Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) in Slovenia has emerged as one of the premier forums for discussing strategic affairs in Central Europe. It has been organising annual international conferences since 2006. In the 2021 edition of the Forum, under the broader theme of the “Future of Europe”, a panel discussion was organised on “Partnership for a Rule-based Order in the Indo-Pacific”.
In the discussion, moderated by Dr Samir Saran, the President of the Observer Research Foundation, India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar, Slovenia’s Foreign Minister Dr. Anže Logar, Portugal’s Minister of State and of Foreign Affairs Dr. Augusto Santos Silva, and Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary for Foreign Affairs Ababu Namwamba participated.[i] In his remarks, Namwamba outlined his country’s approach towards the Indo-Pacific. As the geographic scope of the Indo-Pacific region covers the Eastern African seaboard, the vision and approach of littoral states like Kenya towards the evolving geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific need to be understood.
Ababu Namwamba began his remarks by arguing that “Kenya is the Indo-Pacific gateway to Africa”.[ii] The “gateway” States such as Kenya connect Africa with other parts of the world and facilitate the flow of capital, technology, goods, services, people, and ideas. Kenya’s strategically important location, political stability, and economic dynamism make it an ideal candidate to be the “gateway”. Geographically, Kenya links the African mainland with the Indian Ocean. Therefore, it is well-positioned as a gateway to, as well as, for, Africa in the context of Indo-Pacific. It is in the process of modernising its transport infrastructure such as the railways and ports, which will further boost its role as a “gateway”. China has built a modern, standard gauge railway line in Kenya which has transformed the connectivity between the capital Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa. China is also building a modern port at Lamu in Kenya. At the same time, Kenya is a close security partner of the United States (US) and Britain. So far, it has managed to deftly balance its great power relationships.
Namwamba divided the Indo-Pacific region into three sub-regions: Eastern, Central, and Western. Kenya is located in the Western Indo-Pacific and building on it, he identified three key concerns: Militarisation, especially of the Red Sea (which is part of Kenya’s immediate neighbourhood), Piracy and Transnational Crimes, and finally, Oceanic Pollution. He was clear that these three issues pose threat as well as present opportunities for cooperation.[iii] Each of these three concerns is significant enough to be discussed in some detail.
Militarisation of the Red Sea and the Western Indian Ocean
Western Indian Ocean (WIO), the region lying between the Suez Canal in the North, South Africa in the South, and Mauritius to the West, is emerging as a key theatre in the geopolitical rivalries of the Indo-Pacific. Major global and regional powers are opening their bases and are deploying their military assets to the region to project their influence. Djibouti hosts military bases of France, the US, Japan, and China.[iv] French base at Djibouti facilitates EU’s presence in the WIO. Chinese base at Djibouti is its first overseas military base. It has positioned China as a key player in the WIO. Moreover, France also maintains territories in the South-West Indian Ocean (like Reunion and Mayotte), which allows it to project considerable military power and influence in the WIO. Russia has signed an agreement with Sudan to establish a naval base at Port Sudan in the Red Sea. Britain is also deepening its defence relationships in the region with states like Kenya and Oman. Indian Navy is a regular visitor to the region.[v] West Asian powers like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Turkey have established their presence in the region. War in Yemen has pushed the UAE to engage Red Sea littoral states such as Eritrea to acquire bases.[vi]
Therefore, regular military presence of these major global, as well as of regional players in the WIO is naturally reshaping regional geopolitics and security. Kenya, being one of the key states in the region, is facing the pull and push pressures of the strategic rivalries between global as well as regional players. In response, African states in the region are devising ways to benefit from the growing interest of these players. Rents paid by extra regional powers for their bases form an important component of Djibouti’s national income.[vii] Eritrea and Sudan sought to end their isolation by granting base facilities.[viii]
However, given the asymmetries in the capabilities and the divergence of interests, littoral states in the region are adjusting to the new reality of an increased major power presence in the region. Littoral states are attempting to maximise their agency and are even forcing major powers to re-negotiate earlier deals. For example, Tanzania is renegotiating the deal for developing the port of Bagamoyo with China.[ix] Yet, the growing military presence in the WIO in general and in the Red Sea in particular is a new reality for the region. Therefore, it was not surprising that Kenya voiced its concerns about it.
