Maritime security Challenges – Indian Ocean Region (IOR): Shared Concerns and Opportunities Way Ahead


Stable Seas: Maritime Security in the Bay of Bengal


by Commodore Kazi Emdadul     18 March 2021



The Indian Ocean Region (IOR) is home to 2.5 billion people, one-third of the world’s population, and 60% of world trade passes through the Indian Ocean. The strategic interest in the IOR has been increasingly attracting the involvement of extra-regional powers. The coming years will most likely be portrayed by a theatre of convergence and competition for influence from many extra-regional initiatives making it more of a nexus for safety and security issues in the IOR.

The maritime security threat scenario (other than traditional security) mainly involves factors like terrorism, drug trafficking, piracy, human trafficking, Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing, etc.  Although the threat scenarios in the IOR have long been overlooked in regional policy circles, the traditional and non-traditional challenges in the maritime domain continue to prevail and affect the economic development of the region. The great power competition in IOR has further upended the whole security scenario, putting the whole region into a cataclysmic state. Besides, the illegal migration through the Indian Ocean (IO), mostly Rohingya refugees to escape persecution, has become a long-standing problem.   Drug trafficking and IUU fishing have been historically commonplace in the region.

These threats’ transboundary nature invokes the need for a region-wide cooperation architecture that could be a valuable instrument to counter them. This paper will briefly address the main sources and the root cause of maritime security challenges faced by IOR littoral states, especially in the northern part, and suggest some discernible recommendations.

Types of Security Threats

Let us begin with the term security threat – which could be both traditional and/or non-traditional. This paper will try to address non-traditional security (NTS).  Although the line between the two is indistinct, the NTS threat could lead to traditional security (TS) threats.   NTS threats are mostly transboundary, leading to deep seas and demand naval forces to interdict the threats, leading to traditional threats.  Moreover, the protection of Chinese maritime infrastructure in the IOR may also lead to traditional threats or ‘short-of-war.’

Though the advent of globalisation has obfuscated NTS’s definition, there is a common understanding of such issues, termed ‘maritime NTS challenges.’ Unfortunately, all possible security threats, both TS and NTS, have started to converge in IOR along with the great power competition.  This great power competition has made the IOR a most vulnerable security region, especially as their strategic interests have led to further proliferation of the NTS threat.

Types of Maritime Non-traditional Security (NTS) Challenges and their Sources

The most critical threat in IOR is illegal migration and then the trafficking of narcotics and drugs, chiefly ‘Yaba’ (methamphetamine, in short, ‘meth’). The Indian Ocean (IO) and the Bay of Bengal (BoB) have become the epicentre of both Yaba and human trafficking. The source of meth remains the age-old ‘Golden Triangle.’

A new phrase has now appeared,  called   ‘maritime mixed migration’ that emanates from short of war, political rivalry, corruption, poverty, food crisis,  climate displacement, scarcity of potable water, etc.  The littoral states of IOR are highly susceptible to these types of threats. An example of climate change may be cited: the projected effect is that by 2050, almost 20 million people are likely to be displaced in Bangladesh, and a further 36 million Indians could lose their homes due to sea-level rise, according to a US-based research group.  According to recent reports, the NTS threats have made the IOR so vulnerable that many international institutions have noted their concerns.

The root source of meth/Yaba is apparently the ‘failed state’ of Shan in Myanmar, which produces the drug in a collaboration between Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed group United Wa State Army (UWSA).  With 135 ethnic groups including seven major armed groups (each now having their own states: Chin, Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Mon, Rakhine, and Shan), dreadful Myanmar remained a major source of both NTS and TS threats in the IOR.  Even the law enforcement agencies have minimal access in these states to thwart these ganged-up perpetrators.

The precursor chemicals for producing meth are coming chiefly from China, and the United Nations Drugs and Crime Office valued the meth trade in the region at US$60 billion. It is enormous illegal money, enough to stimulate any transboundary threats. In previous years, the vast trade of Yaba through Rakhine State to Bangladesh and India has been identified. Using IO, these drugs are reaching Australia, New Zealand, and ASEAN countries.

The insurgent groups allegedly use drug-sales to purchase arms and ammunition. The situation further became intertwined with arms smuggling, and the easy route is the various rivers and then to the BoB.   The drug traffickers then find an easy way to use the Rohingya refugees to carry these drugs to different locations across IOR littoral states.

