What both proposals have in common is India making a bold move in coordination with the UAE, direct in the case of Socotra and indirect in Somaliland’s, in pursuit of its objective national security interests in the broader region.
The Indian Navy has been busy over the past month responding to a spate of piracy attacks in the western edge of its eponymous ocean, which extends into the Gulf of Aden that some also refer to as the Gulf of Berbera. The Red Sea Crisis has also shone a spotlight on the strategic importance of these interconnected bodies of water for that South Asian civilization-state. It’s therefore time for India to explore the possibility of a naval base in Socotra or Somaliland in order to better defend its interests.
Regarding the first possibility, this Yemeni archipelago is currently under the control of the UAE, which is allied with the Southern Transitional Council that aspires to restore the erstwhile South Yemen’s independence and accordingly claims those islands as their own. The UN-recognized Yemeni authorities are uncomfortable with this state of affairs, but their writ barely extends further than the paper on which it’s written, so there’s not much that they could do to stop any Indian-Emirati deal in this respect.
India’s Firstpost, which is one of its most popular online media outlets, argued in an article here from late December that their country has a “geo-strategic opportunity to check China’s overambition in Red Sea”. The two professors who jointly published that piece perceive this archipelago to be integral to India’s plans to counter China’s growing influence in this part of the world. Their arguments are reasonable and will likely resonate with policymakers, hence why readers would do well to review them.
As for the second possibility, the Memorandum of Understanding that was signed between Ethiopia and Somaliland on the first of the year has sparked regional controversy after Somalia – which lays claim to Somaliland – sought Eritrea and Egypt’s support for countering this deal. If everything goes through as planned without any large-scale conventional conflict breaking out, then Ethiopia will obtain its own naval base in that country and commercial rights to the Emirati-operated Port of Berbera.
India could therefore follow suit to recognize Somaliland for the five reasons mentioned here, which importantly include long-delayed historical justice and shared democratic values that would both boost its soft power, in order to build its own base or explore whether it can obtain docking rights at Ethiopia’s instead. Ties with Somalia, which were never all that strong and aren’t expected to improve after it relied on Pakistan last year to launch its national ID system, would deteriorate but at no practical cost to India.
What both proposals have in common is India making a bold move in coordination with the UAE, direct in the case of Socotra and indirect in Somaliland’s, in pursuit of its objective national security interests in the broader region. Each involves going against the respective will of Yemen and Somalia’s UN-recognized governments, though both of their powers mostly only exist on paper. In any case, India might be reluctant to come under international criticism, hence why it might shy away from these plans.
Nevertheless, policymakers would do well to consider the long-term strategic benefits of either bold move, not to mention both. In particular, they’d greatly strengthen relations with the UAE, which just joined BRICS. Furthermore, each could also see the participation of their shared and equally close Russian partner, with new BRICS Ethiopia member being added to the mix via Somaliland. The economic, political, and strategic possibilities are therefore very promising, and hopefully India will reflect on them.