Maritime Synergy

Maritime Synergy

Littoral nations use the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium to cooperate on regional seafaring challenges and to maintain secure waterways

No single country in the world possesses the bandwidth and resources to address maritime security challenges alone. The challenges have simply become too wide in spectrum, complex in nature, and they lack boundary limits. In the globalized world, the threats essentially have also been globalized, more so in the maritime domain.

At sea, there is no physical boundary, and the vast expanse of the salt water — which covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface — is basically a single entity. This continuous body of water is the Earth’s greatest defining geographic feature, an immense maritime domain that affects life everywhere. In today’s economy, the oceans have increased importance, allowing all countries to participate in the global marketplace.

More than 80 percent of the world’s trade travels by water and forges a global maritime link. Unfortunately, the same link also serves the maritime perpetrators around the globe.

Theoretically, a globalized initiative to address these global challenges, such as the “1,000-Ship Navy” — a proposal that called for cooperation between navies focused on securing the global commons — would have been ideal. The reality is, until today, such ideas have floundered. However, regionally, the nations have done better by instituting some kind of regional cooperative arrangements to address the common threats and challenges. Many such cooperative forums are in existence, active or dormant. All these forums are aiming to do the right things right — that is, to be united for a common cause.

Royal Malaysian Navy personnel participate in a search and rescue mission near the Thai-Malaysia border north of Langkawi Island in May 2015. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is one such multilateral maritime security initiative undertaken by the Indian Navy in 2008. In the broader perspective, it was initiated by taking all the littoral countries of the Indian Ocean on board to promote friendly relationships and build professional cooperation among the Indian Ocean region littorals. The symposium strives to promote measures and mechanisms of consecutive engagement that bear upon issues of regional maritime security and cooperation in the maritime domain. Over a short span of time, IONS [which includes 35 members] has emerged as the largest alliance of navies and maritime security agencies in the world.

However, in recent years, this initiative received some criticism due to its stagnation. The span of the Indian Ocean includes countries with different ideas and interests, values and cultures, practices and presumptions.

Also, the very breadth of the ocean poses different concerns to countries depending on geography. The security concern on the East African coast may have a global notion, but such a concern does not bother East Asian countries as much as their own problems. This reality always stood in the way of the only existing pan-Indian Ocean maritime initiative, which is IONS.

The following is a cursory analysis of the security elements of the Indian Ocean, highlighting links between regional cooperative engagements, vis-à-vis the global security order. The derivative of such discourse may help determine where to fit IONS in the overall security architecture of the Indian Ocean.

Security Elements of the Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean is the smallest of the world’s mighty oceans and yet has the greatest strategic and economic value. Its waters cover 70 million square kilometers, about 20 percent of the world’s water surface. The broad Indian Ocean region has one-third of the world’s population, one-fourth of the global landmass and three-fourths of global reserves of oil, iron and tin. Just 10 countries of the Indian Ocean littoral have about 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves.

The Indian Ocean contains vital lanes that help feed some of Asia’s largest economies and the U.S., to some extent. More than 7,000 ships cross the Indian Ocean every year, with their routes constituting the world’s most significant sea lines of communication (SLOC). These lines are generally closest to the landmass and are marked by major chokepoints, such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab in the west and the Malacca Strait in the east. Through these chokepoints pass the world’s major oil tankers carrying hydrocarbon resources to major consumption centers across Asia. About 40 percent of this traffic is accounted for in the Malacca Strait.

The growing economies of China, Japan, India and many other Southeast Asian countries depend on the SLOCs of the Indian Ocean.

Indonesian Navy Soldiers escort a Singapore-flagged vessel to Surabaya port in East Java province in May 2016 after detaining nine suspects involved in hijacking the vessel. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

By 2020, demand for oil in India is expected to rise to 91.6 percent, whereas for China, the figure is 76.8 percent and for Southeast Asia, 96 percent. Another issue is the war-prone states of the littorals complicating the situation further. Statistical data pertinent to major security concerns in the Indian Ocean region are shown below, which at times may affect the traditional maritime security of the entire region.

19 percent of the countries in the region are experiencing varying degrees of involvement in armed conflict.

31 percent have varying degrees of terrorist threat to their country, including sea areas.

33 percent are threatened by piracy in adjacent international waters or armed robbery at sea inside their own territorial waters/exclusive economic zones.

53 percent still have persistent maritime disputes with neighboring states.

56 percent are threatened by the endemic problem of illicit trafficking of arms, narcotics and people.

An ocean with such strategic paradigms definitely impairs the willingness of the littorals to engage multilaterally in maritime security management initiatives. Moreover, the width of the Indian Ocean makes a given nation’s problems farther from others.