Illegal Migration through IOR:

Myanmar has pushed more than 1.1 million Rohingya people into Bangladesh’s coastal belt. To avoid atrocities and persecutions, these people resorted to various means to migrate to different destinations through IO.  These people are impoverished, mostly women and children. They are also found dying while escaping on the overcrowded boats, and those who are lucky survive by rescue efforts.  In support of the veracity of this statement, a few examples are cited for making it more palpable:

– In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, United Nations agencies called for South-East Asian governments to show compassion to boats full of vulnerable people adrift in the BoB and the Andaman Sea. At least 5,000 people were abandoned en masse by smugglers at sea; they eventually disembarked in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. In some cases, they have travelled up to Australia too.

– The New York Times,  in its issue of 14 May 2015, stated that “the boat’s plight provided a dramatic example of the migration crisis confronting the region: An estimated 6,000 to 20,000 migrants are at sea, fleeing ethnic persecution in Myanmar and poverty in Bangladesh, while countries are pointing fingers at one another and declining to take responsibility themselves.”

The ASEAN and Australia have deployed their coast guard to protect illegal people’s landing on their coast. It indicates that the IOR has become the region of illegal human trafficking, which is substantiated by another report that, in 2018, almost a third of all reported maritime incidents in the Indo-Pacific occurred in the Bay of Bengal.

Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing

Another crucial area of the NTS threat is the IUU fishing in IOR and is considered the greatest maritime NTS threat. It is a fact that most of the weak littoral states carry out IUU fishing, but China is exceptional in this field. Most of the weak littorals have no distance water fishing (DWF) fleet and remained within the coastal area. On the other hand, China has 17000 DWF trawlers, making it the world’s largest DWF fleet owner. According to IUU Fishing Index 2019, China has ranked the worst for IUU fishing. The total IUU fishing cost is estimated to be USD 23 billion.

The illegal and unregulated fishing by the Chinese DWF fleet has raised the concern of fish-stock scarcity at sea besides environmental challenges. Allegedly, Chinese-flagged vessels are increasingly seen involved in illegal fishing in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of other countries almost all over the world.  The Commandant of the United States Coast Guard, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, rightly raised the concern of littoral states. He said that “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect a deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geopolitical stability around the world.”

To add to China’s assertive behaviour, China has started arming these DWF fleets to gain a strategic advantage at sea. The armed DWF fleet is regularly encroaching on other EEZ. This maritime militia is considered part of China’s Navy, which now creates the possibility of confrontation with other littoral states. “Disregard for this sovereignty and territorial integrity by Chinese and other IUU fishing perpetrators not only threatens the stability of nations who rely on marine resources for food security and economic development, but it is also a direct violation of international rules-based order,” said the coast guard admiral.

The fear factor is that China’s research vessel and DWF fleets are often being sighted prowling in the IOR region. Being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China flouted rules-based international order and the pledge made to SDG No 14.6.1(Sustainable Development Goal, Life below water, IUU Fishing).

Rules-Based International Order

From the above, it is amply clear how IUU fishing and maritime mixed migrated refugees are intertwined with drug smuggling, making the IOR a vulnerable zone for the disorder.  Myanmar is the second most drug-producing country after Afghanistan and the main cause of illegal migration through the IO. To protect their strategic interests, China and its ally Russia have pledged to defend Myanmar in international fora. As permanent members of the UN Security Council, they have the power to veto any attempts to pressure or sanction Naypyidaw.

The great power leaders want to ensure ‘rules-based international order’ at sea.   American leaderships are very clear of accusing China of not obeying ‘rules-based international order.’  In some cases, the US has also seen reluctance in obeying ‘rules-based international order’ or flouted the international forums – threatening to withdraw from ‘Paris Agreement on Climate Change and World Health Organisation (WHO).   Bobo Lo placed it correctly, who said that “the concept of a ‘rules-based international order’ has become increasingly devoid of substance. It is no longer clear what the rules are, who sets them, what moral authority underpins them, and, most important, who follows them”.

Great Power Competition in IOR 

The convergence of great powers in the IO should not have been viewed as innocuous to the NTS threat. Still, their strategic interests in the IOR have compelled the littoral states to align themselves with the great powers for their (littorals) own economic interests, creating a wide chasm amongst the littoral states.  Taking advantage of the littoral states’ anaemic relationship, China has taken the opportunity to push through huge economic investment with most littoral states on a bilateral basis.

Other than the IOR’s littorals, none other than China has the most strategic interest in the IOR. Former Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2003 coined the term ‘Malacca dilemma’ for China. As Malacca strait carries 60% of the world’s trade, for China, it is 80% oil and cargo making it China’s vital supply route. It could be a potential threat to international trade that would paralyse China’s economy. Under Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has already invested billions of dollars in connecting IO through the South and South-East Asian regions to avoid this situation.

