Tackling predators: Anti-piracy operations in Gulf of Aden

Piracy in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia, has become a destabilizing force in the region. The seas, as Global Commons, allow for nations to exercise community rights of peaceful use of the seas.

The seas form a complex legal environment of flag state, port state and coastal state jurisdiction. With most oceans lying beyond coastal states’ jurisdictions, cooperation with flag states becomes essential.

This implies the need for national, regional and international collaboration in order to secure the maritime domain, especially with regards to piracy. Efforts to build capacity for maritime security include several United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, regional and international initiatives.

Asian involvement in this regard is increasingly visible, with India, Japan and China having recently begun coordinating their existing anti-piracy efforts in the region. The Republic of Korea has also now indicated interest in joining these efforts.

Anti-piracy operations

Over the last years, acts of piracy and armed robbery against ships off the coast of Somalia have increasingly gained the attention of world leaders and international organisations. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) first expressed concerns over an increase in piracy attacks in East Africa and the Indian Ocean in 2005.

Another upsurge was marked in 2008 as the number of incidents in the region increased to 222 from only 134 in 2007. Of these attacks, approximately 130 took place in the Gulf of Aden.

The Gulf of Aden is of strategic importance in its region because it connects trade between the East and West through the neighbouring Strait of Bab el Mandeb and the Suez Canal, with approximately 20,000 ships crossing the Gulf annually.

The acts of piracy in this region differ in location, lethality and sophistication, but the overall result is that ships and states have to pay ransom for the release of hostages, seized vessels and cargo, or battle the pirates. Additionally, piracy also leads to problems such as degradation of the fishing industry, the loss of the region’s reputation as a reliable trade partner and a potential decrease in tourism.

Consequently, collaboration has increased on different scales in the pursuance of tackling piracy in the region.

Collective efforts to tackle piracy in the Gulf of Aden include, among others, interception of transfers of the money received through ransoms, military actions in coastal towns and villages, piracy trials and private security initiatives.

The IMO has engaged on a multilateral basis in anti-piracy programmes since the late 1990s and has been involved with the Djibouti Code of Conduct concerning the Repression of Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in the western Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) issued several resolutions to facilitate international responses to piracy.

The resolutions authorised international naval forces to carry out anti-piracy operations in Somali territory, with the consent of the Somali Transitional Federal Government. A multilateral Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS) was established in 2009 to coordinate anti-piracy actions.

Furthermore, the United States of America (US), the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and other regional and naval forces are involved in patrolling the waters.

The Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151), a multinational coalition naval task force led by the US that works in the Gulf, also established the Maritime Security Patrol Area.

This is a narrow corridor through the centre of the Gulf, which is supposed to deter piracy. States like Saudi Arabia, Russia, Korea, China, India and Japan have also independently deployed naval forces to the region, albeit that this is usually done in coordination with multinational coalitions.  

Asian involvement

India, Japan and China have recently begun coordinating their existing anti-piracy efforts to optimise the utilisation of their naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden. Korea has indicated its interest in joining these efforts as well.

But before these recent collaborations are addressed, an analysis of these states’ roles in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the motivations behind their involvement is provided.


The Indian Navy commenced anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden in 2008. Considering the relative proximity of India’s waters to the Gulf of Aden, particularly compared to that of China, Japan and Korea, it is not surprising that India was one of the first states to seek permission from the UN to undertake anti-piracy operations.

India itself has a significant sea-faring community working on both Indian-flagged ships and foreign ships. Additionally, the Gulf of Aden forms an important trade route for India, particularly in terms of oil and fertilisers.

Therefore, the threat of piracy presents a serious risk to trade flows and economic growth. Until recently, India operated independently in the Gulf of Aden, but it has entered into several multilateral initiatives in other regions, like the Indian Ocean. Among these are collaborations with the EU, Sri Lanka and The Maldives.

