The Indian Ocean is an immense maritime space of great geopolitical and geoeconomic importance. It is a crossroad for sea trade that connects the advanced economies of the East and the West. At the same time, there are also many factors that threaten its stability. These are often closely related with the international dynamics of the Asia-Pacific, to the point that the two areas can be considered as single reality.
West: Challenges and Opportunities for Africa
On its western part, the Indian Ocean touches the shores of the vast African continent. This creates a peculiar mix of opportunities and challenges for coastal states like South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Tanzania and Kenya. Thanks to their position, they can easily reach important economic areas such as India, the Middle East, Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Engaging in maritime trade with these regions could provide a major economic boost to these African states and improve the living conditions of their citizens. In addition, emerging powers like China and India are heavily spending in Africa to access its much-needed natural resources and exploit the opportunities for high investment returns. Yet, in the case of China, this also raises concerns. While African states welcome Chinese investments as they come with no legal precondition on the respect of civil and human rights, some worry that its economic penetration might result in political leverage and in a form of economic neo-colonialism.
There are also two states whose situation is particular. The first is Ethiopia, the powerhouse of the Horn of Africa. As other states along the continent’s eastern coast, it can greatly benefit from international sea trade, but unfortunately it is a landlocked country. This largely explains the recent deal it reached with Eritrea to settle their longstanding conflict: turning Eritrea into a friend would enable Ethiopia to access the sea and engage in maritime trade along one of the busiest routes in the world. As a matter of fact, the Red Sea is an obliged passage for ships sailing between Europe and Asia. Ethiopia has even expressed its intention to build a navy, which is a clear sign of its seafaring ambitions.
The second peculiar case is Somalia. In theory, it is also poised to take advantage from its position on the Indian Ocean, but in practice it is a failed state ruled by armed groups where the central government has not enough power to pursue such kind of maritime policy.
This raises the issue of the threats to sea trade along the Western shores of the Indian Ocean. Somalia is part of the problem, as it has become a hub for piracy. The difficult economic conditions have pushed many Somalis to start attacking cargos navigating along the country’s coasts. This became a serious problem that prompted the international community to organize a military operation to patrol the Somali waters and combat piracy. These efforts succeeded in securing the area and in reducing the number of attacks, but as long as the socio-economic conditions of coastal population …