China started USD 60 billion projects in Pakistan known as China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) along with Gwadar Port that links China to the Arabian Sea;  China also started the construction of China Myanmar Economic Corridor (CMEC) that will also connect China to the BoB through Kyaukpyu Port in Myanmar; Sri Lanka has leased Hambantota Port to China for 99 years; China took the lease of one of Maldives’ Island –  Feydhoo Finolhu – near Male for 50 years; China has a naval port at Djibouti and many more.

All these projects are being done through bilateral agreements with each country. Allegedly, both port construction in Pakistan and Myanmar forced a vast local population to evict their home, which would also be likely to add to ‘maritime mixed migration.   China’s strategic interest in the IOR dragged other maritime powers into the theatre to counter its (China’s) influence. As such, littoral states remained divided over the various transboundary issues contributing to the maritime NTS challenges.

Regional Forums of IOR

Bilateral ties for a better economy are hoped to bring a better economic result, but that does not necessarily mean settling down contentious issues emanating from transboundary maritime security threats.    The regional issues need to be solved by the regional leaders through a regional multilateral approach. There are many regional organisations in the IOR where all the forums have their manifesto to address the maritime security issues. Most of the forums have maritime security as their priority area to address (see table):

Forum Priority Area Remarks
BIMSTEC(Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) BIMSTEC priority Sector No 10 –  Counter-Terrorism & Transnational Crime, where the lead country is India. In 2016, The BIMSTEC Leaders recognised the “need for urgent measures to counter and prevent the spread of terrorism, violent extremism and radicalisation.
IPS (Indo-Pacific Strategy) The US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy: where ‘maritime security’ is one of the main pillars. IPS mainly pursue the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’
IORA (Indian Ocean Rim Association) Out of six priority areas of IORA, the first priority area is ‘Maritime safety and security.’ In August 2019, Sri Lanka hosted the First Meeting of the IORA Maritime Safety and Security Working Group,
IONS (Indian Ocean Naval Symposium) The primary aim of IONS is to attain “mutually beneficial maritime security outcomes within the Indian Ocean.”
ASEAN (Association of South-East Asian Nations) Out of five priorities, the first priority area is ‘Enhancing the bloc’s performance of its role and contribution to the maintenance of regional peace, security, and stability.
SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) SAARC has no direct maritime security issues
Quad (Quadrilateral security dialogue) The quad was initiated in 2007 by former Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe to ensure maritime security (TS) in the Indo-Pacific Region. India, apparently, agreed with the Quad concept just last year and carried out ‘Malabar Exercise’ in BoB with Australia, Japan, and the USA.

Table: Example of some Indian Ocean regional forums.

Out of many other forums, the above-mentioned forums are based in IOR, and their main agenda to ensure security among the countries. Despite the platitudes uttered by the leaders, maritime security has remained a low priority area to commit a palpable improvement.  SAARC and BIMSTEC have become insipid as the leaders flinched from taking proactive initiative. NTS threat is real and moving fast towards the cataclysmic situation, yet the regional forums’ initiative seems like a pantomime and inadequate.

Way Ahead

Maritime security issues in the IOR are deeply interconnected. Too often, these issues are discussed in isolation. Illicit maritime activities are intrinsically linked to land-based issues, as discussed. While we address the NTS threat at sea, we must look back to the land from where the root cause originates, and then it transforms into transboundary.

As such, the imperative is to enhance maritime safety and security and for leaders to address peace and stability and respect sovereignty, aiming for sustainable economic growth and development in the Indian Ocean region. Most importantly, it demands regional issues to be solved by the regional leaders with altruism.

Every country has the sovereign right to deal with any extra-regional powers, but that needs to be done without thwarting regional congruity. Unless the littoral states are united, the extra-regional powers will take advantage of our vulnerabilities. Our lack of unity will be a dividend for other powers in the IOR.

The success of ASEAN could be an example for other regional forums in the IOR. The ASEAN, despite having little or no similarity in caste, creed, and religion, most importantly different political ideology, has been considered a tremendous economic successful forum.   There should be no reason why forums like SAARC, BIMSTEC, or IORA would not be successful.  Through webinar/seminar, littoral states of IOR may start to propagate the importance of having safety and security, both at land and sea, for the ultimate aim of economic emancipation.

The US-led IPS and Quad countries also have strategic interests to ensure the Indian Ocean trade route’s safety and security. The littoral states have the right to ask these countries to build and enhance capacity to combat the IUU fishing in the Indian Ocean. The best way is to form a CORPAT (coordinated patrol) consisting of all the littoral navies, and then IPS and Quad may enhance the capability by providing their expertise.  In a natural disaster, the same initiative could very well address HADR (Humanitarian Assistance, Disaster Relief).