Indian Navy helicopter surveilling MV Lila Norfolk | Ministry of Defence
The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza has led to a geopolitical impact in an unexpected part of the world: in the busy global trade artery of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which connects the Arabian Sea and the wider Western Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean through the Suez Canal. Nearly one-third of all global container vessel traffic passes through the Red Sea. About 12 percent of seaborne petroleum crude oil and 8 percent of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) transit the Suez Canal. Overall, more than 12 percent of global maritime trade transits across the Red Sea.
Beginning November 19, 2023, the Houthi resistance group Ansarallah commenced attacking merchant vessels, particularly those linked to Israel voyaging through the Red Sea. The Houthis claimed that the attacks were a retaliation and warning to Israel to immediately stop its military operations in Gaza. The assaults included armed militia boarding the vessels using helicopters and fast boats to hijack the vessels, as also attacks by weaponized drones and missiles. Subsequently, the attacks became indiscriminate, targeting vessels without any apparent link to Israel.
Houthi actions have alarmed the shipping industry. By late December 2023, the Houthis had reportedly targeted twenty five different vessels across various ownership and nationalities. The global shipping industry thrives on open access to seas and freedom of navigation, recognized through the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea. It has been less than two months since the first attack but long-term disruption in trade in the waterway could send a ripple effect of higher trading costs throughout the world economy.
This is already happening to some degree. Marine insurance costs for ships using the Red Sea have shot up significantly in the past few weeks, as "war premiums" levied by insurance companies have kicked in. In India, exporters are reportedly facing unusual delays in clearing out their exports from Indian ports. In due course, imports into Indian ports could also be affected if the situation in the Red Sea does not improve.
About 40 percent of Asia-Europe trade normally transits the Red Sea. Ships avoiding the Red Sea need to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, a long detour which, as per some estimates, can cost over $1 million more per round trip in additional fuel costs. Trends indicate that many shipping companies have already chosen the costlier option.
In early January 2024, Danish container shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk announced that it will divert its vessels around Africa instead of using the Red Sea and the Suez Canal for the “foreseeable future”. Maersk said the decision was due to the volatile situation in the Red Sea as Yemen’s Houthis continue to attack vessels that pass through the busy waterway.
What is the political background of this unexpected tension in the Red Sea and the maritime region off the Horn of Africa? What are the stakes for India, and how can normalcy be restored?
Impact of Regional Geopolitics
As is well known, the Houthis are affiliated to Iran, sharing close ideological and economic ties with the Islamic Republic. It is widely believed that the Houthis have received close support of Iran in resisting the Saudi Arabia-backed Hadi faction opposing them in Yemen. The ties between Ansarallah and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are also believed to be very strong. The traditional religious sectarian divide in West Asia is seen at play in Yemen between the Saudi Arabia backed Saleh-Hadi faction and Iran backed Houthis, who are Zaydi Shias.
Reports say that over the years, Iran has developed a sophisticated logistics network, giving training assistance and equipment support to the Houthis through sea and overland routes. It is likely that Iran could have activated these well-established links to arm the Houthis with asymmetric technologies like armed drones and anti-ship missiles, to create a new security dilemma for the United States, and other allies like the UK, who have stood behind Israel on the Hamas issue. Iran itself is believed to have developed such advanced technologies with help of its partner countries that are opposed to the US.
Iran has also probably calculated that owing to the emotive issue of Palestine and Palestinian human rights, other Arab countries that are traditional allies of the US would prefer to stay neutral in the conflict. To be seen as siding with Israel is not an option any Arab state would consider at this stage, especially given the continuing military operations in Gaza.
Response of US and allies
The US has a strong military presence in West Asia, including advanced naval assets like aircraft carriers and submarines, which remain deployed in the region. The US moved an additional aircraft carrier task force (led by the supercarrier USS Gerald R. Ford) to the Red Sea from the Mediterranean Sea, after the Houthi engineered crisis deepened. The US Central Command, headquartered in Bahrain, operates Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a loose grouping of naval forces drawn from over 30 countries aimed at strengthening maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean region. India joined as an associate partner of the CMF in 2023. In mid-December 2023, the US Pentagon announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, described as a "multinational, maritime security initiative responding to the recent escalation in Houthi attacks originating from Yemen''.About a week later, on December 22, 2023, the US Government accused Iran of being deeply involved in planning operations against commercial vessels in the Red Sea. The response of US's Western allies to the operation was initially mixed. Over twenty nations reportedly expressed support but notably, France and Spain declined to be a part of the coalition. By early January, US Central Command claimed success in preventing attacks on merchant ships and ensuring safe passage of over 1500 vessels through the Red Sea.
