TOKYO : The outbreak of warfare between Israel and Hamas is bringing reminders to Asian economies about their continued reliance on energy imports from the Middle East.
In 2018, 76% of crude oil traveling through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman was bound for Asia. Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, both South Korea and Japan have significantly increased their dependence on Middle Eastern oil amid Western calls to shun Russian supplies.
India, by contrast, has been buying more Russian oil, but those supplies have also been transiting through the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Suez Canal remains the most important gateway for Asia’s exports to Europe.
These realities are turning Asian powers into stakeholders in Middle East security and geopolitics, in turn raising questions around how they can use maritime security mechanisms to protect energy interests in the region.
Japan launched a military information-gathering mission in the region after a series of attacks on commercial vessels.
Since 2019, Operation Sankalp has brought Indian navy vessels into the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman to provide cover to Indian-flagged vessels, especially oil tankers. India’s navy chief and national security adviser have both paid visits in recent months to the Omani port of Duqm; the navy has been granted access to the port for purposes including maintenance and repair and has recently set up a maritime support base there.
Japan Self-Defense Forces, meanwhile, continue to operate in the area from a base in Djibouti. It was set up originally in 2010 as the military’s first overseas outpost in order to aid global anti-piracy efforts off Somalia. In 2020, Japan launched a military information-gathering mission in the region after a series of attacks on commercial vessels.
Recent experiences have highlighted developing geoeconomic risks in the area for South Korea. In 2019, two South Korean vessels operating in the Red Sea were seized by Houthi militia from Yemen. They were released after Seoul dispatched a destroyer that it had deployed nearby to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy patrols.
Two years later, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Persian Gulf over what Tehran said were environmental concerns. However, the move was largely seen as a tactic to push for the release of billions of dollars’ worth of oil payments frozen in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions.
South Korea responded again by dispatching a destroyer to the area — and by releasing $1 billion to Iran. Eight years earlier, an Indian-flagged tanker had been similarly seized by Iran over purported environmental concerns at a time when billions of dollars in payments were held up.
From a geopolitical viewpoint, there is no better moment for countries such as India, Japan and South Korea to collaborate closely on maritime security in the Middle East.
In the past, they might have worked together with China as well. Indeed, in 2012, South Korea joined a preexisting grouping with China, India and Japan to coordinate anti-piracy operations around the Gulf of Aden.
Since then, much has changed in the realm of Asian geopolitics. India, Japan and South Korea today have a heightened sense of distrust regarding China’s growing military and political designs in Asia and beyond.
In March, the three countries joined the U.S. and Canada for anti-submarine warfare exercises off Guam. In 2022, New Delhi joined the Combined Maritime Forces, a Bahrain-based naval partnership of dozens of nations led by the U.S. Japan and South Korea were already members, as are Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.
Much of the energy security narrative today is centered on the transition from oil and other hydrocarbons to green and sustainable forms of energy.
In regard to trilateral cooperation with Japan and South Korea, it may make sense for India to take the lead in developing a blueprint for collaboration. The first step could be joint patrols in the Persian Gulf to protect energy security. The notion would be that naval vessels from each nation involved would act to protect shipping from the other two partners.
India could also bring Seoul and Tokyo into dialogue with existing regional partners such as Oman. This could potentially allow them concurrent use of Duqm as a base for tactical trinational cooperation.
Much of the energy security narrative today is centered on the transition from oil and other hydrocarbons to green and sustainable forms of energy. However, the period for this transition will be long and precarious.
In the meantime, secure supplies of oil and gas will be crucial for Asian economies like India, Japan and South Korea. Increasingly, they will see a need to take matters into their own hands to secure their critical economic arteries through the Middle East.