Dramatic drone footage showing Indian commandos hunting pirates after an attack in the Arabian Sea illustrates New Delhi’s “significant” expansion of a muscular maritime force reflecting global ambitions, analysts say.
The commandos, deployed this month from an Indian-built warship after an attempted hijacking of a merchant bulk carrier, are part of a major increase of naval forces in seas where rival neighbour China has already long expanded its reach.
“It’s significant given the geopolitical context” and the aggressive “use of naval assets”, said Uday Bhaskar, head of the New Delhi-based Society for Policy Studies think tank.
In recent years Beijing has negotiated infrastructure deals with countries around the Indian Ocean as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Djibouti, where it opened its first overseas military base in 2017, raising concerns among Indian officials.
Now Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expected to be re-elected later this year, is looking to raise the global heft of India, the world’s fifth-largest economy, which last year displaced China as the most populous country.
“As India continues to rise in the international great power hierarchy, it envisions to project itself as a leading and responsible power,” said Don McLain Gill of De La Salle University in the Philippines.
Its naval deployment is part of its “desire to play a larger and more proactive role as a responsible security and development partner”, Gill told AFP.
– ‘Very proactive action’ –
Indian combat operations against pirates are not new.
The navy has been deployed continuously off Somalia since 2008 as piracy surged, bombarding and sinking pirate “motherships” ranging from just off India’s coast to the Gulf of Aden, boarding boats by helicopter and capturing dozens of gunmen.
But the navy’s deployment in December of a far larger force — including three guided-missile destroyers and P-8I reconnaissance aircraft to “maintain a deterrent presence” after a string of shipping attacks — marks a rapid ramping up of forces.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh — speaking at the launch of India’s latest own-built warship, joining an indigenous-made fleet including an aircraft carrier and submarines — vowed shipping would be protected “from the sea to the heights of the sky”.
The response followed a December 23 drone attack on the MV Chem Pluto tanker 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) off the coast of India, which Washington blamed on Iran — claims Tehran dubbed “worthless”.
Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthis have launched scores of Red Sea attacks targeting Israeli-linked vessels in response to Israel’s war against the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is also backed by Tehran.
India, which has close trade ties with Iran, has not joined the US-led force battling the Huthis.
On Thursday, US President Joe Biden said US and British forces had launched air strikes against Huthi targets in Yemen in a “defensive action” following the recent attacks on Red Sea shipping vessels.
The United States and nine allies said in a joint statement that their aim was to stabilise the crucial shipping lanes, and “protect the free flow of commerce” there.
But with international naval forces diverted north into the Red Sea — sparking fears of resurgent pirates exploiting the gap, with the first successful case of Somali piracy since 2017 recorded in December — New Delhi remains worried about the impact on trade.
One report, by New Delhi-based Research and Information System for Developing Countries, warned India could lose $30 billion in exports this year — a six percent drop — if more shipping has to reroute via South Africa.
But India was taking “very proactive action” to ensure pirates “don’t venture out into the India Ocean region”, Admiral Hari Kumar, chief of naval staff, told reporters on Wednesday at an event showing off an Indian-made long-range reconnaissance drone.
– ‘Run away like rats’ –
On January 5, after the Liberian-flagged MV Lila Norfolk reported an attempted hijacking around 450 nautical miles off Somalia’s coast, an Indian destroyer and surveillance aircraft tracked the vessel giving a “forceful warning”, the navy said.
By the time the elite commando force boarded for so-called “sanitisation” operations, the pirates had fled — but the footage was shared widely by the navy as evidence of their “swift response” capabilities.
It showed India “can mount a credible naval presence in the Indian Ocean region when required at short notice”, said Bhaskar, who is a retired naval officer.
Beijing and New Delhi are vying for influence across the Indian Ocean, and India has previously deployed patrols to the disputed South China Sea and Western Pacific.
India has also expanded its force into the Arabian Sea at a time when rival Asian power China has been more “cautious in its response given its worry of not upsetting its recently developing ties with the Arab world”, Gill added.
Former navy spokesman DK Sharma insisted the deployment was targeted only at “miscreants taking advantage of the Israel-Hamas war” by attacking shipping.
“India believes in maintaining peace in the global commons,” Sharma said. “We have no ambitions to say that the Indian Ocean is India’s ocean.”
But he was also confident Beijing had “taken note” of India’s rapid response forcing pirates to “run away like rats”.
“China can view it the way they want”, he said.