On October 24, the Indian Naval Ship (INS) Airavat left the port of Mumbai carrying much-needed food assistance for four countries (Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, and Eritrea) located in the Horn of Africa. INS Airavat is carrying a total of 270 Metric Tonnes of food including 155 MT of wheat flour, 65 MT of rice and 50 MT of sugar. During the visit, INS Airavat will also make port calls at Djibouti, Massawa (in Eritrea), Port Sudan (in Sudan) and Mombasa (in Kenya).
This is the second such humanitarian mission launched by the Indian Navy in 2020. Earlier this year, in April-May, at the peak of the crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic, Indian Navy had also deployed INS Kesari as part of the Covid-19 relief mission. Dubbed as ‘Mission Sagar’, it included providing 580 tonnes of food and medical supplies to the Indian Ocean island nations of the Maldives, Mauritius, Madagascar, Comoros and Seychelles.
Building on previous disaster relief efforts, launched to assist Mozambique (in 2019) and Madagascar (in 2020), both these latest missions underline India’s growing capability and willingness to undertake naval missions and support regional countries in the greater Indian Ocean region. They also demonstrate the growing role of Indian Navy as a key player in achieving broader foreign and strategic policy objectives.
It is interesting to note that INS Airavat will not only provide food supplies to the drought-prone region of the Horn of Africa but also will engage in naval diplomacy through the port calls. It will further consolidate India’s outreach to the greater Western Indian Ocean region. Over the years, Indian Navy has been a proactive player in regional security efforts through participation in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia and the latest instance of assistance will only strengthen India’s role as a foremost responder to the crises in the Indian Ocean region.
Growing strategic significance of the greater Horn of Africa
In the last decade, the region lying between Suez Canal and the Seychelles has emerged as a new geopolitical hotspot with factors like impressive economic growth of regional countries, emergence of new security threats, and the ensuing major power rivalry driving the strategic trajectory of the region. The straits of Bab el-Mandeb, which lies at the heart of this region, connects the energy-rich Middle East to Europe and, along with the Suez Canal, is considered a jugular vein for global trade. Annually, goods worth about $ 700 billion, 25,000 ships and nearly two billion barrels of oil pass through the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait.
The region has also witnessed growing interest of major global and regional players. US, China, France and Japan maintain a military base in Djibouti whereas the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also acquiring military outposts in this part of the world. Rivalries between these Middle Eastern powers are being played out in the region with states like Sudan and Eritrea drawing practical benefits from this power play. The civil war in Yemen has provided additional leverage for these regional powers to further entrench their presence.
Russia has also demonstrated interest in opening a base, like it had during the Cold War, in the Red Sea region (preferably in Sudan) whereas European powers like Britain, Germany, Spain and Italy have been deploying their military units in and around Djibouti for anti-piracy as well as counter-terror operations. Latest developments such as Sudan’s recognition of Israel and growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the issue of sharing Nile waters has further contributed to the making of a fluid, and uncertain geopolitical environment. However, amidst this regional volatility, China’s steadily growing presence is a challenging development for India.
The Chinese challenge
Since 2008, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has been present in the region under the pretext of conducting anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. In fact, it has even sent nuclear submarines to the region and has also conducted naval exercises with the navies of Russia and Iran. In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base in the region at Djibouti and is now firmly consolidating itself as a major player in regional affairs.
China enjoys strong relationships with states like Sudan and South Sudan, built over the last two decades, due to its massive investments in their oil industry. It is likely to continue to be a major diplomatic and economic partner for Sudan despite the ongoing political transition in that country. Furthermore, China has built a spate of large infrastructure projects in the Horn of Africa, including the modern railway line connecting land-locked Ethiopia with the port of Djibouti and is emerging as a major economic partner for other Red Sea states like Egypt.
In this context, India’s food as well as medical assistance to the states in this region is significant not only to avert disasters like droughts and floods but also acquires a sharp geopolitical angle. The steadily growing military and economic footprint of China makes this region increasingly more important from India’s geostrategic calculations.
Lately, India has been paying greater attention to the region. Since 2017, India has opened embassies in Djibouti and Eritrea and Indian President Ramnath Kovind has also made a state visit to Djibouti and Ethiopia. India has bolstered defence cooperation with Oman and France (which holds territories in the Southwestern Indian Ocean) and has signed logistics support agreements with these countries to ensure greater naval access in the region. Reportedly, India was in talks with Japan to grant access to Indian naval vessels at the Japanese base in Djibouti. India has also sought to open a military base in the Seychelles and plans to further enhance its naval presence in the Western Indian Ocean.
These efforts are directed to increase Indian leverage and limit Chinese influence in the region. Greater economic muscle and focused diplomatic outreach will go a long way in taking this regional engagement forward. Sending timely food aid to the Horn of Africa is a good beginning. India would do well to sustain this momentum.
(Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal)
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.