Red Sea Crisis and India’s Options
Anurag Bisen, Senior Fellow, VIF

Since mid-November 2023, the maritime security in the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and the larger Western Indian Ocean has been gravely upended due to the repeated attacks on merchant shipping by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels. Targeting ships belonging to ‘’Israel or its allies’’, the Houthis had initially announced that "naval operations" were being carried out "to support the Palestinian people in confronting the aggression and siege on Gaza"[1]. Subsequently, on 12 January 2024, in response to a joint US and British led airstrikes, the Houthis declared all American and British interests as legitimate targets[2].

The Bab al-Mandab Strait connecting the Red Sea with Gulf of Aden is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes for global oil and container shipments, accounting for 12 percent of total seaborne traded oil and 8 percent of LNG[3]. Around 12 percent of global trade transits the Strait annually, representing 30 percent of worldwide container traffic and over $one trillion worth of goods[4]. Depending on the ports of origin and destination, the route offers a shorter transit between Asia and Europe (by about 4500-6,500 kilometers and around 10-14 days) and a more economical alternative (approximately $ one million per voyage saving in fuel and insurance costs) to a voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.

The Strait being 18 miles wide at its narrowest point, is a major chokepoint, limited to just two channels, for inbound and outbound traffic. This makes it particularly vulnerable to attacks since the traffic converges while transiting the narrow passageway.

Effect on Shipping and Trade

As a direct consequence of the attacks on merchant ships, shipping companies suspended their operations or shifted their routes to the Cape of Good Hope[5].

The attacks have not been limited to ships belonging to Israel or its allies. Many other ships with no links to Israel have been attacked in the southern Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, the Gulf of Aden and even in the Arabian Sea[6]. Houthis have carried out more than 30 missile and drone attacks (up to 30 January)[7], which have had a telling effect on maritime commerce transiting the strait.

By some estimates, traffic moving through the Suez Canal fell more than 60 percent in the three-week period from December 18 to January 7, compared to the corresponding period last year, while the number of containers fell from 3.3 million to under 1.3 million[8]. The world's biggest container shipping companies, Mediterranean Shipping Company, CMA CGM, Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd, and Evergreen, announced suspension of their services through the Suez[9]. Even energy companies such as BP and Equinor, tanker owners Euronav and Frontline and Taiwan's Yang Ming Marine Transport announced diversion of their oil carrying ships for varying periods[10]. Greece, flag state to 20 percent of world's commercial vessels, advised owners sailing in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to avoid Yemeni waters[11].

The partial suspension of services and rerouting of shipping have led to a sharp increase in ocean freight rates and insurance costs. They are also having an impact on interconnected supply chains affecting the entire range of industries ranging from consumer goods, automotives and electronics from production delays and shortages.

Drewry’s World Container Index, which reflects the average price of transporting a 40-foot container, increased by 187 percent, from $1382 on 30 November 2023, to $3964 on 25 January 2024[12]. This is the highest since October 2022 and is 179% more than average 2019 (pre-pandemic) rates of $1420[13]. Reflecting the impact of the Houthi attacks, freight rates from Shanghai to Genoa have risen from $1397 to $6365, and from Shanghai to Rotterdam from $1171 to $4984, increasing by 355 percent and 326 percent respectively, within a period of eight weeks between 30 November 2023 and 25 January 2024[14].

Steps Taken to Counter Houthi Attacks

On 18 December 2023, the US established a multinational task force to deter and counter the Houthi attacks, designated Operation Prosperity Guardian, under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) Task Force (TF) 153[15]. CMF is a US-led 39 countries multinational alliance initially established in the 2001. TF 153 was established in April 2022, CMF’s fourth international naval task force, to enhance maritime security specifically in the Red Sea region[16]. Countries participating in the operation include Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles, Spain, the UK, and the US[17].

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2722 on 10 January 2024 demanding that Houthis immediately stop attacks on merchant, commercial vessels in Red Sea[18]. The resolution was adopted by a vote of 11 in favour, with four abstentions (Algeria, China, Mozambique, Russia)[19].

Welcoming the UNSC Resolution, the EU also issued a statement on 12 January 2024, highlighting the importance of upholding freedom of navigation in the Red Sea and demanding that the Houthi attacks cease immediately[20].

The US and the UK have carried out two joint strikes on Houthi sites in Yemen (up to 23 January 2024) while by itself, the US has carried out eight strikes[21].

The US and UK have also imposed sanctions on four Houthi leaders blocking their access to US property and bank accounts and preventing them from doing business with Americans[22].

