THINK TANK | Security Landscape in the Indian Ocean Region

The continuous expansion of global trade and shipping make these maritime choke points of the Indian Ocean ever more important as the volume of traffic through them increases. Some 30 per cent of world trade already passes through the Strait of Malacca each year, while some 20 per cent of worldwide oil exports have to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The significance of the Indian Ocean will increase further because of rising demand for raw materials and the associated increase in shipping.

By Carlo Masala , Tim Tepel and Konstantinos Tsetsos 
Bundeswehr University Munich

With an area of some 75.8 million km², the Indian Ocean is the world’s third largest ocean. It is linked to the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Antarctic Ocean and covers approximately 14.7 per cent of the surface of the earth. In the west, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) extends from the Suez Canal in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the South. In the north, two vast bays dominate the region (the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal), while it borders the Antarctic in the south. In the east, the Indian Ocean borders the Southeast Asian coast and the western Indonesian Archipelago, and in the southeast the western Australian coast. While the Mediterranean was of preeminent significance in the Middle Ages and the Atlantic dominated in the modern era, the Indian Ocean is considered the most important ocean of the 21st century. Its importance derives from its narrow access routes and its role as the transit ocean for global trade. The region contains the most significant maritime choke points worldwide, namely the Gulf of Aden, the Bab-el-Mandeb, the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Malacca, the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait. 

Image Attribute:  INDIAN OCEAN (July 16th, 2015) The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) is underway during a formation exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Navy. Ashland is in the Indian Ocean participating in Talisman Sabre 2015, a bilateral exercise intended to train Australian and U.S. forces in planning and conducting combined task force operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications 3rd Class David A. Cox/Released) / 150716-N-KM939-181
Image Attribute:  INDIAN OCEAN (July 16th, 2015) The amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) is underway during a formation exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the U.S. Navy. Ashland is in the Indian Ocean participating in Talisman Sabre 2015, a bilateral exercise intended to train Australian and U.S. forces in planning and conducting combined task force operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communications 3rd Class David A. Cox/Released) / 150716-N-KM939-181

The continuous expansion of global trade and shipping make these maritime choke points of the Indian Ocean ever more important as the volume of traffic through them increases. Some 30 per cent of world trade already passes through the Strait of Malacca each year, while some 20 per cent of worldwide oil exports have to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The significance of the Indian Ocean will increase further because of rising demand for raw materials and the associated increase in shipping. This will not only affect Western states but above all also China and India, the most populous countries and among the leading economies of the future. It will ultimately result in more and more countries looking to secure their interests in the Indian Ocean, thereby boosting the region’s geo-strategic relevance. Kaplan (2009: 17) believes that this will produce major changes in international politics: “In other words, more than just a geographic feature, the Indian Ocean is also an idea. It combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the rise of India and China to reveal a multi-layered, multi-polar world.”

All the maritime choke points mentioned above lie at security hot-spots in the Indian Ocean. Two of the world’s most fragile states, Somalia and Yemen, are located in the west, directly on the approach to the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and Bab-el-Mandab. The instability in these countries is having an impact on the maritime realm, particularly as both Somalia and Yemen are currently facing civil war, terrorism and transnational operating organised crime. The activities of Somali pirates in the period from 2007 to 2012, which disrupted global sea trade, and the attack on the USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden represent just two cases in point. Further east, the competition between the USA and Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran on the other has been endangering access to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz. Both the tanker war during the first Gulf War of 1980-1988 and the seizure of a Danish container ship operating under charter from a German shipping company by the navy of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in April 2015 illustrate the tense situation as well as the vulnerability of the sea routes in the Persian Gulf. Due to its location, its rivalry with India, its nuclear arsenal and its ethnic composition, Pakistan is deemed to be one of those fragile states whose collapse would have far-reaching and threatening security implications. At the most easterly edge of the IOR lies the Strait of Malacca; it is the most important sea link between Asia, Africa and Europe, and it has also seen the majority of all pirate attacks since 2013.

Potential for Interstate Conflicts

There are numerous territorial conflicts and border disputes between various IOR countries, which also impact on maritime security. Added to this are international rivalries between external actors and states in the region. Particularly in areas close to the straits, disputes about Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) are resulting in interstate conflicts, which are impeding more intensive cooperation. There are also conflicts of interests between IOR countries with respect to accusations of illegal fishing in EEZs and the resulting overfishing in the region.

MAP - THINK TANK | Security Landscape in the Indian Ocean Region

Unrestricted sea trade in the Persian Gulf is also coming under repeated threat from escalations of other conflicts, such as those between the USA and Iran and between Saudi-Arabia and Iran. Because of their inferiority in terms of conventional hardware, the Iranian navies in particular (both the Iranian Navy and the navy of the Revolutionary Guard) have specialized in asymmetrical naval warfare with very small boats, which represent a threat to both warships and civilian vessels. The IOR is also increasingly developing into an arena of antagonism between the USA, India and China with respect to spheres of geopolitical influence and control over trans-shipment ports, sea links and natural resources. The region’s significance for major powers and economies can also be gauged by the military presences. The USA as well as Russia, the UK, France and China have ships stationed in the region or regularly carry out exercises in collaboration with bordering countries. There have also been signs over recent years of the countries in the region investing more heavily in their navies in order to enhance their power projection capabilities.

