sea route in the Indian Ocean between the Strait of Malacca and the Persian Gulf. This sea route is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive waterways for commerce involving cargo such as oil, weapons and manufactured goods moving between Europe and Asia. Actually, the effective regional cooperation in curbing piracy and hijacking at the chokepoint of the Malacca Strait should provide a useful model.
There is some talk that the pirates may provide cover for international terrorist groups. Experts on "terrorism" have already shifted gear and begun speculating about al-Qaeda copying the modus operandi of the Somali pirates. Are we inching toward including sea piracy in the "war on terror"?
Which will be a pity since the anarchic conditions prevailing in Somalia are easy to understand. Somalia is a dysfunctional country like Afghanistan which has never been a shining beacon of stability or democracy. But things changed distinctly for the better when the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) took control in early 2006. The ICU succeeded in restoring law and order in that country torn by clan rivalries and violence.
But, then, the George W Bush administration viewed this as unacceptable. By the perverse September 11, 2001, logic, how could an Islamic government be allowed to be a trailblazer of good governance? The result was the invasion by Christian Ethiopia in 2007, with US backing. The invasion failed to produce decisive results and instead helped only to splinter the ICU, with the radical elements known as shabah (young men) gaining the upper hand.
The result is plain to see. Therefore, there is no question that the problem of piracy is also to be addressed ashore in Somalia. But, problems often enough, lend themselves to solution if only soldiers and geostrategists would step aside for a while. That is, at least, the expert opinion of Katie Stuhldreher. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor recently, she put forth a three-way approach to the Somalia problem. One, the international community should appreciate that the piracy in Somalia has its origin among disgruntled fishermen who had to compete with illegal poaching by foreign commercial vessels in its tuna-rich coastal waters.
This unequal fight created a local impoverished population. Resentment was also caused among the coastal population over the shameless dumping of wastes in Somali waters by foreign ships. The disgruntled local fishermen, who lost out, soon organized to attack foreign fishing vessels and demand compensation. Their campaign succeeded and prompted many young men to "hang up their fishing nets in favor of AK-47s".
Stuhldreher suggested, "Making the coastal areas lucrative for local fishermen again could encourage pirates to return to legitimate livelihoods." Therefore, she wrote, "A fishery protection force will eliminate the pirates’ source of legitimacy." This could be done under the auspices of the UN or African Union or a "coalition of the willing".
Most important, "An international force sent to protect local industry will achieve the same goal as warships but in a more acceptable way. The principal reason piracy thrives along Somalia's coast is that there is no coastal authority to protect these waters. Armed foreign ships will still serve to fill that vacuum and deter attacks, but with the explicit mission of serving Somalia's people - the very people who have chalked up enough reasons to dislike foreign military interventions and are likely to view the presence of warships as intimidation."
But, will there be any takers for "nation-building" in Africa among the US, NATO and European member countries, Russia or India? Highly unlikely. Ideally, the international community should also commence a reconciliation process involving the residual elements of the ICU. In retrospect, like in Afghanistan in the case with the Taliban, a proper understanding of Islamism would help appreciate the worth of the ICU in stabilizing Somalia.
On the contrary, under the broad rubric of the fight against sea piracy, what we are witnessing is an entirely different template of maritime activity by the interventionist powers. The US has established a separate Africa Command in the Pentagon. NATO and the EU have stepped out of the European theater and entered the Indian Ocean area. Russia is seeking a reopening of its Soviet-era naval base in Aden. India has sought and obtained berthing facilities for its warships in Oman, which is an unprecedented move to establish a permanent naval presence in the Persian Gulf. The Indian Ocean is becoming a new theater in the Great Game. It seems a matter of time before China appears.
China of course is not a newcomer to the Indian Ocean. In 1405, during the reign of Emperor Yung-lo of the Ming Dynasty, a celebrated Chinese naval commander Ching-Ho visited Ceylon (presently known as Sri Lanka) bearing incense to offer at the renowned shrine of the Buddha in the hill town of Kandy. But he was waylaid by Sinhalese King Wijayo Bahu VI, and he escaped to his ships. To seek revenge, China dispatched Ching-Ho a few years later. He captured the Sinhalese king and his family and took them away as prisoners. But on seeing the prisoners, the Chinese emperor out of compassion ordered them to be sent back on the condition that the "wisest of the family should be chosen king". The new king, Sri Prakrama Bahu, was given a seal of investiture and made a vassal of the Chinese emperor. That was how Ceylon remained until 1448, paying an annual tribute to China.
Admiral Mehta has a worthy example in front of him, provided he can coax his reluctant country to flex its muscles in Africa for the first time in its ancient history. His best argument would be that unless he took an early lead, Ching-Ho might reappear in the Indian Ocean. But then there is an inherent risk insofar as the pirates who disappeared into the mist on Tuesday evening might also return looking for the INS Tabar.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.