The Houthis' military spokesman said (January 22) that the U.S.-British alliance had carried out 18 air strikes and that these attacks will not go unanswered or unpunished[23].

India’s Stand on Red Sea Crisis

Government of India has adopted a wait and watch approach. On January 15, during a visit to Iran, in the Joint Press Statement by India’s Foreign Minister, with Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, highlighted the perceptible increase in threats to the safety of maritime commercial traffic in this important part of the Indian Ocean. India’s concerns on some attacks in the vicinity of India and their direct bearing on India's energy and economic interests also found a mention. The statement mentioned that this fraught situation is not to the benefit of any party and this must be clearly recognised[24].

In response to a question during the Weekly Media Briefing by the MEA Official Spokesperson on January 18, he stated that the situation in Red Sea is a matter of concern and that India gives a lot of importance to freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce in that region. He said that we are closely monitoring the situation and looking at the unfolding situation with a constant watch[25].

The MEA spokesperson also stated that our own interests there are being impacted; but at the same time, we have Indian Navy which is patrolling the area, trying to secure the sea lanes and ensure that our economic interests are not impacted[26].

In another response, MEA spokesperson stated that we are not part of any multilateral arrangement as of now[27].

The Red Sea situation also formed the part of discussions between PM Modi and the French President Emmanuel Macron, during his state visit to India on January 25-26[28].

Impact on Indian Trade and Shipping

The rerouting of maritime commerce as result of Houthi attacks has also affected India’s seaborne trade. Indian exports to Europe, US east coast, and Latin America have been affected due to the crisis[29]. The hike in in container freight rates out of India also mirror the international rising trends. As on 30 January, On the outbound India-Europe trade, average short-term contract rates from JNPT to Rotterdam have risen to $3750 per 40-foot container, from $650, a 477 percent increase in one month between end January 2023 to end January 2024. For West India-Genoa bookings, mid-January contract rates have risen to $5000, from $700 per 40-foot container. Similarly, for inbound India-Europe trade, rates have risen to $3750 from $1050, for shipments from Rotterdam to West India[30]. Average rates in January for 40-foot container shipments from West India (Nhava Sheva/Mundra) to the US East Coast (New York) rose to $4650, from $1900 in December 2023. For Indian shipments to the US West Coast (Los Angeles), rates are now up to $4150 from $1900, reported for the same period of one month.

Federation of Indian Export Organisations (FIEO) said in a statement “Recent tensions in West Asia, especially the threat for consignments routing through the Red Sea, have further added to woes of the exporting community, as the freight rates have gone up unimaginably high” adding that “This increasing burden is pushing Indian exporters to hold back around 25% of outbound shipments transiting through the Red Sea[31]

A report by the Indian Global Trade Research Initiative (GTRI)[32] says that India’s exports are grappling with a substantial increase in shipping costs. The sectorial impact on India’s trade includes Agricultural Products with Basmati rice exporters face freight costs marking a 233% increase and farmers exporting perishable goods like grapes encountering significant challenges due to the delays and uncertainty[33]. Indian Pharmaceuticals industry has been affected due to delay in supply of life-saving drugs, endangering essential medical supplies. In the Textile Industry, clothing manufacturers have reported rerouting related delays of up to two months for shipments to Europe, leading to missed deadlines and penalty charges. Steel industry’s exports to Europe and the Middle East have been delayed by weeks raising concerns about potential order cancellations[34]. The shipments of India’s petroleum products to Europe have also been delayed due to rerouting. Indian automobile sector has been impacted by increased freight costs for imported raw materials like rubber, glass, and metals and delays in the delivery of crucial components such as semiconductors, tires, and engine parts. Mitigation efforts would require an increase storage capacity for both crude oil and refined products, resulting in additional logistics and infrastructure costs[35].

The GTRI report states that automakers might need to increase inventory levels of critical components, leading to higher holding costs and increased financial pressure. The report also warns that longer disruptions may lead to production delays for industries relying on just-in-time manufacturing processes, since they maintain low inventory levels, depending instead on the timely arrival of components and finished products[36].