Separate from the commercial and economic interest, several other driving factors can be identified for India’s anti-piracy measures in the Gulf. The Indian state is, and has always been, very interested in military superiority over Pakistan, and any opportunities to expand military operations are seen to support this aim.

As a growing global power, India is also very keen on preventing China’s assertiveness in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Lastly, India is interested in gaining more decision-making power on the global stage, which has been reflected by India’s actions while holding a seat on the UNSC. With this in mind, it can be said that India’s collaborations in terms of anti-piracy operations may be seen as an effort to portray India as a responsible international actor.


China’s motivation for being included in anti-piracy operations can predominantly be described as a defence of its expanding globalising national interests, or simply put, the desire to protect its own economic and commercial interests.

Essentially, the Gulf of Aden is a crucial sea-lane for China’s trade. In relation to this, anti-piracy missions serve as a legitimate means for China to achieve familiarity with a region in which it has vital economic interests.

In response to the upsurge in piracy in the Gulf of Aden, the Chinese Government initially chose to escort its merchant ships. In 2008, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) positioned three modern naval vessels in the Gulf of Aden.

This deployment was the first time in modern history that China’s navy operated outside of its claimed territorial waters and indicated a significant shift in China’s foreign policy behaviour.

China’s anti-piracy missions can also be regarded as pursuing a diplomatic objective, namely that of demonstrating China’s increasing role as a responsible stakeholder in resolving global issues.

Though China initially opted to operate independently, in 2012 an agreement was made to increase cooperation with international anti-piracy efforts. Chinese naval vessels then began harmonising operations with the NATO and the EU missions.

Analysts have described the anti-piracy operations as a chance to secure training opportunities. The deployment of vessels in the Gulf of Aden has allowed China to refine naval operations and coordinate communication with foreign navies.

These missions also serve to highlight the fact that China’s Navy is protecting Taiwanese vessels. Lastly, China’s Government is keen on demonstrating that its own population is capable of providing protection to Chinese nationals and Chinese ships abroad.

Hijackings of Chinese vessels may represent a threat to the legitimacy of the Chinese Government, so therefore anti-piracy missions must be used to prove that China is as capable as any other maritime power in offering protection.


Japan is highly dependent on the route through the Gulf of Aden because shipping forms one of its only methods of transporting exports. After an upsurge in piracy attacks in 2008, the Japanese Shipowners’ Association pressured the Japanese Government to sign UNSC resolutions on piracy.

In 2009, Japan granted development assistance to states in the Gulf of Aden and sent members of the Japanese Coast Guard to work with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (MSDF), while a naval base was established in Djibouti in 2011.

This move in itself was a significant development because Japan’s pacifist post-World War II Constitution strictly forbade military deployments abroad. This law was changed in 2009 to allow Japan to begin protecting commercial ships faring under any flag.

Besides the obvious commercial and economic interests, a few other motivations for Japan joining the anti-piracy operations can be mentioned.

Firstly, the piracy problem became prominent at a time when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan was being pressured by opposition parties to end MSDF missions in the Indian Ocean. Linking the MSDF mission to the Somali piracy problem offered some justification for its continued existence, perhaps a little inaccurately.

Japan also seemed very interested in taking up a cooperative approach. Japan works closely with the US in anti-piracy operations, but it may be argued that Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the UNSC, supported by the US, may further form an important driver for cooperation.

Cooperative anti-piracy missions thus allow Japan to promote itself as a responsible international actor which is concerned about global security issues.

Lastly, the rising power of neighbouring countries as well as energy imperatives may have encouraged Japan to reconsider its defence policy.

Republic of Korea

Korea, like the states mentioned above, is also dependent on the sea-lanes through the Gulf of Aden, particularly for its energy security. As such, Korea’s National Assembly approved the foreign deployment of naval forces for anti-piracy missions in 2008, allowing the Korean navy to join the Combined Task Force 151.

Involvement in anti-piracy operations has also helped the Korean Government enhance its bilateral relationships in the Middle East and Africa.

