N Sathiya Moorthy 

3 January 2024

The Houthis’ seizure of an India-bound ship in November, followed by one-way drone attacks on two other ships with a total of 46 Indian crew members on board in the past weeks, has taken India closer to the Gaza War than imagined. Of the two ships that took the drone hits, MV Saibaba has an added India connection and the Indian Coast Guard has safely escorted the vessel to Mumbai. The Gabon-flagged crude oil tanker is recorded with the Indian Shipping Registry and was hit just outside the Indian EEZ but the fire was put off.

It is not known if the Yemen-based Houthi militants with known linkages to Iran had prior knowledge about the Indian interests in the matter. It may not even be known if they cared to know the flag, ownership and crew nationality of the 17 ships that they have targeted in the Red Sea thereabouts after the outbreak of the Gaza War.

But two messages flow from it, for India in particular. One, the Gaza war or its fall-out is not as far away as thought to be. Indian street opinion on the matter stopped with governmental statements in the matter, if they had cared to follow it just now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the first one to sound the bugle and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) took over from there with moderated expressions. Domestic and international politics notwithstanding, the greater concern of Indians stops with the personal safety of a large number of relatives and friends who are working in the larger Gulf-Arab region.

Shipping blockade

Two, and more importantly, the Houthis attack should lead to the realisation that at least one of the choke-points in the western Indian Ocean, or the other end of the Arabian Sea, to be precise, namely, the BabelMandeb, could be used to effectively blockade shipping to and from India, in times of formal conflict. As is known, China has a military establishment in Djibouti, the crucial mouth of what otherwise is known as the ‘Gate of Grief’ or the ‘Gate of Tears’ at the point where the Arabian Sea meets Red Sea.

Thus far, all references to the choke-point blockade in the Indian Ocean have stopped with shipping to and from China. The reference invariably pointed to the Strait of Hormuz on India’s west and the Strait of Malacca in the east.  Not much has been said about Bab-el-Mandeb on the mouth of the Red Sea with Djibouti and Yemen on either side of the narrow strait.

Choke point strategists have always argued how China could be brought to its knees through a combination of political unity among the region’s nations and/ or military dominance of the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Vide Malacca, such conflicts could involve regional nations as in the case of the South China Sea / East China conflict, or Taiwan and/or the US, if the former is the target.  There are no such issues involving China in the Hormuz region. Hence the larger Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs) have been the talking point as a future target of those that do not want to abide by a ‘rules-based order at sea’ (read: China?).

All such arguments are prima facie perfect, but only if seen in isolation of what China can do, and how other stakeholders will react. In the case of Malacca Strait, individual ASEAN members have learnt to handle the ‘South China Sea issue’ without entangling others, both inside and outside the region.

They may not have succeeded in it, yes, but they do not seem to have the stomach for a long drawn-out military entanglement in the region of the not-yet-forgotten Vietnam War kind. It could be even more so if the talk is about a Taiwan-centric war between China and the US, where other western nations do not seem to have expressed even a remote interest through the past decades.

On the Hormuz front, Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing nations in the Gulf-Arab region could react politically and commercially if their business is nearly crippled for reasons that do not concern them. They only need to close the tap, citing safety precautions from ‘friendly bombing’ by either side. Other OPEC-Plus members could react likewise.

While adversarial strategists were talking, and the US and its allies, including India, have moved in, too, China has been purposeful in the matter. It has since befriended Saudi Arabia and other Gulf-Arab nations, if only to neutralise the American influence in the region, as during the Kuwait War.

At this point, the West has all but lost the Ukraine War for Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent Gulf visit despite sanctions and the ICC (International Criminal Court) order to arrest him for ‘war crimes’ (?) should be noted for its form and content. Then, the role of India and China in letting large volumes of Russian oil ‘leak’ through the West’s sanctions regime into their own refineries needs a closer strategic look.

Feverish pitch

Whether or not there is going to be a war over Taiwan, the feverish pitch at which China has developed the PLA-Navy’s strength may be indicative of Beijing’s preparedness and willingness to take the battle to the other’s shores or the high seas, rather than inviting the war to its shores. It is a tested American strategy after the two Great Wars of the previous century.

Between the US and China, the real and one-to-one war can happen only across the Pacific. It is not going to happen for a variety of reasons, especially beginning with the American, and possibly a 21st-century Chinese unwillingness to bring war to its shores.  At 350, China has the highest number of navy ships against the US’ 293. China launched only its third aircraft carrier in 2022. Overall, including tonnage, personnel and more battle experience, the US navy will retain the top spot for a long time to come.

The US Navy also has the highest number of carrier groups, 47, that can take the battle to the other end of the world, as happened in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, in the post-War decades. The US also has allies with their war machines, but the Ukraine War showed how they do not have the stomach for a war if each one of them could stay out of it.

It is another matter that after Pearl Harbour in 1941, which involved a State actor in Japan, a non-State actor, Al Qaeda, thinking and acting differently, could target the US in the US in ways the world cannot forget for a long time to come. The likes of Huthis, Hezbollah and Hamas are precisely doing it, in different ways, to try and overwhelm nations and regions.

It is here the non-State actors’ tactic of targeting lone ocean-liners and other ships in high seas has a role. The world must study whether all such attacks are only target practice or if the worst is still in the pipeline. Incidentally, a State actor, Iran, demonstrated its willingness in the matter by bombing a dummy ship, to indicate its willingness to blockade the seas.

Apart from non-State actors, other nations on either side of the ideological divide too could resort to the tactic in crucial sea mouths. Bombing their own ocean liners, full-to-capacity, at known choke points and elsewhere could be a cost-effective battle tactic if that is where a future war had to begin or end.

India cannot escape the outcome/aftermath of any or all such tactics adopted by contesting adversaries even if it is not among those fighting other nations’ wars far away from its land and Ocean territory. The fact that New Delhi is acknowledged to be a non-member in military terms in the US-led Quad indicates as much.

If it involves China and maybe Pakistan together, the latter would be tasked to tie down India, including the Indian Navy, to the neighbourhood seas. If the trustworthiness of Ocean neighbours become as doubtful as it is now, then it is another ball game though India’s ultimate triumph is still guaranteed. All these are (only) strategic possibilities, though not necessarily a probability, especially when most of these nations are facing unprecedented economic distress and their popular government would be forced to think a thousand times, especially when it is to target an eternally helpful /useful India.


(The writer is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator. Email: sathiyam54@nsathyamoorthy.com)