According to FIEO, “The need of the hour is to provide much needed momentum to exports by bringing down freight charges and ensuring availability of marine insurance. FIEO also called for easy and low-cost credit for exporters to help them tide over the crisis. The executive director of the Container Shipping Lines Association (CSLA) said in a statement that “as far as India is concerned, its exports to the UK, Europe, the Mediterranean and the US East Coast now essentially move over the Cape of Good Hope,” adding that “If the crisis extends further, equipment/space shortages may occur.”[37]

Even though the Secretary, Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways made a statement on January 3, 2024 that the problems in the Red Sea will have "no impact" on India's maritime trade with the rest of the world[38], the optimism was not shared by his counterpart in the Commerce ministry, who met shippers and exporters a day later, to assess the impact of the attacks on the critical Red Sea trade route[39]. An unnamed senior Indian government official was quoted on January 5 that disruptions along the Red Sea trade route have begun pushing up shipping and insurance costs[40].

Reflecting India’s concerns on the ongoing crisis, the commerce ministry called a high-level inter-ministerial meeting on January 17, comprising representatives from five key ministries, External Affairs, Defence, Shipping, Finance and Commerce, to discuss the way forward on the trade[41]. The commerce ministry has also set up an internal strategic group, to discuss global issues impacting the country's trade on a daily basis and prepare a strategy for a quick and decisive Indian response[42].

A commerce ministry official was quoted as saying that "We are watching the situation very closely. There is some cost implication for our exports, but since there are inventories for almost a month only, if it escalates for long then it will be a major problem. We are worried," the official added[43]. The commerce ministry has also asked the Export Credit Guarantee Corporation of India (ECGC) not to increase the export credit interest rates for the time being.

Attacks on Indian Assets

On 23 December 2023, a Liberia-flagged, Japanese-owned, and Netherlands-operated chemical tanker MV Chem Pluto, with around 20 Indian crew members, destined for a Karnataka port, was hit by a drone in the Indian Ocean, 217 nautical miles off the Porbandar coast[44]. A day later, on 24 December 2023, a Gabon-flagged commercial oil tanker, MV Saibaba, with 25 Indian crew on board, came under a drone attack in the southern Red Sea[45]. Fortunately, in both cases no injuries were reported.

Action by Indian Navy

Indian Navy has responded swiftly and with alacrity to the fast-evolving situation in the Red Sea. In response to the incidents, Indian Navy has substantially enhanced maritime surveillance efforts in Central/ North Arabian Sea and augmented deployed force levels. Towards effective surveillance of India’s EEZ, Indian Navy is operating in close coordination with Coast Guard and the overall situation is being closely monitored in coordination with national maritime agencies[46].

Earlier, the Indian Navy had continuously deployed one warship in the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations since 2008 and has rotated about 106 ships by now[47]. These ships are deployed 24/7 for the support and escort of merchant ships. Presently with the escalated situation, Indian Navy has deployed more than 10 warships, two of them primarily for the anti-piracy operations and the rest of them for anti-drone support[48]. These deployments currently extend to the northern coast of Somalia, from Bab-al-Mandeb onward, eastward and then in the North Arabian Sea, central Arabian Sea and closer towards the east coast of Somalia[49]. Apart from the warships, the Indian Navy has also deployed the Long-Range Maritime Patrol (LRMP) P8i aircraft, the High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) MQ-9B Sea Guardian remotely piloted aircraft and closer to the coast, the Dornier aircraft[50]. All these assets have been deployed to maintain 24/7 surveillance of India’s area of interest and to have a complete maritime domain awareness[51].

Receiving the news of drone attack on MV Chem Pluto, the Indian Navy responded immediately, the ship was escorted to Mumbai, and then Navy’s EOD team embarked on the ship and cleared the ship of explosive content[52].

On 04 January, in a maritime incident in Arabian Sea involving a hijacking attempt onboard a Liberia Flagged bulk carrier MV Lila Norfolk, the Indian Navy responded quickly to a message by the vessel indicating boarding by approximately five to six unknown armed personnel[53]. A LRMP aircraft was launched and a warship was diverted to assist the vessel. The aircraft overflew the vessel on early morning of 05 January and established contact, ascertaining the safety of the crew[54]. Continuous aerial recce of was undertaken by MQ9B Sea Guardian, P8I and integral helicopters[55]. Subsequently, the Indian Navy Marine Commandos boarded the vessel and undertook thorough sanitisation of the entire ship[56]. The possibility of likely interception by the IN warship and forceful warnings by the Indian Naval aircraft probably compelled the pirates to escape at night. All 21 crew of the vessel were rendered safe by the India Navy[57].

