World News Why Djibouti and the Gulf of Aden matter for India and the Indo-Pacific

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Thursday, 11 January 2024


With the latest drone attacks launched by the Houthi rebels on the cargo ships transiting through the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea, the region in and around Djibouti has shot to global prominence once again. In response to these attacks, global shipping companies such as Maersk, MSC and Hapag Lloyd have decided to avoid the Red Sea route. The growing instability and insecurity in the Gulf of Aden and around the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb have underscored the strategic importance of having a sustained military presence in the region. In this context, Djibouti’s geopolitical significance cannot be overstated.

Djibouti, located off the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb which connects Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, is perhaps the starting point of the Indo-Pacific region and is also a microcosm of the evolving geopolitics in the wider Indo-Pacific. Djibouti is the only country in the world that hosts military bases of the US and China. It is home to the military bases of France and Japan as well. As a result, Djibouti, located at the crossroads of West Asia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, is known as the superpowers’ playground.

The growing strategic and economic presence of rising Asian economies like China, Japan, India, and South Korea in the Western Indian Ocean has accelerated the creation of the “Indo-Pacific” as a unified, single strategic geography. The late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe understood that the “confluence of two seas” is taking shape along the maritime geography of Asia and Africa and was one of the earliest champions of the idea of “Indo-Pacific”.

The year 2008 was a turning point for the global economy and politics as post-Beijing Olympics, China began to feel that its time had come while the West was in the grips of the global financial crisis. The talk of American decline started around the same time. However, 2008 is also a turning point for Indo-Pacific geopolitics. That year, major global and regional powers came together to deal with the challenge of piracy in the Gulf of Aden that was threatening global trade and shipping. Although the Gulf of Aden is located in the one corner of the Indo-Pacific, it signalled the strategic rise of Asian powers that were willing to send their forces beyond their region for international security operations.

Participation in the anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden provided an opportunity for China and Japan to regularize their military presence in this region that eventually led to their military bases in Djibouti. China capitalized on the opportunity to train its naval forces in the Indian Ocean and expand maritime military presence far away from its shores. It even sent a nuclear submarine to the region under the pretext of deploying for anti-piracy operations. Trends that were set in motion since then have been accelerated. Foreign military presence in the region has grown and the region is witnessing multi-dimensional strategic rivalries between regional and global players.

In fact, as a response to the Houthi attacks on global shipping, the American navy has launched Operation Prosperity Guardian with its key allies and partners. India too has deployed its naval warships to the region to provide security to the global shipping. With the growing volatility and instability in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the region is set to witness greater insecurity. The role of India will be critical in this dynamic. India’s energy imports from Russia and exports to Europe depend on the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea route. Therefore, India is paying close attention to the regional developments and is seeking ways to minimize its impact on India’s international trade. Recent rescue of a ship from Somali pirates by Indian naval INS Chennai showcased India’s capabilities in the Indian Ocean region.

India, Djibouti, and the Western Indian Ocean

For India, Djibouti, and the Western Indian Ocean are part of its maritime neighborhood. The growing Chinese strategic presence in the region impinges on India’s interests and activities in the region. Apart from the shared historical and cultural linkages with the region, India holds important economic and strategic stakes in this part of the world. India is a “first responder” and “preferred security partner” for the regional states. India is steadily expanding its strategic presence in the Indo-Pacific including in the Western Indian Ocean.

The growing military and economic presence of major global powers and ensuing geopolitical rivalries make not just Djibouti but the entire Indo-Pacific as the “superpowers’ playground.” Indo-Pacific geopolitics is as much about the broader strategic rivalries playing out across the region as it is about the contests in the separate yet interconnected strategic theaters. Therefore, the geopolitics of Djibouti and the Western Indian Ocean matter for India for its interests in the region as well as for its Indo-Pacific destiny.


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