Beginning somewhere around 200 B.C , International trade flourished between European countries such as Greece or Rome, mid eastern Persia and Turkey on one hand and China and India on the other hand. The traded goods, such as spices, salt and silk, were transported entirely along land routes, which spread from continent to continent. A land route which began near city of Xian in China and later bifurcated either to end in Persia or India was one of the busiest of such routes. Chinese silk and silk fabrics were very commonly transported along this route. Because of this, the route was given a name, Silk Route. Goods continued to be carried along this route even up to Fourteenth century A.D.
Traveling on the Silk Route however, was never easy. The camel caravans, moving on this route, faced sand storms, most extreme weather, killing deserts and perennial shortages of water. However, the worst enemy or danger that could be imagined, was never a natural disaster. It came in from of humans. There were gangs of thieves and murderers who would attack and simply kill everyone in the caravan and run away with the loot. To overcome this problem, the kingdoms of China and Tibet, had erected watch towers and forts along the route. These towers and forts were regularly manned by soldiers to provide security for the caravans at least in these territories. In spite of the guards and soldiers , gangs of thieves moved at will and thrived all along this route.
It is rather hard to believe that even today, in the Twenty First century A.D., a somewhat similar situation has emerged for another international route of great importance. This international route does not stretch over continents or deserts. It happens to be a sea lane. Booming Oil trade between far eastern countries like China, Korea , Japan and ASEAN countries on one hand and oil producing nations from Mideast on the other, is carried out along this sea lane. Most of the Oil producers have their oil terminals locations in the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Aden or on the Red Sea coast. A very heavy traffic of cargo ships moves between these oil ports and the Far eastern countries. The Sea route over which these ships sail, is known as SLOC or Sea Lines of Communications. Since economics of these oil consumer countries is dependent to a great extent on this SLOC, it is considered most critical and sensitive.
In last few decades, China has made unprecedented economic progress. China has now become world’s second largest economy. This huge economy however is entirely dependent on the imported crude oil. China today imports almost 70% of its requirement of oil from middle east. The SLOC mentioned above, has therefore become the most sensitive area on earth for China. Chinese imports moving along this SLOC are so huge that this SLOC is now being called ‘Oil Silk Route’.
Unfortunately, this ‘Oil Silk Route’ also can not be considered to be a very safe route, just like its predecessor in central Asia. This SLOC passes through two areas where Sea Pirates prevail even today. Out of these two, the first area is along the Horn of Africa. The entire portion of the Indian Ocean on West African or Somalian seaboard is infested with large number of sea going armed Somalian gangs, who move in small high speed boats to attack big and bulky oil ships. It is unbelievable that ships as far away as 1600 KM from the coast or even ships in the vicinity of the Island of Seychelles, are being attacked by these Sea thugs. There is another reason also for this area to become so critical. Most of the giant oil tankers and container ships, which can not negotiate the Suez canal, also follow this route to go to southern tip of African continent. This makes the Sea in this area a rich field with many potential targets for the pirates. In 2007, Somalian pirates attacked as many as 47 ships. This number rose to 111 in 2008 and in 2009, an unbelievable number of 214 ships were attacked by these gangs. To establish some order, The United Nations Security Council has now permitted Navies of few countries to operate in the Somalian waters and attack the pirates.
Indian Navy received such permission in 2008 . Subsequently, Somalian Government also allowed Indian Naval ships to operate here. In last two years, Indian Navy alone has escorted 1037 ships in this area, out of which only 137 ships showed Indian flag. Along with Indian navy, navies of some other nations like US, EUNAVFOR (EU Naval Forces) , European nations and China are also participating in this watch and ward operation. All these ships belonging to different nations are operating in co-ordination and harmony to control and protect shipping in this area. This action has managed to create a fear among the pirates and number of ship attacks has now started to come down. It however appears that Indian Navy would have to continue to patrol this area till the Somalian gangsters are eradicated in totality.
Another extremely dangerous area on the way of Oil Silk route happens to be in the Straits of Malacca. This portion of the sea, is located between the eastern coastline of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra and the Western coastline of Malaysia. This narrow strip of water is known as Straits of Malacca because the state of Malacca, now part of Malaysia, is just along the coast. This strip of water is just 2.7 KM wide at it’s narrowest point. As many as 50000 ships traverse the Malacca straits each year. 15 million barrels of oil moves through the straits each day. It is said that if due to some reason , Straits of Malacca get closed for shipping, almost half of the world’s shipping would have to divert from their routes.
