Thursday, July 15, 2010

EU asks India to co-chair anti-piracy group in the Horn of Africa

2010-07-13

The European Union has asked India to co-chair a key group that coordinates piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa, a position that China had been coveting as it seeks to bolster its presence in the Indian Ocean. But India is reluctant to accept it as it means a larger naval deployment that may not be feasible at the moment.

The offer was made during the visit of the European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherin Ashton, to India last month.

'It was at the delegation level talks between Ashton and (External Affairs Minister) S.M. Krishna that the EU proposed that India could be made co-chair of SHADE,' a senior government official told IANS.

Publicly, Ashton had made it clear that her trip had been to solicit India's help in anti-piracy operations, but had not given any specific information on the cooperation required from India.

SHADE - or Shared Awareness and Deconfliction - was a forum established in December 2008 to coordinate activities between the countries and coalitions involved in military counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean region.

The waters off the coast of Somalia on the Horn of Africa had seen an astronomical rise in piracy attack in 2008 to 135, including seizure of 44 ships. With heavy military presence, the attacks have come down in 2010 to 67 incidents in the first three months, compared to 102 for the same period in 2009.

Based in Bahrain, SHADE, with 26 member nations and three coalitions, meets on a monthly basis. It is currently co-chaired by rotation between Coalition Maritime Forces, European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

When the offer was first made at the delegation-level talks, MEA officials had apparently not given it an enthusiastic reception.

The EU delegation was however persistent, with the offer again repeated at the meeting between Catherin Ashton and National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon.

'It was the NSA who actually asked the MEA to take the suggestion seriously,' said a senior official.

An important member of the delegation was the EU chief of military staff, Lieutenant A.G.D. Van Osch, who had a separate meeting with the Indian naval chief, Admiral Nirmal Verma

The proposal is significant as it comes only a few weeks after the June 2 meeting of SHADE, when it seemed that China would become the co-chair of the international grouping.

Ranjit Rai, vice-president of the Indian Maritime Foundation, a Pune based think tank, had been an observer of the June 2 SHADE meeting, where he was witness to the Indian delegation's successful barricading of China's bid to become co-chair.

Since January, it was clear that China wanted to be chair of the group. It was expected that China would have a smooth path to the post.

'All the 17 delegates by turn gave their assent to China's membership. But, when it came to India, our representative objected saying that the terms of reference of the chairmanship had to be laid down,' Rai told IANS.

It took all the delegates by surprise. 'The chairman, NATO commander Adrain Vander Linde, was rather irritated and asked if India wants to become a co-chair,' he said.

But the Indian delegate insisted that the duties of the co-chair had to be spelled out clearly.

Two weeks later on June 22, Catherine Ashton came to Delhi with the formal offer to make India a co-chair.

China's expanded role had come after it agreed to have a permanent presence in a sector of the internationally recommended transit corridor, which are protected shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. It had so far deployed three ships in escorting Chinese ships outside the internationally recommended transit corridor.

India is especially wary of China's enhanced role in SHADE, as it has publicly suggested that the region should be broken up for patrol for individual countries.

This would put a restriction on India's movement in the Indian Ocean, with Indian officials arguing that this would run foul of the United Nations Convention of Law of the Seas.

According to officials, India may find it difficult to accept the co-chair of SHADE, as it would mean enhancing the number of ships in the region, which may not be possible due to technical and political reasons. The Indian government had first taken the deployment of ships with reluctance in the first place.

India has only deployed one naval ship at a time in the transit corridor since October 2008 and has escorted over 1000 ships during the period, flying flags of different countries. It has also patrolled the extended economic zones of island nations like Seychelles, Mauritius and Maldives.

(Devirupa Mitra can be contacted at devirupa.m@ians.in)