For instance, Korea has focused its energy on strengthening economic ties with the United Arab Emirates concerning energy provision and has also increased cooperation in terms of maritime security.

Nevertheless, this cooperative approach can also be seen in a broader perspective. Namely, Korea’s choice to pursue a more strategic approach by searching allies to address issues like piracy, terrorism and other crimes, particularly given that neighbouring North Korea remains a major concern.

Asian collaborations

For decades, the US and Europe were the main providers of public goods in international security. In recent years, however, major shifts have occurred and Asian states with fast-growing economies are becoming increasingly visible as international security providers.

Because their defence capabilities are growing and their economies demand a more global outlook, simultaneously, the scope of security increases. An Asian presence in the Gulf of Aden may be regarded as a reflection of such developments.

These states are not there only for their own protection; they have started to collaborate as well. Japan, China and India began coordinating naval efforts in the Gulf of Aden in January 2012.

The three states established the Escort Convoy Coordination and alternate which state takes the role as lead navy. Currently, the Japanese MSDF holds this position as of July 2012.

This cooperation in the Gulf of Aden allows for a better allocation of each country’s escort resources. One may regard these efforts as a result of trilateral dialogue during the meeting of the Shared Awareness and Deconfliction initiative that seeks to address the topics of Asian security developments and non-traditional security issues.

The implications of such anti-piracy efforts by Asian countries and subsequent collaborations are positive, in the sense that they do contribute to the ongoing security and stability in the African region.

Anti-piracy missions form a welcome complement to the security provision of, for instance, the US, NATO and the EU. Whereas these Asian states seem to spend progressively on international military operations, European defence budgets are shrinking and motivation for military intervention seems to be in decline.

Another positive effect is that the involvement in anti-piracy missions by one state has fostered the engagement of others, highlighting Asian states’ eagerness to keep up with one another. With cooperation proceeding from such involvement, the problem of piracy may be handled more effectively and efficiently.

Some of the consequences of involvement in anti-piracy operations are, however, ambiguous. Expanding military presence in the African region can be considered a marker of increasing influence in the region.

For instance, India and China are both particularly interested in enhancing relations with African states, due to their interest in land, resources and energy.

Their ambitions of becoming a more responsible international actor in global decision-making may be welcomed, but they might also be greeted with some suspicion.

The recent developments in Asian security provision in the Gulf of Aden do raise questions in terms of motivation.

Military operations

In the traditional realist study of international relations, security was regarded primarily as a matter of state sovereignty, and when discussed from a militaristic point of view, it emphasizes the security of state territory and of the state’s citizens.

However, globalizing tendencies and growing awareness of the global scope of security threats have fostered international cooperation.

In the case of India, China, Japan and Korea, it is true that these states share a concern for piracy. The analysis above indicates that the involvement of these states in anti-piracy operations stems, firstly, from their commercial and economic interests.

However, this is also a point on which these states become competitors. Regardless of the fact that some of these states have already been rivals for decades, even centuries, current interest in anti-piracy missions may also be motivated by their interest in the African continent in terms of influence, land, resources and energy.

In this sense, anti-piracy operations reflect new forms of rivalry or competition. Furthermore, the military operations along the coast of Somalia provide legitimate opportunities for militaries to gain familiarity with the region.

Expansion of military operations abroad also provides training opportunities and may lead to more military dominance. Lastly, diplomatic objectives like advancing global leadership credentials and gaining power in global decision-making organisations appear to drive these anti-piracy activities.

To conclude, Asian collaboration in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden may have positive effects in terms of effective and efficient handling of piracy. However, they may also be regarded as a pursuance of nationalist goals.

The involvement in anti-piracy missions by India, Japan, China and Korea still reflects competing interests. Despite this, collaboration seems to be a necessary means for the pursuance of certain national aims.

These developments raise further questions about the implications for the African continent in the long term.

(The author, currently with Consultancy Africa Intelligence, is an expert in anti-piracy operations)