In spite of being such a critical area, this body of water was considered as one of the most dangerous places on Sea, only few years back. In the year 1999, a 9000 ton freighter named as MV Alondra Rainbow had disappeared from here, when on way to Japan with a cargo of Aluminum ingots. This ship with a crew of 17 was abducted by some 15 armed gangsters. After a week, the crew was found floating helplessly in a rubber life boat near Thailand coast with no trace of their ship. After a month, Indian Navy and the Coast guard, discovered a ship of similar description near the Indian coast. The ship was chased and fired upon by the Indian Coast guard, when the pirates surrendered. It was found on inspection, that half of the ship’s cargo was gone, the name of the ship was changed, it was showing a different flag and the pirates were trying to flood the ship to sink it. In the year 2002 alone, 36 ships were attacked here. In 2003, 60 ships were attacked. When the situation reached such alarming proportions, the insurance companies started declaring the Malacca straits area as war zone and refused to insure the ships or the cargo. US government indicated that unless littoral states take effective action, US navy would have to patrol this area. After this, Governments of Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore realized the gravity of the situation and started joint patrolling. There was a realization soon that the naval resources of these countries were not adequate for the task This lead to an agreement between as many as 16 nations including India, from the surrounding areas, to provide protection to shipping in the straits.. This agreement is known as ‘Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia’. After this agreement, the piracy in the straits has reduced almost to nil. Indian Navy participates in this security environment as per this agreement and Indian Naval ships are seen patrolling frequently in the Straits of Malacca.
Why is India so much interested in the security of the Straits of Malacca? Just a casual look at the map, of this part of world, could make things abundantly clear. The northern part of the Indonesian Island of Sumatra is known as Banda Aceh. The northern tip of this province, happens to be just 90 miles away from the southern tip of Nicobar Island, which is an Indian territory. This southern tip of the Nicobar island has been named by India as ‘Indira Point’ and a light house was constructed by India at this spot. The light house got damaged in 2004 Tsunami disaster. An Indian Air Force base also has been set up on CarNicobar island north of Nicobar. All ships sailing to and fro between Indian Ocean and South China Sea or Pacific Ocean, have to pass through this gateway to the straits. This gives a unique privilege to India. India can keep watch on each and every ship that enters and exits Malacca straits quite easily.
The major economic powers in Asia like China, Japan, India and ASEAN countries have now realized that the Security of Malacca straits and also that off entire Oil-silk route, is of vital interest to them. The Indian Navy has been exercising with its counterpart in Singapore, for more than a decade, with the Indonesian Navy, since last year and with the Thai Navy, since August. The naval exercises with Indonesia were held at the mouth of the Malacca Straits. Indian Navy has managed to play a highly positive and balanced role, fully cooperating with and augmenting the regional efforts, its adaptable approach, has won the confidence of the regional nations on the viability and the efficacy of coordinated patrols with the Indian Navy. This positive impression and its close naval engagement with these countries notwithstanding, India has been moving cautiously with regard to carving a larger role for itself in the security of the Malacca.
In the month of June this year, a conference was organized in Singapore. Known as Shangri-la dialogue, the conference was attended by representatives of US, Japan,China, India and ASEAN countries. Two interesting facts have come to lime light from the discussions that took place in this conference. Firstly, the steps taken up by India to beef up security in Malacca straits are much appreciated by all the countries attending the conference with notable exception of China and these countries are willing to extend full co-operation to India in this regard. Secondly, Chinese are feeling extremely uneasy about presence of a mighty US naval force in the region as well as virtual Indian control on gateway to the Malacca straits.
As mentioned above, China would surely like to ensure that the Oil-silk route, which brings in 70% of crude oil required by them, is kept trouble free and open all the time, as entire Chinese economy today depends on this Oil-silk route. The remote possibility or even a thought of the possibility of this supply route going under India’s control near Malacca straits, is making them extremely uneasy. India, it appears, is well aware of this leverage in her hand. Any suspicion of any Chinese misadventure in Kashmir or on China India Border could make India react here in the Gateway to Malacca straits. India has been building up naval capability in this region and has recently acquired Boeing P80 , U.S. made submarine hunter-killer planes equipped with harpoon Missiles. China finds it difficult to react to this strategic depth, because of the distances involved and the deep rooted suspicions of the ASEAN countries. She has been trying though, to build a series of friendly ports in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Pakistan along this route, to ensure maritime security. The efforts however have not met with much success so far.
India has made it absolutely clear at the Shangri-la dialouge, that she has no intention what so ever, to control any part of Malacca straits. The strategic depth, built up over many years, however ensures that the capacity exists to do so if needed.
For last few years, it appears that the mandarins in New Delhi’s South block, where India’s foreign affairs ministry is located, have played some excellent strategic moves. Firstly it was the Delram-Zaranj highway in Afganistan. Then came the Sittwe port in Myanmar. Now the initiative taken by New Delhi, in providing security to international shipping near Somalia coast and also in Malacca straits is also a well orchestrated move. The Malacca Straits region expects Delhi to play a security provider role. This needs to be nurtured in a consensual manner. China perhaps needs to be reassured of the collective benefit. Stand taken by India at the Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore supports this expectation rather well.
7 July 2010