EU and Indian Cooperation: Indian Ocean Maritime Security

By Benoît Semur

Brussels. On 18 and 19 June 2021, the Indian Navy and the European Union’s Naval Force Somalia – Operation Atalanta conducted a joint maritime exercise in the Gulf of Aden, based on the scenario of an anti-piracy operation. The Indian frigate Trikand and four European vessels took part (Atalanta’s flagship, Italian frigate Carabiniere; Spanish frigate Navarra; French amphibious assault helicopter carrier Tonnerre, and French frigate Surcouf).

Among other activities, the event encompassed complex cross-deck helicopter landings, boarding operations, tactical manoeuvres, search and rescue operations, simulated replenishment at sea (RAS), live firing, a night-time joint patrol and a naval parade.

In parallel with the activities at sea, India’s Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) and Atalanta’s Maritime Operations Centre conducted a virtual information sharing exercise. The two international centres, as well as the Atalanta and Indian vessels, exchanged information through the Indian Ocean Region Information Sharing (IORIS) platform, developed by the EU project Critical Maritime Routes in the Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO). CRIMARIO seeks to enhance maritime security and safety in the Indo-Pacific through cross-sectoral, inter-agency and cross-regional cooperation.

Notably, IORIS enabled all participants to access the same maritime information in real time. This platform can definitely contribute not only to improve the maritime security architecture in the Indian Ocean, but also to achieve a better coordination of activities and enhance operational effectiveness.

It was not the first time that the EU operation Atalanta and the Indian Navy interacted at sea. Indeed, the Indian Navy has collaborated closely with Atalanta in the past, escorting World Food Programme vessels that deliver supplies to Somalia.  Representatives of the Indian Navy and Operation Atalanta also had the opportunity to exchange during EU-India maritime security workshops in Brussels in 2019 and in Delhi in 2020. In May 2021, the Indian Navy participated in the 48th Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) conference, co-hosted by Operation Atalanta and by Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

All counter-piracy stakeholders in the region can share information and best practices at this conference, with the shipping industry playing a central role.

June Exercises are a Significant Step in EU-India Cooperation

The joint exercise of June 2021 definitely represents a significant step forward in cooperation between the EU and India in the maritime security field. In this regard, it is a concrete deliverable stemming from the latest EU – India Summit (May 2021, Porto), which includes in the Joint Statement of the Leaders’ Meeting clear expectations for “enhanced cooperation between the Indian Navy and EUNAVFOR Atalanta in the Indo-Pacific region”.

In January 2021, the EU and India held their first-ever dialogue on maritime security.

Such regular consultations can help the EU and India advance and operationalize their cooperation in the maritime domain. In June 2021, the EU CRIMARIO project and the Indian National Maritime Foundation (NMF)  organised a conference on Maritime Domain Awareness and information sharing in the Indian Ocean, with the participation of the IFC-IOR. The conference highlighted the interest of the EU and of India in expanding cooperation beyond anti-piracy into other areas of maritime security, such as the economic, societal and environmental dimensions, which are also of vital importance for the protection of the sea-lanes of communication.

The EU and India are like-minded actors that share common values, such as democracy and the Rule of Law.

In a world of growing uncertainty and instability, the EU and India can work together to  promote freedom of navigation, the international rules-based order, maritime multilateralism and respect for international law, in particular  the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

EU-India Relations Important for the Indo-Pacific Region

For the EU, developing a strong and sustainable partnership in maritime security with India, a leading power in the Indian Ocean, is also consistent with the EU Council Conclusions of April 2021 on an EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The EU intends to strengthen its presence in this part of the world as a cooperative partner, in order to contribute to the stability, security and prosperity of the region.

The centrality of the Indo-Pacific region is universally acknowledged, including in terms of global value and supply chains, international trade and investments flows. The EU has a stake in its security and prosperity: around 40 % of the EU’s global foreign trade passes through the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. In such context, contributing to   a safe and secure maritime environment in the Indo-Pacific is a priority also for the EU. This objective can only be achieved through additional international cooperation to address common challenges.

In this perspective, there is great potential for further synergies and joint activities between the EU and India in the area of maritime security, from joint naval exercises and port calls to increased cooperation on topics such as Maritime Domain Awareness and information sharing. Atalanta is likely to continue to play a key role in operational cooperation at sea. It will seek to organise joint exercises on a regular basis, not only with the Indian Navy, but also with the navies of other riparian countries and of the wider Indo-Pacific region, building inter alia on the successful experience of the EU-Japan joint exercise and port call of October 2020 and of the EU-Japan-Djibouti trilateral exercise of May 2021.

—The author is Thematic Coordinator for Maritime Security, EU project Enhancing Security Cooperation in and with Asia.

This article was published by India Strategic in August 2021.