Another year in the 2020s starts with the possibility of maritime blockades and trade disruptions—this time via Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships in the lower Red Sea—a critical artery for global trade and freight movement.
While the current impasse in the Red Sea is a knock-on effect of the war in Gaza, and India may at first seem distant from its geopolitical reverberations, on the contrary, New Delhi has faced a direct and significant impact through Houthi rebels attacking commercial ships destined for its ports. These attacks have gained significance after a projectile was launched by Houthi rebels on December 23 on the commercial ship M V Chem Pluto, docking at the Mangalore port.
Essentially, these events in the Red Sea underpin the scale and spread conflicts now have in a globalised world. States are no longer isolated from distant geopolitical realities. As India has witnessed, the linkages and dependencies on trade and supply chains can make conflicts transcend, albeit indirectly, onto states that are not involved directly.
Since mid-November, Houthi rebels, who control large parts of Yemen, have been targeting commercial ships traversing through the lower Red Sea to show their solidarity with Gaza and protest against Israel’s force projections in the region. The rebels, backed by Iran, initially used missiles and drones to target ships that were directly linked to Israel. According to the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), the rebels, since mid-November, have already targeted 23 commercial ships that were passing through the lower Red Sea. While the attacks were initially limited to ships with direct links to Israel, the Houthi’s are now targeting ships that have no direct connection to Israel — such as those destined for India — to enhance the scale of disruptions towards global trade.
The Red Sea serves as amongst the most densely packed shipping channels globally. Almost 12 per cent of global trade and 30 per cent of shipping containers pass through it. Its centrality to global shipping comes from its proximity to the Suez Canal. The Red Sea lies south of the Suez Canal, acting as an essential conduit into the most critical waterway connecting Europe to Asia and Africa. Given their control over Yemen, the Houthi’s have been using their influence to target ships at the Bab-el-Mandeb strait that lies on the sea’s southern side, next to Yemen.
Given the significance of the Red Sea to global trade and the tactics employed by the Houthi’s to derail global supply chains, the United States initiated a series of steps to minimise the impact of the Houthi attacks. The foremost was the launch of Operation Prosperity Guardian, bringing together countries like Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Bahrain, and Seychelles, amongst others, to ensure free and safe passage to ships and mariners travelling through the Red Sea. The US Navy stated that over 1,200 ships have traversed the Red Sea since the US announced Operation Prosperity Guardian. The partner countries of Operation Prosperity Guardian have together shot down multiple Houthi anti-ship missiles and drones to protect those passing by.
However, despite these efforts, the Houthis have continued with their tactics to attack ships passing through the Red Sea. While the additional presence of Western destroyers and frigates may stall their efforts, it is not likely to completely thwart their operations. A major lacuna for the US-led initiative remains the absence of Arab states joining. The politics surrounding the war in Gaza, Israel’s unwillingness to mitigate its aggressive campaign, and the apprehension towards taking an anti-Houthi stand have ensured that Arab powers like Saudi Arabia stay away from the initiative. For the US and other Western states, the ability to continue mitigating the Houthi operations in the Red Sea while trying to win over more Arab support will determine the success of their efforts to restore normalcy in the Red Sea, which will ensure shipping traffic and global supply-chains are protected from disruptions.
For India, the M V Chem Pluto incident hasn’t taken place in isolation. Another vessel, the M V. Sai Baba, reported a drone attack in the Red Sea while on its way to India on December 23. Given this context, the Indian Navy has systematically amped up surveillance and presence in the region to protect India’s shipping interests and ensure the safety of crew, fleet, and freight. For this, the Navy has deployed four destroyers of the Project 15A and 15B class to mitigate the threat from drone and missile attacks. Further, the Indian Navy has also ensured that Boeing P8I long-range anti-submarine aircraft, Dorniers, and helicopters are available for reconnaissance.
While the Indian Navy has ensured a timely build-up of presence in the region to ensure the safety of its interests along the route, a larger coordination with partner countries is needed for long-term stability. India must work with the US and other countries to continuously assess the movements of the Houthi rebels in the Red Sea region, pre-empt and mitigate their plans where possible, and ensure a two-way real-time flow of information. These steps must be taken while monitoring the situation in Gaza.
In essence, India will have to maximise the ability of its Navy and diplomatic prowess to ensure the situation remains manageable for both its own interests and those of the world. The events also showcase that in times to come—India could face the knock-on effects from geopolitical realities unfolding in different theatres.
About the authors:
- Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations with King’s India Institute at Kings College London. He is also Director (Honorary) of Delhi School of Transnational Affairs at Delhi University.
- Suchet Vir Singh is an Associate Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. His research interests include India’s defence services, military technology, and military history. He also follows China’s foreign and security policy.