Piracy and Transnational Crime
The WIO, especially the maritime route passing through the strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and Suez Canal is a key artery for global trade and energy security. An analyst has described the Bab-el-Mandeb as “strait at the center of the world”.[x] It connects Asia with Europe and North America. In 2018, it was estimated that about 6.2 million barrels of oil per day flowed through the Bab-el-Mandeb towards Asia, Europe, and the US.[xi] Moreover, annually, about 25,000 ships and goods worth $700 billion passes through the strait.[xii] Hence, the WIO region has assumed importance for economic and energy security. However, the region is home to unstable, conflict-ridden states as well. Therefore, security threats such as piracy and transnational crime are prevalent in the region.
Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden had peaked during 2008-2012. The pirates would operate out of unstable Somalia and the government was unable to contain the piracy. Maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden had caused significant economic losses and therefore, countries around the world sent their navies to the region to contain piracy.[xiii] Kenya, being the southern neighbour of Somalia, was naturally concerned about piracy. The volume of trade and the continued importance of the maritime routes in the WIO make piracy an attractive business. If the threat of piracy resurfaces in the future, Kenya would be directly affected. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, terrorism was also a looming threat in the region. Al-Qaeda was active in Yemen and in East African states such as Kenya and Tanzania. Therefore, in the Global War on Terror, East and Horn of Africa saw an increased US military presence.[xiv]
Along with this, the East African region is also emerging as a key node in the global supply chain of narcotics. The opium smuggled from South-West Asia for the European markets passes through East Africa.[xv] Makran coast of Iran and, more importantly of, Pakistan is used for the smuggling of drugs. For example, the latest drug shipment seized off the coast of Gujarat originated in that region. As of now, Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban is cut off from the international financial networks and therefore, the Taliban is likely to depend on easy and illicit sources of revenue like heroin production. Even before the Taliban assumed power in Kabul, the East African states were struggling to deal with the heroin supply and consumption. In fact, the East African coastline was known as the Heroin Coast.[xvi] With an unstable Somalia next door, and active support of Pakistan to the Taliban regime, the combination of interconnected challenges such as increased volume of the drug trade, maritime piracy, and terrorism is likely to amplify the threat matrix in the WIO. Kenya voicing concerns about piracy and transnational crime has to be seen in this context.
Oceanic pollution is caused by human activities and is emerging as a major threat to marine life and biodiversity. Every year, billions of pounds of trash and other pollutants enter the ocean.[xvii] The leakages of fuel from the ships, litter, dumping of toxic wastes, fishing gear and debris, etc. are some of the major causes of oceanic pollution. In the world oceans, there are five garbage patches, of which one is in the Central Indian Ocean. Garbage patches are actually so large that they are like islands of trash.[xviii] In the garbage patches, the debris is “spread across the surface of the water and from the surface all the way to the ocean floor”.[xix]
Just north of Kenya, Somali waters had emerged as a dumping ground for toxic waste.[xx] Apparently, in the 1990s, 35 million tonne of waste was exported to Somalia for $6.6 billion.[xxi] It was also reported that Somalia’s warlords and some global corporations have struck deals for the dumping of waste. Later, in 2005, UN Development Program had surveyed Somalia and concluded that “dumping of toxic and harmful waste is rampant in the sea, on the shores, and in the hinterland”.[xxii] The problem of oceanic pollution had been compounded by the internal problems of Somalia and lack of capacity to patrol its own land and waters. With the growing trade volumes between Africa and the world, the economic rise of the East African states and increasing awareness about the problem of climate change, the concern of oceanic pollution is attaining growing importance. The effects of oceanic pollution are not limited to any particular country, they are global. Therefore, Kenyan concerns about oceanic pollution need to be taken seriously in the discussions on Indo-Pacific.