On 17 January, following a drone attack, an Indian warship, mission deployed in Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy operations, swiftly responded to a distress call by Marshall Island flagged MV Genco Picardy[58]. The warship intercepted the vessel within 80 minutes of the call, to provide assistance[59]. Indian Naval explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) specialists boarded the vessel to inspect the damage and after a thorough inspection, rendered it safe for further transit[60]. The vessel with 22 crew (09 Indian) reported nil casualties and thereafter proceeded to the next port of call[61].

On 29 January, in a multilateral response with Seychelles Coast Guard (SCG) and Sri Lanka Navy, to the hijacking of a Sri Lankan fishing vessel, the Indian Navy successfully coordinated the interception and rescue of the hijacked Sri Lankan flagged fishing trawler Lorenzo Putha 04 about 955 nautical miles east of Mogadishu, Somalia. Earlier, three pirates had boarded and hijacked the fishing trawler on 27 January. The Indian Navy deployed a warship ex Kochi on 28 January and also tasked HALE Sea Guardian to locate and intercept the hijacked fishing vessel. Efficient operational coordination and information sharing through the Sri Lanka and Seychelles International Liaison Officers at IFC IOR, New Delhi, resulted in the interception of the hijacked fishing vessel by SCGS Topaz in Seychelles EEZ on 29 January[62]. The three pirates surrendered to the SCG, the six crew members were safe and the Sri Lankan fishing vessel was escorted to Mahe, Seychelles[63].

Geopolitics of the Red Sea Crisis

The US led strikes targeted to destroy, deplete and deter the Houthis do not seem to have achieved their aim so far[64]. There are also fears that the Houthi attacks on the merchant shipping could quickly escalate into a larger international conflict drawing other states and further crippling navigation in the Red Sea region[65].

Even though the US announced that Operation Prosperity Guardian comprised more than 20 nations, only 10 were publicly named. Later the US Secretary of Defense announced that Greece and Australia had also joined the operation but added that at least eight participating countries have declined to be publicly named[66]. The reluctance could be to prevent attacks on the participating countries’ flagged vessels transiting through the Red Sea.

Even among the named partners, some are contributing only personnel, with Norway deputing up to 10 officers and the Netherlands offering only two[67]. Several allies of the US such as South Korea, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey have kept away. Bahrain is the only country from the Middle East participating in the initiative.

There are also voices that suggest that the Houthi attacks could lead the US to punish an illusory adversary, as in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq and serve as a pretext to permanently deploy forces to the region to establish control over the Bab al-Mandab Strait and militarize the region[68]. Apart from expanding the US and British sphere of influence, this would also help to counter Chinese influence and its trade through the strait, while simultaneously limiting Russia's regional capabilities[69] .

Another assessment concludes that by attacking maritime commerce and posing a threat to the Western-led economic order—to which Saudi Arabia belongs—the Houthis can leverage the negotiations with the Saudis to be recognized as a legitimate authority in Yemen[70].

Even though the Houthis have launched attacks on ships with no apparent connection with Israel, Chinese and Russian flagged ships have not been targeted. A member of the Houthi political leadership, said that the shipping lanes around Yemen are safe to Chinese and Russian ships[71]. Cognizant of this fact, several cargo ships and tankers transiting through the Red Sea have been broadcasting that their crew is fully Chinese[72]. At least nine such ships declared that their crew is "CHINESE" or "ALL CHINESE" on their automatic identification system (AIS) [73]. At least two ships in the area also declared themselves to be affiliated with Russia. Both China and Russia had publicly criticized strikes on the Houthis[74].

While the widespread assessment is that the Houthi attacks will stoke inflationary pressures, cause shortages and negatively impact economies, there are also views that believe that the crisis is eminently manageable due to overcapacities in the shipping supply. Explaining that the huge jump in spot rates following the Houthi attacks was partly related to timing which happened to coincide with a period of high demand, Drewery estimates that even if the diversions last a year, the Red Sea effect on capacity “barely moves the needle,” and ‘’it not going to flip the overall overcapacity story”[75]. Drewery argument is that the diversions around the Cape affect around 30% of global container ship capacity, with those diversions increasing transit times by an average of 30% equating to a 9% reduction in global capacity, which is well under the present overcapacity in global shipping[76].

Options for India

The negative impact due to disruptions in shipping are yet to make its presence felt in the Indian stock market indices or trade figures. Despite the challenges, India’s merchandise export trade by value for December 2023 saw a modest increase of 0.96 % year-over-year[77]. However, the GoI needs to be seized of the crisis through a whole of government approach.

