WORKSHOP PROCEEDINGS – Maritime Safety and Security: Ensuring Safe and Secure Seas in the Indian Ocean


    “There is a dual approach- both risk and opportunity- in maritime safety and security. If there are many benefits to exploitation of seas, this creates opportunities to solve different maritime challenges to maximise gains from the seas.”


    On Friday 19th August 2022, over seventy local and international thought leaders, including diplomats, scholars and policy makers, gathered in person and online to participate in the Maritime Safety and Security workshop organised by the Charles Telfair Centre, in collaboration with the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC).

    Held at the Charles Telfair Campus, Rabin Bhunjun CEO of Relate Inc., moderated the discussions with key guests interventions from Raj Mohabeer, Officer in Charge at IOC, Professor Christian Bueger, Professor of International Relations (Maritime Security), University of Copenhagen, and Professor Kate Sullivan de Estrada, Associate Professor in the International Relations of South Asia, University of Oxford. Together with the participants, they shared their insights on the growing challenges faced by Indian Ocean States in securing safe and durable seas and on how to rethink safe seas in the region.

    Setting the context of the Indian Ocean Region

    Christian Bueger, sharing on the crucial importance of securing safe seas, highlighted: “The economic survival of Small Island Developing States is at stake as they face various maritime safety and security threats in the Indian Ocean region.  There is a broad range of blue crimes about which we know little about because data is not collected. We need to fully assess our knowledge about blue crimes, including aspects of conservation of marine biodiversity, the health of the oceans and the management of climate change [in order to adequately respond to these threats].”

    Commenting on the complexity of the dynamics of securing safe seas, Raj Mohabeer added “Countries in the region do not have, individually, the capacity to deal with the multitude maritime safety and security threats in the region and as such no country in the Indian Ocean is, alone, able to ensure full control and surveillance of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  Yet, the Blue Economy cannot be developed without a full and adequate surveillance of the EEZ. There is a role for national, regional and international leadership to play in achieving maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean”

    Within this context, the discussions highlighted three key characteristics in the Indian Ocean maritime safety and security landscape:

    Primordial Role but leadership vacuum: For Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in the Indian Ocean region, safe and secure seas are primordial for sustainable economic development. The seas provide for the livelihoods of their populations, sustain their tourism industry, and, the development of the sustainable Blue Economy promises to unlock the considerable economic potential of the ocean. Yet, political mandates for elections rarely include maritime safety and security concerns because elections are not won on addressing such issues. The sidelining of security concerns and its absence in the foreign policy making of small island states in the Indian Ocean highlight the need for better education of leaders and policy makers. Thirty-eight out of the 55 of the African states are coastal and island states, but many African countries experience a certain level of sea blindness. They do not consider the sea as an economic asset and this impacts on their commitment to defend the protection of the sea.

    Complexity and strategic interest: There is a great deal of complexity to the challenges and issues of maritime safety and security. The Indian Ocean is a hub for extensive trade and energy transfers, combined with various traditional and non-traditional threats at play including Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing (IUU, leading to declining fish stocks in Indian Ocean region), poaching, Violence at Sea (VAS), armed robbery, piracy, violent extremism at sea, narcotic smuggling and contraband at sea, pollution and dumping at sea and natural hazards. The threats emanate from actors located well beyond the Indian Ocean region, and, while some maritime crimes reach the news, many remain un-detected or undocumented. The complexity of these multiple threats is compounded by the challenges brought about by climate change and the geostrategic importance of the region for major global players such as China, India, the EU, the UK and the US. Home to major trade routes connecting the Middle East, Africa and East Asia with Europe and the Americas, these sea routes carry more than half of the world’s sea-borne oil. The Indian Ocean is witnessing rising power struggles and the region is emerging as a geostrategic centre of gravity. This shift in dynamics, in particular the Chinese and Indian rivalry, has become an increasing concern for island states with control of ports and use of island bases for monitoring and surveillance. Militarisation of the Indian Ocean by major powers with vested interests is a particular cause of concern for the region.

    Limited Control: The western Indian Ocean region includes the territorial waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of 15 countries and no country in the region is able, alone, to fully control and monitor their respective zones amidst all these risks. Surveillance and monitoring of a country’s EEZ is essential for sustainability and the development of the Blue Economy, yet few of the Western Indian Ocean countries have the capability, technology and expertise for surveillance. With interests and risks spanning well beyond the countries located within the region, maritime monitoring and surveillance should be a concern not only for Indian Ocean coastal countries. Cooperation and collaboration within and beyond the region are crucial to address threat and enforce laws and regulations at sea such as United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

    Challenges for maritime security in the Indian Ocean region

    Lack of resources and capacity: The lack of control, monitoring and surveillance in the region requires improved resource allocation and capacity building. The workshop highlighted the lack of continuity and long-term perspectives and vision in the field, hampering capacity building for island states. The gaps include response to incidents such as oil spills, maritime incidents monitoring and intervention, training on sustainable fisheries, aqua-culture, seaweed farming and deep-sea mining among others.