Focus on Shared Prosperity
During the discussion, Namwamba was asked about the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the allegations of China’s practicing of debt-trap diplomacy. Chief Administrative Secretary termed the Quad as an “important development”.[xxiii] On both, the Quad and BRI, he argued that Africa is ready for “win-win solutions”.[xxiv] However, he was clear that Africa should not be forced to choose between China on the one hand and India and the EU (and the US) on the other hand. Instead, Africa would like to build a “mutually beneficial relationship” with its partners.[xxv] Africa is looking to the Indo-Pacific region for “more trade, more investments, and shared prosperity”.[xxvi] He observed that “there is sufficient space and opportunity for shared prosperity”.[xxvii]
Speaking about the specific steps taken by Kenya, he referred to the establishment of Africa Maritime Technology Cooperation Centre at Mombasa. It is an important platform for working on maritime security. Kenya has also established coast guards to secure its coastline and prevent the instances of piracy and transnational crimes.[xxviii] He added that Kenya is working with the EU and India in these domains. Overall, the thrust of his remarks remained centred on the concept of cooperation and working together in the Indo-Pacific to achieve solutions that will benefit everyone.
The remarks by Ababu Namwamba provide us a view of the strategically important littoral state in the WIO region. As the strategic rivalries between major powers are intensifying in the Indo-Pacific, the littoral states are facing the pressures of those rivalries. In this context, Kenya has made it clear that it would not like to choose between the major powers. Rather, it would engage with everyone and try to maximise the gains through the engagement. It is also framing the issue in the context of shared prosperity and attracting more trade and investments. The Indo-Pacific region is economically dynamic and littoral states across the region would like to benefit from the increased focus from the major powers. Kenya has been a practitioner of exactly this policy and Chief Administrative Secretary’s remarks made it clear that it would continue to do so.
*Dr. Sankalp Gurjar is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[iv] De Faakto Intelligence Research Observatory, “Open Source Backgrounder: Djibouti, Foreign Military Bases on the Horn of Africa - Who is There? What are They Up To?”, Small wars Journal, February 3, 2019. Available at: https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/open-source-backgrounder-djibouti-foreign-military-bases-horn-africa-who-there-what-are (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[v] Neil Melvin, “The Foreign Military Presence in the Horn of Africa Region”, SIPRI Background Paper, April 2019, available at: https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/sipribp1904_2.pdf (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[vii] Abdi Latif Dahir, “How a tiny African country became world’s key military base”, Quartz Africa, August 18, 2017, available at: https://qz.com/africa/1056257/how-a-tiny-african-country-became-the-worlds-key-military-base/ (Accessed on September 27, 2021)
[viii] Zach Vertin, “Red Sea Rivalries: The Gulf, the Horn and the New Geopolitics of the Red Sea”, Brookings Institution, June 2019, available at: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Red-Sea-Rivalries.-The-Gulf-The-Horn-and-the-New-Geopolitics-of-the-Red-Sea-English-pdf.pdf (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[ix] Tejas Joshi, “Only A Drunkard Would Accept These Terms”, Tanzania President Rejects China’s $10 bln Loan”, HW News, April 25, 2020 . Available at: https://hwnews.in/international/drunkard-accept-terms-tanzania-president-rejects-chinas-10-bln-loan/134707 (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[x]Bruno Maçães, “The strait at the center of the world”, Politico, January 29, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/blogs/the-coming-wars/2018/01/the-strait-at-the-center-of-the-world/(Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[xi]US EIA, “The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a strategic route for oil and natural gas shipments”, August 27, 2019. Available at: https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=41073# (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[xii]Bruno Maçães, “The strait at the center of the world”, Politico, January 29, 2018. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/blogs/the-coming-wars/2018/01/the-strait-at-the-center-of-the-world/(Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[xiii] James Stavridis, Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans, Penguin, New York, 2017, pp. 116-118.
[xiv] Lauren Ploch, “Countering Terrorism in East Africa: The U.S. Response”, Congressional Research Service, November 3, 2010. Available at: https://sgp.fas.org/crs/terror/R41473.pdf (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[xv]Simone Haysom, Peter Gastrow and Mark Shaw, “The heroin coast: A political economy along the eastern African seaboard”, ENACT Research Paper, June, 2018. Available at: https://globalinitiative.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/2018-06-27-research-paper-heroin-coast-pdf.pdf (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[xvii] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “Ocean Pollution”, April 1, 2020. Available at: https://www.noaa.gov/education/resource-collections/ocean-coasts/ocean-pollution (Accessed on September 27, 2021).
[xx] Chris Milton, “Somalia used as toxic dumping ground”, The Ecologist, March 1, 2009. Available at: https://theecologist.org/2009/mar/01/somalia-used-toxic-dumping-ground (Accessed on September 27, 2021).