Saudi Arabia’s decision to partner with India for securing the Gulf region signals the arrival of a new security actor in the Indian Ocean. This decision follows the attacks on Saudi oil tankers and missile attacks on its overland oil processing facilities. The Indian and Saudi Arabian navies will engage in their maiden bilateral naval exercise in December to operationalise this emerging security partnership. Simultaneously, India and France have devised a three-pronged security partnership that emphasises sharing of maritime surveillance information in the Indian Ocean region.

 

Given the commonality of threats in the shared maritime space and convergence of global visions, India should forge and institutionalise a trilateral security partnership with France and Saudi Arabia, concentrating on the Western Indian Ocean. India has the experience of proposing and operationalisingsuch bilateral and trilateral initiatives on its eastern seaboard such asIndia-Bangladesh,Thailand-India-Singaporeand Japan-India-United States (US)involving annual naval exercises.The Bay of Bengal and the larger Indo-Pacificregion host a multitude of such partnerships but the Western Indian Ocean lacks such initiatives relatively. This strategic maritime space is beset with traditional and non-traditional maritime security challenges warranting a coordinated response, particularly from the regional maritime powers.

 

Mutual Interests and Threat Perceptions

 

The attacks on Saudi Arabia’s economic interests conforms to the complex maritime security threat perceptions evolving in the Western Indian Ocean, particularly the Gulf region. The 2008 Mumbai attacks, 2000 USS Cole bombing, attempts to seize Pakistani warships to be used as suicide platforms and piracy off the Horn of Africa – all signal the region’s security vulnerabilities. Escalating tensions between the US and Iran and ongoing regional conflicts in Yemen and Syria heighten these vulnerabilities.

 

In addition, China’s foray into the Indian Ocean and onward to Africa – establishing ports and projects under its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – has led to resumption of great power competition. China’s land reclamation work in Seychelles, seabed mineral prospecting and establishing a military base in Djibouti signal its intent to control this strategic space. Recently, China opened a trans-continental railway line between Tanzania and Angola connecting Africa’s Indian Ocean coast to the Atlantic coast.

 

These developments threatened India’s political, security and energy interests along its western seaboard. France too was concerned about its dependent territories in the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 93 percent of its Exclusive Economic Zone.Although France receded from the Indo-Pacific region following the second World War, it cultivated strategic relations with India supporting its advances in nuclear, space and defence technologies. Today, India and France have been experiencing the consequences of global terrorism simultaneous to them strategising for potential great power competitionwith the American strategic footprint on the wane. India and France deem a stable, multipolar world order that follows the rule of the law as paramount to their strategic interests.

 

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s evolving relations with India are forged anew with energy security and investment interests dominating the partnership. Amidst expanding business interests, Saudi Arabia decided to invest $100 billion in India’s energy infrastructure and other sectors as the kingdom seeks to diversify its revenue. To facilitate this process, the estrangement between India and Saudi Arabia caused during the Cold War is being redressed. In March this year, India was invited as the guest of honor to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting, welcoming India’s partnership with the larger Islamic world. Incidentally, the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and tankers only helped to elevate these relations to the strategic level.

 

Forging Security Partnerships

 

Building on mutual trust and congruence in global vision, India and France have begun to accelerate plans for a security partnership covering the Western Indian Ocean. They have operationalised a mutual logistics support agreement and are jointly developing a maritime surveillance satellite system. France has appointed a liaison officer at the Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) and India will deploy a maritime patrol vessel in the French Reunion Island for joint missions in the coming months. The recently designed three-pronged security partnership between India and France emphasises fusion of maritime surveillance, information and exchange of analyses. The security partnership is supported and strengthened by economic development initiatives India and France will undertake in the Vanilla Islands.

 

For Saudi Arabia, the attacks on its tankers and oil facilities came amidst the US withdrawing largely from Syria and Russia gaining a stronger foothold in the Gulf region. The ability of intruding missiles to evade Saudi air defences also damagedits reputation in the region. On the other hand, India pressed its warships to surveil the Gulf waters and escorted commercial ships amidst continued escalation in the Gulf region.Moreover, India’s diplomatic relations with other Gulf states improved, such as the United Arab Emirates and Oman, which granted access to its strategically located port in Duqm.

 

These developments made strategic sense for Saudi Arabia to coordinate with Indiain the maritime security of the Gulf region, a top priority for both countries. This emerging security partnership could be expanded to include more regional countries if India and Saudi Arabia could effectuate their diplomatic relations jointly.

 

Trilateral Security Partnership

 

The common threat perception and active diplomatic efforts for partnerships can help combine emerging India-Saudi Arabia and India-France security partnerships into a trilateral security partnership. Foremost of the factors favouring this partnership is the geography. India’s landmass juts into the Indian Ocean at the northeastern end; the French dependent territories span the southwestern end and Saudi Arabia is situated at the northwestern end of the Western Indian Ocean. These peripheral locations, adjacent to the critical sea lines of communication and maritime chokepoints, enclose the Western Indian Ocean.

 

A formal trilateral security partnership gains inherent strength from this geographical situation. It allows better surveillance of maritime areas and surging of naval assets, probably combined, where the threat develops. The political and diplomatic strength of this partnershipcould compel other likeminded countries to cooperate in maritime surveillance and security. This trilateral security partnership can be treated as a subset of overarching Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) initiatives. India hasthe experience of engaging in trilateral naval exercises such as the Malabar with its participants (India, Japan and the US), also members of the Quadrilateral (India, Japan, Australia and the US), shaping the Indo-Pacific.

 

A similar exercise can be undertaken by combining India-France ‘Varuna’ naval exercise with the upcoming India-Saudi Arabia maiden naval exercise. Other maritime powers such as Japan, the United Kingdom (UK) and the US can be added as observers eventually. India and the UK have already established the bilateral naval exercise ‘Konkan,’ with the latter possessing British Indian Ocean territory. This territory, upon which the US established the Diego Garcia military base, is located in the centre of the Indian Ocean and at the eastern periphery of the Western Indian Ocean.  Moreover, India and Japan have established the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor that requires secured access to Africa’s Indian Ocean coast.

 

Overall, India’s centrality to these developments, existing and proposed, is vital. The geography, history and emerging economic and diplomatic strength bolsters its vision for the Indian Ocean.The convergences between India and other maritime powers on the foundation and structure of the emerging multipolar world order substantiate this vision and resultant security partnerships.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.