    Paucity of data and narrow focus: There is little research and study which have been undertaken on evaluation and assessment of the maritime safety and security risks in the Indian Ocean region. Data collection in the region is needed to document the type, nature and frequency of risks. An evidence and data-driven response to maritime security threats is essential in creating tailor-made solutions to different regions of the Indian Ocean.

    Limited international effective cooperation: Coordination and cooperation in the region are represented via two regional organisations, namely the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC).

    The IORA, an inter-governmental organisation aimed at strengthening regional cooperation and sustainable development within the region, is composed of 23 Member States and 10 Dialogue Partners.  Its effectiveness has been hampered by a lack of clarity on deliverables, low commitment of some member states, a large membership, a small secretariat with an ambitious agenda and a talk-oriented diplomacy.

    The IOC is a smaller intergovernmental organisation with five member states (Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion/France, and Seychelles), largely financed by France, with a bottoms-up approach which favours interests of member states. A project-oriented structure, the organisation has contributed to progress on key issues such as the MASE programme which aims at both an on land and in the sea approach to address piracy.

    While both IORA and IOC have placed maritime safety and security as a regional priority, there exists no synergy and collaboration in their initiatives. There has been limited alignment of work agenda between the two entities until February 2022, when an MoU was signed between IORA and IOC in order to create linkages in their mandates.

    Weak Institutional Framework: The high rate of ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) by African States is encouraging but there remain considerable challenges regarding implementation such as harmonization of national laws and provisions, uniform and consistent application across countries and the setting up of adequate domestic legal, policy, and institutional frameworks.

    Way forward

    Data and knowledge: Initiatives to address the threats in the region must comprise of, inter alia, attention, awareness and education, better data on maritime crimes, smart capacity building, stable and functional institutions, small-state leadership, and, strengthening understandings of the links between maritime conservation and climate change.

    Marine Protection and Ocean conservation: There is a growing urgency to incorporate marine protection and ocean conservation in the maritime agenda because the oceans are in danger. SDG #14 Life below water reinstates the need to protect the oceans and its resources. Maritime security agenda should not focus only on security of ports, EEZ & island military bases. The impact of climate change is being increasingly felt on oceans and coastal island communities such as Maldives; an appropriate action plan is required to protect the ocean resources and should feature amongst the core objectives of maritime security frameworks.

    Cooperation: The Indian Ocean region is now no longer viewed as one single ocean.  Major powers such as the USA, China and India have included the Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean creating the ‘Indo Pacific’ geographic construct, which is a tool for major powers to delineate their interests within the region. This may exacerbate maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean but can also assist in garnering greater cooperation amongst major powers and countries in the Indo Pacific to address maritime security threats. These major powers can also provide funds and capacity building to Indian Ocean countries who have the relevant regional literacy to design effective frameworks to tackle the various ocean threats.

    Vision and Leadership: because of the urgency and because it requires complex multi-level coordination, achieving safe and secure seas will require strong leadership and vision from public authorities and international/regional organisations: the challenges can only be overcome if there is a real domestic and international commitment to work together towards the common goal of ensuring safe seas. A diplomatic forum, in the format of a dialogue platform, could bring together small and great powers to discuss interests, challenges, and solutions.

    As Kate Sullivan de Estrada highlighted “Major ​powers have participated in designing solutions to maritime security threats in the Indian Ocean region by providing funding aligned with their strategic interests.  Today, India also has a very special interest in the maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean – both out of a sense of responsibility and a feeling of ownership, which is compounded by China’s presence and interests in the region.  As such, India is trying to win the hearts and minds of countries in the Indian Ocean region by reaching out to island countries to build partnerships. The strategic interests of major powers are clearly driving these interactions, but the capacity for and approach to responses to regional challenges needs to be local first.” 

    Indian Ocean states have to reflect on their needs before engaging with major powers. This would give them power to leverage on the type of assistance being offered to them. Such a platform would benefit from the presence of researchers and academicians, think tanks, diplomats, policy makers, leaders and politicians, civil society and NGOs, environmentalists, ocean thinkers, and funding agencies.

    There is a role for national, regional and international leadership in finding and implementing initiatives and solutions for maritime safety and security. The core objective should be to establish a convergent agenda.

    Main photo by Photo by Tom Fisk on Pexels.

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).


    Follow Us

    Subscribe to our newsletter