Unconventional Threats in the Indian Ocean

Due to the complex strategic security environment, the Indian Ocean is likely to be a canvas of multifold, nontraditional security concerns. Maritime terrorism and piracy holding the crest of the spectrum left the trough for nonviolent concerns such as environment pollution or illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Of course, the intensity spectrum is not corresponding to the consequence of the threat. Lesser intensity threats, such as  marine pollution and depleting biodiversity, might have sustained impact on security degradation and come to the top of the agenda. Again, intense issues such as piracy or terrorism are complex and intricate in nature. These asymmetric and nonmilitary threats are predominantly cross-boundary criminal activities with sea extensions and are interlinked. Some of these threats and challenges include:

Gun running and drug trafficking: The notorious drug-producing and illicit arms-trading areas of the Golden Crescent and the Golden Triangle lie within the geographical propinquity of the Indian Ocean region. This geographical association is further reinforced by the link between narcotics and arms, with the sea routes of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of  Bengal providing ideal waterways for the supply of both.

Human trafficking and illegal migration: The recent influx of African and Middle Eastern migrants has drawn the attention of the world. Businesses are set up for human trafficking around the Indian Ocean. A number of evil [actors] traffic humans from Somalia, Ethiopia to Yemen and then to other Middle Eastern countries. The Sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern human trafficking constitute a U.S. $4.1 billion business per year.

Maritime terrorism: In the past couple of decades, maritime terrorism has been prominent in this region. Since the year 2000, a series of events has opened the eyes of the world to the menace of terror in the maritime domain. Future attacks cannot be ruled out, since with more money and technology being poured in the system, it is becoming a coveted choice of the terrorists.

Piracy and shipjacking: Recently, the most predominant maritime security concerns in the Indian Ocean have been dominated by piracy and armed robbery at sea, specifically the hijacking of merchant vessels by well-armed Somalia-based pirates. However, due to global initiatives of powerful navies forming numerous coalitions and successful anti-piracy operations, the menace has been almost eliminated. With such enormous effort, however, sustenance of outcome is highly questionable. As soon as task forces leave the region, pirates may return because the root cause of piracy has not been addressed.

Maritime pollution: Maritime pollution is a global concern, and the Indian Ocean is the worst affected. Due to lack of monitoring systems and enforcement, coupled with weaker laws, many incidents go unnoticed and unpunished. The transport of radioactive wastes from Europe to Asia is a threat to regional SLOC security. Many coastal states along the routes taken by the shipments have expressed concern, with some states banning the shipments through their exclusive economic zones and territorial waters. Malaysia has condemned the shipments and has demanded that vessels carrying radioactive materials do not enter Malaysia’s territorial waters.

Marine pollution is another major problem for safety in this region. The major concern is the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill. In the heavily trafficked straits, such as the Malacca Strait, there are worries that a major oil spill could seriously disrupt, or even close, the straits.

Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing: Overfishing and illegal fishing is causing damage to the sustainable development of the fishery resources in the Indian Ocean. Overfishing of the tuna fishing grounds of Mauritius, Comoros and Madagascar is a large concern for conservationists. Bangladesh, India and Thailand also suffer from overfishing and illegal fishing at large.

Maritime disasters and accidents: Growing incidents of maritime disaster and accidents require effective and quick search and rescue efforts. The maritime rescue coordination centers in isolation can hardly respond to the search and rescue calls in their regions effectively. The marine accident, especially collision and grounding, possess great threat to maritime trade and SLOC. This accident may be fatal to maritime shipping if it takes places in the chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz or Malacca Strait.

Marine accidents in the Indian Ocean region are not uncommon. Many nations in the region import millions of tons of crude oil and refined oil from Middle East countries. A collision could cause major pollution in the area and the closure of an important channel or strait. Moreover, because of nonobservances of maritime regulations and poor governance of the coastal states of the region, collisions often occur in the estuaries of channels and straits. Any unmanageable collision or grounding inside a channel may suspend the port activities of the littorals indefinitely.


Regional cooperation to address maritime challenges is of paramount importance for any maritime nation. Indian Ocean littorals share many things in common, including their worries and woes. The safety and economic security of the Indian Ocean littorals depend upon the secure use of the Indian Ocean. The littorals may neglect and be oblivious to this important fact, but at the peril of the well-being of the nation and its people.

The Indian Ocean Naval Symposium is no doubt a noble orchestration of regional maritime security construct to address the maritime security challenges collectively. Since 2008, IONS has proven itself as an integral part of the maritime security construction of the Indian Ocean. This forum has now become indispensable to shoulder the responsibility of keeping the Indian Ocean safe and secure for all users.

There are a number of challenges to be encountered, but timely interposition of constructive leadership will definitely turn this forum into a vibrant one. IONS may not solve every problem of every littoral in the maritime domain, but it will definitely create the mechanism to respond faster in case of any need, and there is a willingness to render support. To that note, mariners and sea farers should remember that extending such cooperation in the maritime community is not something new; it is a part of those who go to sea and it is a part of Navy culture.

Commodore Mir Ershad Ali wrote “Relevance of IONS as a Cooperative Security Construct: A Critical Analysis” for a special edition of the Navy Journal published by Naval Headquarters of the Bangladesh Navy and distributed during the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium in Dhaka in January 2016. This excerpt has been edited to fit FORUM’s format and published with permission from the Bangladesh Navy. This analysis represents the expressed or implied opinions of the author and does not represent the views of the Bangladesh Navy.