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India-Brazil-South Africa ‘Tango’ at Sea

Cdr Gurpreet S. Khurana was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • May 16, 2008

    The first half of May 2008 (2-16) witnessed an epochal multilateral event that passed off virtually unnoticed in the countries involved. It saw the first ever combined maritime exercise among the navies of India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSAMAR). The lack of attention to it was hardly surprising given that the venue was the wide blue yonder, and the fact that the peoples of these countries are only beginning to realise the import of events that occur beyond terra firma.

    IBSAMAR is a manifestation of the transformed global geopolitical and security landscape since the end of the Cold War. It is not well known that in the 1960s and 1970s, South Africa sought to forge strong naval ties with Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Britain and New Zealand under the pretext that India was “a major maritime threat.” (Of course, Pretoria’s aim was to avoid strategic isolation flowing out of Apartheid, rather than to meet the stated “threat”). This contrasts sharply with what South Africa’s Deputy Minister of Defence said in 2005, “India and Brazil, with navies in excess of 50,000 strong … in comparison to the South African Navy with lower numbers, can play a major co-ordinated role in the future…. Southern Africa has large stretches of coastline with a limited naval capability to monitor and protect it. This offers an opportunity for our three navies to work jointly in these areas.”

    India and Brazil evidently acquiesced to the Minister’s proposal since the first IBSAMAR was conducted off South Africa’s south-western coast, adjoining the Cape of Good Hope. For the exercise, Indian and Brazilian naval units were required not only to transit a substantial distance to the exercise area (over 4,000 and 3,000 nautical miles respectively), but also to endure the exercise-duration. This is a seminal development on two counts. Firstly, it signals the increasing reach and sustainability of navies of “developing countries”. Secondly, it is indicative of an increasing realisation among policy-makers in these countries of the imperative of safeguarding their geographically expanding interests and meeting their international obligations as potential major powers.

    The focus of IBSAMAR-08 was on missions linked to human security like safety of shipping, search and rescue, and casualty evacuation. Such an agenda could not have been more appropriate considering that the chosen exercise venue was named "Cape of Storms" by Bartolomeu Dias – the first European explorer to reach here in 1488. It was later renamed as the "Cape of Good Hope" because of the optimism engendered by the opening of a sea route to India, though the vagaries of nature continue to imperil seafarers here. While the Suez Canal provides a shorter and safer route today, the number of ships circumnavigating Africa is on the rise since their tonnage is increasing beyond what is permissible for passage through the Suez. Besides, advances in marine engineering technology have enabled vessels to cruise at much higher economical speeds, thereby reducing the motivation to use the Suez Canal. Some 30 per cent of the Persian Gulf oil bound for Europe and the Americas continues to be routed around the Cape. While 30 to 50 oil tankers used to sail around the Cape every month a decade ago, the number currently ranges between 90 and 100.

    The larger objective of IBSAMAR was to derive training value and achieve ‘operational-compatibility’ among the three navies. Such exercises would therefore also serve other convergent maritime security objectives, facilitating combined operations against low-intensity threats and even traditional military missions under the UN mandate.

    For India, IBSAMAR was an effective instrument to showcase its foreign policy. It served to dispel the apprehensions of India’s growing strategic relationship with the United States and its allies, which arose in some quarters following the high-level Malabar and TRILATEX naval exercises of 2007. IBSAMAR followed in wake of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) launched in February 2008, which was also devoid of US participation. As an Indian initiative, IONS has itself contributed to India’s image as a stabilising factor. Together with IONS, IBSAMAR reinforces the point that India’s geopolitical engagement is ‘multi-vectored’ and not directed against any country, including China. Furthermore, IBSAMAR would supplement IONS in its envisaged aim of maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

    It is noteworthy that the in-principle decision to conduct IBSAMAR on a regular basis was taken soon after the launch of IBSA in 2003. This not only reinforces the geopolitical import of IBSAMAR, but also indicates that geopolitics may even have been a driver for these combined naval exercises. IBSAMAR would serve to further political ties among the three emerging powers by reinforcing convergence in their common world view, ranging from global order and reorganisation of the UN Security Council to issues of economics and climate change. The global geopolitical scenario has begun to shift incrementally from the post-Cold War unipolar order to a multipolar one. Although it is too early to speculate the future contours of the transformed world, IBSAMAR may well turn out to be a watershed event en route.