Piracy and Maritime Terrorism

The IOR is the global piracy hotspot. Between 2007 and 2012, activities by Somali pirates off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden seriously disrupted international sea trade. In the east of the IOR as well, particularly in and close to the maritime pinch point of the Strait of Malacca, over one hundred attacks on ships of all sizes are recorded every year. And pirate attacks have also been on the increase over recent years along the coast of Bangladesh. International, regional and national security initiatives, such as the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) and the associated Combined Task Forces (CTF) with regional remits (CTF 150 operating in the Gulf of Aden, CTF 151 combating piracy and CTF 152 operating in the Persian Gulf), NATO operation Ocean Shield and EU operation ATALANTA (to protect the ships of the World Food Programme), have resulted in a serious reduction in piracy around the Horn of Africa, with only few attacks taking place in 2014 and 2015.

However, the number of pirate attacks in the Strait of Malacca has increased greatly in the same period, which makes the eastern IOR currently the most dangerous piracy hot-spot in the world. Due to the fragility of numerous IOR states, one also has to assume that the phenomenon of piracy will grow further and may even extend into other sub-regions (such as Bangladesh). Even presently secure regions may develop into piracy hot-spots again once the international operations have come to an end. Scenarios of maritime terrorism cannot be discounted either. As terrorist raids and attacks on ships are rare, albeit not totally unheard-of, such activities happening in the Indian Ocean cannot be dismissed out of hand. There are economically significant infrastructures in the maritime environment as well as on land. A terrorist attack on an international trans-shipment port in the IOR would result in incalculable damage to an export-oriented economy such as Germany’s. The most notorious examples of maritime terrorism include the following:

  • In 1985, the cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked by terrorists from the Palestine Liberation Front.
  • In 2000, the US destroyer USS Cole was badly damaged by a suicide attack in Aden harbour, which left 17 of the crew dead.
  • In 2002, the oil tanker Limburg suffered a terrorist attack off Yemen. While the ship was waiting offshore to take on a further load of oil from the terminal, it was rammed on the starboard side by a dinghy that had been loaded with explosive. The explosion caused oil to spill into the Gulf and the incident disrupted international shipping in the area for several weeks.
  • Critical infrastructures such as ports and oil production facilities are potential targets, as illustrated by the 2004 attacks on the Al Basrah and Khor al Amaya oil terminals.
Sea-based installations, such as offshore wind farms, can also become targets for ship-borne attacks. Even if ships are not used directly as weapons, just knowing that a sizable vessel is in the hands of actors intent on doing harm can cause sustained damage to international trade. Important maritime choke points (such as the Suez Canal) can become targets for terrorist attacks. A ship being blown up, sunk or beached in a strategically chosen location could potentially result in months of disruption to maritime shipping and energy supplies.

Trade in Drugs, Weapons and People and Humanitarian Threat Scenarios

Due to the lack of political stability, the IOR encompasses large drug growing areas. Opium from Afghanistan in particular is supplied around the world across land and sea routes. As the classic land routes to Europe are becoming less lucrative because of stricter border controls, smugglers are using a new southern route. The drugs are shipped from Pakistan across the Indian Ocean by sea to East Africa, from where they are transported overland to North Africa and on to the EU across the Mediterranean (particularly via Italy). In addition to the Afghan drugs production, there is the “Golden Triangle” comprising Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, where opium poppies are grown in large quantities and processed into heroin before being shipped to neighboring countries by sea. Small arms are smuggled by similar routes. Criminal organisations with international networks in particular but also terrorist groups use the drugs trade to fund their activities. Human trafficking has been added to the picture, developing into a further, highly lucrative business model rivaling the drugs trade (Potgeiter 2012: 11).

Ecological risks in the region harbor further conflict potential, as the IOR states show poor ecological sensitivity. Marine and coastal pollution is a wide-spread phenomenon, endangering people’s health and safety. In addition, long stretches of the coast are at risk of flooding, which could have far-reaching security implications if large streams of migrants were to push inland (as happened after cyclone Nargis in 2008) following a rise in sea level. The affected states are inconsistent in prioritizing measures to improve environmental protection and disaster control; their efforts are negligible compared to those taken by other industrialized countries, and there is a need for further international prevention initiatives.


The Maritime Great Game, which experts had expected to take place in the Indian Ocean, has so far not materialized. Instead, the multilateral measures relating to the fight against piracy and terrorism, to disaster control following the 2004 tsunami and to the demarcation of EEZ boundaries have shown that cooperative courses of action are possible and that this is currently the approach preferred by all the actors in the region. Due to the dependence on open sea routes, the existing economic interdependence as well as common interests, the Indian Ocean Region has therefore not yet developed into a stage on which hegemonic antagonism is played out as people feared, but is moving tentatively in the direction of cooper-ative negotiations. That said, the numerous arms programs, and particularly the massive enhancement of naval capabilities, illustrate the fragility of the current trend towards sustainable cooperation. 

About the Authors:

Prof. Carlo Masala is Professor for International Politics at the Bundeswehr University Munich.

Tim Tepel is a Research Associate at the Bundeswehr University Munich.

Dr. Konstantinos Tsetsos is a Research Associate at the Bundeswehr University Munich. 

Publication Details:

This work is an abridged form of an article titled – “Maritime Security in Indian Ocean – For Greater German Engagement in the ocean of the 21St Century”, published by Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung e.V. and licensed under Creative Commons license: “Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany” (CC by-SA 3.0 de). Download the Paper - LINK

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IndraStra Global: THINK TANK | Security Landscape in the Indian Ocean Region
THINK TANK | Security Landscape in the Indian Ocean Region
The continuous expansion of global trade and shipping make these maritime choke points of the Indian Ocean ever more important as the volume of traffic through them increases. Some 30 per cent of world trade already passes through the Strait of Malacca each year, while some 20 per cent of worldwide oil exports have to pass through the Strait of Hormuz. The significance of the Indian Ocean will increase further because of rising demand for raw materials and the associated increase in shipping.
IndraStra Global
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