There is already pre-existing machinery in the GoI for this. A mechanism headed by the Cabinet Secretary, designated COSAPH (Committee of Secretaries on Anti-Piracy and Hijacking at Sea) was constituted by the GoI in 2015 to ensure a timely response to contingencies arising out of piracy involving Indian flagged vessels and Indian crew members[78]. To deal with the hostage situation arising out of the hijacking at sea of merchant vessels with Indian crew, an Inter-Ministerial Group of Officers (IMGO) was set up under the Ministry of Shipping and there is already a GoI approved the Contingency Plan for dealing with piracy and hijacking of merchant ships[79]. The COSAPH and the IMGO, with invited participation from trade and industry bodies, need to meet more frequently and the SOPs and Contingency Plans could be updated incorporating the present-day geo-politics of the world.

India has rightly decided not be a part of any multi-lateral initiative to keep the shipping lanes open and has instead augmented the presence of the Indian Navy. India ought to take the lead in bringing together like-minded navies to enhance maritime security in the Western Indian Ocean. The vision for India as a Net Security Provider has been articulated by Indian Prime Ministers since 2013. It is time that the vision is translated into reality.

The coordinated multilateral response to the hijacking of a Sri Lankan fishing vessel, with the Indian Navy in collaboration with Seychelles Defence Forces and Sri Lanka Navy is a good example of regional cooperation to enhance maritime security. The Colombo Security Conclave (CSC) is an apt platform for India to take the lead, towards a regional maritime security mechanism. CSC was instituted in 2011 as NSA Led India-Sri Lanka-Maldives Trilateral Maritime Security Dialogue and was rechristened in November 2020[80]. Initially commenced with three countries, Mauritius became 4th member of the Conclave in 2022 during the 5th iteration of the dialogue and Bangladesh and Seychelles have been added as Observers in the Conclave[81]. Maritime Safety and Security is one of the five pillars of CSC Security cooperation charter[82]. While Maldives may not be a willing partner in the coalition at the moment, the collective resources of the other partner countries could be marshalled together in enhancing maritime security in the region.

India has civilizational relations with Iran spanning centuries[83]. Iran could be impressed upon by India to use its influence with the Houthis to ensure that the Indian Flagged vessels are not targeted. This, however, is easier said that done. India ranks third in the list of the large seafarers supplying nation to the world maritime industry[84]. Thus, even if the vessel is not Indian flagged or Indian owned, it could still be largely Indian crewed, as witnessed in MV Chem Pluto and MV Saibaba. Despite the challenges, India has put forward its concerns to Iran as reflected in the Joint Statement of EAM’s recent visit to that country.

The GoI may provide relief to Indian exporters hit due to the disruption in shipping. These could include holding export credit interest rates and providing export credit on easy terms. India also needs to find alternate trade routes and also diversify its imports to reduce dependence on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. The GTRI report recommending the developing of the deep-water port in Chabahar[85] is worthy of a critical evaluation.


It is still early days to predict the outcome of the Houthi attacks on the shipping in the Red Sea. Whether it will remain localized or develop into a larger conflict involving several other countries, is dependent on several factors. The economic impact of the disruptions is yet to be felt by the Indian markets and the industry, but if the uncertain situation prolongs and spirals into a wider war, the negative impacts for India could be could be substantial and far reaching. India’s present cautionary approach of wait and watch is adequate but would need to be more proactive and imaginative in a spiraling conflict. Finally, it is time for the Indian leadership to seriously consider a pre-eminent role for India in stewarding the maritime security in the Indian Ocean and take steps towards making it a reality.


[14] Ibid
[17] CMF also has task forces dedicated to maritime security in the Gulf of Oman and Indian Ocean (CTF 150), counter-piracy efforts (CTF 151), and maritime security in the Persian Gulf (CTF 152). CTF 154, launched in May 2023, leads multinational maritime training at locations across the Middle East.
[34] Ibid
[35] Ibid
[36] ibid
[37] Ibid
[55] ibid
[56] ibid
[57] ibid
[58] Ibid
[60] ibid
[61] Ibid
[62] ibid
[63] ibid
[70] ibid
[74] ibid
[75] Ibid
[81] Annual Report 2015-16 Ministry of External Affairs, New Delhi
[82] Indian Coast Guard Region (North East) organises 4th Table top exercise in Kolkata under Colombo Security Conclave to discuss maritime challenges in Indian Ocean Region, PIB, New Delhi, 15 March 2023
[83] 7th Deputy NSA Meeting of the Colombo Security Conclave, July 12, 2023

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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