By Sankalp Gurjar
New Delhi, October 6: There are two main geographical imaginaries of the western periphery of the Indo-Pacific region. The area as imagined by Australia (and until recently, America) ends at the west coast of India. According to this visualization, this region is defined as that which stretches from Bollywood (located in Mumbai) to Hollywood (located in Los Angeles on the west coast of America).
The second definition defended by India and Japan includes the East African coast as an inalienable part of the Indo-Pacific construction. Indeed, in 2016, Japan launched its Indo-Pacific strategy, known as “Free and open Indo-Pacific”, in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2018, when India presented its vision for the region, the coastline of East and Southern Africa was included in the Indo-Pacific.
For India, Kenya being a coastal state and a maritime neighbor located on the East African coast, it is important to understand its approach to the Indo-Pacific. Three recent developments help us understand Kenya’s perspective on the Indo-Pacific: remarks by Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ababu Namwamba, at the Bled Strategic Forum; remarks the President of Kenya during the UN Security Council debate on maritime security and the India-Kenya joint declaration.
At the Bled Strategic Forum, held in September 2021, Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary for Foreign Affairs Ababu Namwamba explained his country’s approach to the Indo-Pacific region. He divided the region into three sub-regions: eastern, central and western. He argued that Kenya is located in the western Indo-Pacific and has three main concerns: militarization, especially of the Red Sea, piracy and transnational crimes, and finally, ocean pollution. Each of these concerns presents challenges as well as opportunities for riparian states.
Kenya is positioned as a gateway between Africa and the Indo-Pacific. Kenya’s geographic location, political stability and economic dynamism allow it to act as a gateway. Namwamba observed that Kenya is interested in engaging with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a platform that would be helpful in bringing prosperity.
As the Indo-Pacific is above all a maritime region, maritime security has become a central point in the debates on the Indo-Pacific region. In August, at India’s request, the UN Security Council discussed the issue of maritime security. It was the first time that such a comprehensive debate had taken place on maritime safety. Kenya is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and President Uhuru Kenyatta delivered remarks during the debate.
Kenya links Africa and the Indian Ocean, and therefore, Kenyatta noted that “Kenya’s wealth and security depend on building strong trade and security links between these two regions”. However, Kenya is concerned about the threat posed by terrorism in its neighborhood in East Africa and the Horn of Africa. In addition, for Kenya, “piracy and other crimes at sea, including attacks on ships and the illicit trafficking of people, firearms and drugs, remain a concern”.
He observed that “the competition for influence in the Red Sea region, especially by extra-regional powers, has intensified over the years.” Kenyatta said threats to maritime security stem from “land situations”. In addition, he “encouraged more thinking and innovation in the development and launch of fair trade regimes in areas such as the Indian Ocean shoreline.” Kenyatta underscored the need “to build strong coastguard capacity” and underscored “the threat of climate change to the existence of some small island states”.
For Kenya, the immediate maritime periphery and the extended region from the Red Sea to the Mozambique Channel count in its Indo-Pacific security calculations. The concerns he expressed, such as the extraregional military presence and maritime piracy, are primarily important in the context of this larger region. Therefore, it is clear that Kenyatta’s concerns about maritime safety and the views expressed by the Chief Administrative Secretary on the Indo-Pacific cover more or less similar points. The emphasis on economic prosperity and trade is also remarkable.
The third relevant development was the joint India-Kenya statement issued after the visit of Foreign Minister S Jaishankar in June. The statement referred to the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. The joint statement noted that India and Kenya are “maritime neighbors” and that the two countries “have recognized the importance of ensuring through joint efforts greater security, safety and prosperity in the region. Indian Ocean”. In addition, they also “held in-depth exchanges on global and regional issues, including the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region and the Horn of Africa”.
The East African coastline is gaining strategic importance as a theater in its own right and as a vital sub-region of the Indo-Pacific. Regional security and geopolitics are changing due to strategic rivalries between extra-regional actors. Therefore, an important coastal state like Kenya expresses its concerns, articulates its priorities and in doing so hopes to influence the debates on the region and place itself in a vantage point.
Kenya understands the need to strengthen coastguards and security capacities to deal with threats such as terrorism and maritime piracy. He is also interested in reaping economic benefits by engaging with major Indo-Pacific powers through RCEP or otherwise. He has managed to forge strong ties with China on the one hand and America, Britain and Japan on the other. Balancing the great powers is a normal strategy for smaller but strategically important states. Kenya is no exception to this rule.
For India, Kenya is a key partner in East Africa and the Western Indian Ocean region. With Kenya showing more interest, India could perhaps engage Kenya in an Indo-Pacific framework.
(Sankalp Gurjar is a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. This is a revised version of the author’s original article which appeared on the Indian Council of World Affairs website. Read the original article here. The opinions expressed are personal)