China's navy has been operating in the WIO under the pretext of anti-piracy operations and has established its base at Djibouti

This week, the foreign and defence ministers from India and the United States (US) met for a 2+2 meeting in Washington DC. The meeting was significant as it came in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the divergent approaches taken by India and the US. As the Indo-US diplomatic engagement had intensified in the wake of the security crisis in Europe, the 2+2 meeting was awaited with anticipation.

The joint statement issued after the meeting noted, "Navies have been a driving force in advancing the United States and India's shared interests in the Indian Ocean Region and the wider Indo-Pacific". The US "welcomed India's decision to join the Combined Maritime Forces Task Force as an Associate Partner to expand multilateral cooperation in the Indian Ocean," it said.

Moreover, both sides discussed "opportunities to further advance and deepen maritime cooperation, including in underwater domain awareness". They decided to hold India-US counter-narcotics working group meeting in 2022 to enhance "cooperation through a bilateral Counter-Narcotics Framework to combat drug trafficking, illicit narcotics production, and precursor chemical supply chains."

Strategic Importance of Western Indian Ocean

So far, India and the US have been working intensively in the Eastern Indian Ocean. But India joining the Combined Maritime Forces, or CMF, as an associate partner and the growing cooperation in the domain of counter-narcotics indicate India-US enhanced security partnership in the context of the Western Indian Ocean (WIO).

The WIO region is generally defined as Egypt in the north, South Africa to the south and India to the west. It encompasses the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Mozambique Channel. India holds significant security, economic and diplomatic stakes in the strategic affairs of this region.

The region is home to interconnected security threats like maritime piracy, terrorism and the trafficking of drugs and weapons. The area is also well-known for its failed states, civil wars and the intensifying 'great power' presence, especially Chinese. Strategically important maritime chokepoints like the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb lie in the WIO. The intensifying India-US cooperation, especially in the rubric of CMF, comes in this context.

What Is Combined Maritime Forces?

The CMF is a US-led "multinational maritime partnership" tasked to "uphold the Rules-Based International Order (RBIO) by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas". It promotes security, stability, and prosperity across approximately 3.2 million square miles of international waters, encompassing some of its important shipping lanes.

The CMF has three naval task forces: Combined Task Force 150, 151 and 152. Each of these task forces has specific focus areas. The CTF-152 is geared to ensure maritime security in the Persian Gulf, while the CTF-150 is tasked to preserve maritime security outside the Gulf. The CTF-151 focuses on counter-piracy operations, especially in the Gulf of Aden. There are 34 participating countries in the CMF, and countries as diverse as Canada, Germany, Australia, Jordan, and Pakistan participate in the CMF initiative.

Ever since 2007-08, given the serious threat of piracy to the global shipping in the Gulf of Aden, several other countries from across the world have sent their naval forces to the region. India and China sent their forces for anti-piracy operations. However, these deployments were not part of the CMF. The European Union is also engaged in the region through its EUNAVFOR Operation Atalanta. These naval forces coordinated their activities to maximise the impact.

India And WIO's Geopolitics

It was widely believed that despite the deepening defence partnership with the US, India opposed joining CTF-151 as the Pakistan Navy was part of the initiative. Besides, the independent deployments in the WIO, from 2007-08, for counter-piracy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations helped India position itself as an indispensable player in the geopolitics of the WIO.

However, India's willingness to join the CMF as an associate Partner at this juncture indicates the evolving geopolitics of the WIO. India has deepened its security partnership with the US allies in West Asia like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Meanwhile, France has emerged as a key partner in the Indian Ocean. These relationships enable India to engage confidently with the US and its allies in the WIO for tackling traditional and non-traditional security challenges.

Besides, the most crucial factor is the growing presence of China in the Indian Ocean. China's navy has been operating in the WIO under the pretext of anti-piracy operations and has established its base at Djibouti. China's naval presence in the WIO has become a regular feature of the regional security scenario. Therefore, Indo-US cooperation in the WIO attains importance.

The return of the Taliban in Afghanistan has resulted in the growing supply of narcotics from the Af-Pak region to the WIO. The East African coastline is known as the 'heroin coast' and is struggling to deal with the rising threat and supply of narcotics. The narcotics supply chain also has deep interconnections with the local criminals, pirates and, in some cases, even terror networks.

India and the US cooperation to combat narcotics need not remain limited to the bilateral level. The WIO could be a focus of their counter-narcotics activities, including building local maritime and police capabilities. It would fit well with the stated objective of deepening triangular cooperation in the development sector. There is a deep nexus between security and development in the WIO, and the growing Indo-US partnership in the CMF and counter-narcotics domain could be leveraged.

The Indo-US partnership has long been focused on the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. However, as China moves to establish a regular naval presence in the WIO, the region is becoming a critical fulcrum of great power politics. Therefore, the emerging focus on the WIO in the Indo-US partnership is a welcome development. The momentum needs to be sustained.