In an off-camera press briefing via teleconference on January 4, 2024, the commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, said that the US remains committed to providing a persistent defensive presence in the Red Sea alongside allies and partners. Cooper brought out that since the start of the Operation Prosperity Guardian, the US-led coalition has shot down 19 drones and missiles and sunk three small boats launched by the Houthis against vessels operating in the Red Sea. "Our assessment is that 55 nations have direct connections to the ships who've been attacked, whether through the flagging state, where the goods were produced or destined, or the nationalities of the innocent mariners aboard each vessel," Cooper said. "The impacts of these attacks stretch across the globe," he said. "This is an international problem that requires an international solution.
A day prior to Admiral Cooper's briefing, on January 3, the governments of the US, Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand and the United Kingdom had issued a joint statement condemning the attacks and warning the Yemen-based rebel group against further escalation. The Houthis, however, do not appear to be in a mood to relent. A Houthi drone boat packed with explosives detonated in the Red Sea on January 4, but failed to cause any damage or casualties, according to the US Navy. The latest attempt to attack, coming one day after the joint statement by 12 countries cautioning the Houthis of unspecified "consequences" unless they halt their attacks, does not augur well for both the de-escalation of tensions and restoration of normalcy.
India has expressed concern over the deteriorating security situation in the Red Sea; however, it has decided to stay away from political signaling that might be construed as being anti-Iran. Responding to the reported drone attack on December 23, 2023 in the Arabian Sea on MV Chem Pluto, which was bound for India and MV Sai Baba in the Red Sea, India’s Defence Minister conveyed the government's decision to intensify patrolling of the seas in the wake of the attacks.
However, New Delhi decided not to participate in Operation Prosperity Guardian, possibly due to political considerations surrounding the Israel-Hamas conflict and other associated interested parties. “So far, we are not part of any multilateral initiative or project in the area. So that is where we are. But we are looking at the unfolding situation very closely,” Randhir Jaiswal, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), said in New Delhi on January 4. However, he added that Indian Navy ships were patrolling the area.
In recent weeks, the Indian Navy displayed its prowess and operational acumen in tackling two different incidents of maritime piracy in the seas near the Gulf of Aden. In late December 2023, the Indian Navy was the first to locate and intercept the Maltese-flagged MV Ruen carrying 18 sailors, which had been hijacked by Somali pirates on the high seas. One injured crew member was rescued by an Indian Navy ship tailing the hijacked vessel. Subsequently, 21 crew members including 15 Indian nationals were secured from the hijacked vessel MV Lila Norfolk off the Somalia coast and were safely evacuated by the Indian Navy on January 5.
Though not directly connected to the situation created by the Houthis, the actions of the Indian Navy against piracy at sea serve to provide confidence about its commitment to upholding maritime security in the region. Given the concerns regarding the safety of seaborne trade, India has continuously deployed its warships in the Gulf of Aden and the Gulf of Hormuz in support of merchant vessels even before the current imbroglio in the Red Sea.
At present, the Indian Navy has deployed a total of six warships for anti-piracy and anti-drone operations and more of them will be sent further to tackle the challenge in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Indian Navy chief Admiral R Hari Kumar said in an interaction with the Press on January 7.
The tensions in the Western Indian Ocean, particularly the Red Sea are clearly a by-product of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, following the despicable terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israeli communities on October 7, 2023, and the severe retaliation by Israel that followed. Due to the sheer complexity of the Palestine issue and the long-standing rivalries between involved parties, there is no quick-fix solution in sight which can satisfy the belligerent groups. However, in the interest of regional peace, and safety of international maritime trade which is highly globalized, it becomes imperative to find a diplomatic solution to the issue at hand.
Efforts could be made by major players who are not directly involved in the conflict, and neutral countries like India, using the auspices of the United Nations to call for peace in the Red Sea and a halt to the violent asymmetric activities of the Houthis against shipping in the region.
The International Maritime Organization (IMO) supported the Djibouti Code of Conduct (Jeddah Amendment), the Contact Group on Illicit Maritime Activities (CGIMA) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) are examples of forums where like-minded countries could mount efforts to bring about greater understanding to uphold maritime security. Iran is a member of the IMO and IORA. Tehran can be engaged by other neutral members of these forums to help in reigning in the disruptive activities of the Houthis.
All in all, there is an urgent need for nations to come together to find a middle ground for diplomacy to work so that the situation in the Red Sea does not become reminiscent of the long-drawn Tanker War between Iran and Iraq in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s. It can be extrapolated from the trends that if the situation is not de-escalated and Houthis continue their Asymmetric attacks against shipping, there could be a possibility of an armed response by the US and its Western allies against Houthi targets of interest in Yemen, which may further precipitate the crisis and negatively impact maritime trade. Such an outcome is not desirable and should be prevented by proactive diplomacy.
(Exclusive to NatStrat)