In India and Japan’s vision, Kenya is the key to the Indo-Pacific

From Sankalp Gurjar

New Delhi, October 6th: There are two primary geographical conceptions of the western periphery of the Indo-Pacific region. The area as it was imagined by Australia (and until recently America too) ends on the west coast of India. According to this visualization, this region is defined as the region that stretches from Bollywood (in Mumbai) to Hollywood (in Los Angeles on the west coast of America).

The second definition, advocated by India and Japan, includes the East African coast as an inalienable part of the Indo-Pacific construct. In fact, Japan launched its Indo-Pacific strategy known as “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” in Nairobi, Kenya in 2016. In 2018, when India outlined its vision for the region, the eastern and southern African coasts were included as part of the Indo-Pacific.

For India, Kenya, which is a coastal state and maritime neighbor on the East African coast, it is important to understand its approach to the Indo-Pacific. Three recent developments help us understand Kenya’s view of the Indo-Pacific: the remarks made by Kenya’s Chief Administrative Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Ababu Namwamba, at the Bled Strategic Forum; noted Kenya’s President during the UN Security Council debate on maritime safety and the joint declaration between India and Kenya.

At the Bled Strategic Forum 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: East, Central and West. He argued that Kenya is in the West Indo Pacific and has three main concerns: militarization, especially the Red Sea, piracy and cross-border crime, and finally, ocean pollution. Each of these concerns harbors both challenges and opportunities for the neighboring countries.

Kenya positions itself as the gateway between Africa and the Indo-Pacific. Kenya’s geographic location, political stability and economic dynamism enable Kenya to play the role of the gate. Namwamba noted that Kenya was interested in engaging with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as a platform that could be useful for prosperity.

With the Indo-Pacific being primarily a maritime region, maritime security has become a central focus for debates about the Indo-Pacific region. In August, at the behest of India, the UN Security Council discussed the issue of maritime security. It was the first time that such a holistic debate on maritime security took place. Kenya is a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and President Uhuru Kenyatta made comments during the debate.

As Kenya connects Africa and the Indian Ocean, Kenyatta stated that Kenya’s “wealth and security depend on building solid trade and security links between these two regions”. However, Kenya is concerned about the terrorist threat in its neighborhood with East Africa and the Horn of Africa. In addition, “Piracy and other crimes at sea, including attacks on ships and trafficking in people, firearms and narcotics, remain a problem” for Kenya.

He stated that “the competition for influence in the Red Sea region, especially by extra-regional powers, has intensified over the years”. Kenyatta said that “land-based situations” pose threats to maritime security. He also encouraged “more thinking and innovation in the development and implementation of fair trade regimes in areas such as the Indian Ocean.” Kenyatta stressed the need to “build strong Coast Guard capacities” and stressed “the threat of climate change to the existence of some small island states”.

For Kenya, the immediate maritime periphery and the extensive region from the Red Sea to the Mozambique Channel are important for its Indo-Pacific security calculations. The concerns he expressed, such as an extra-regional military presence and sea piracy, are particularly important in the context of this larger region. It is clear, therefore, that Kenyatta’s concerns about maritime safety and the views expressed by the Chief Administrative Secretary on the Indo-Pacific are more or less similar points. Also noteworthy is their emphasis on economic prosperity and trade.

The third relevant development was the joint declaration by India and Kenya following the visit of Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar in June. The statement referred to the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific. The joint statement states that India and Kenya are “maritime neighbors” and that both countries “have recognized the importance of working together to ensure greater security and prosperity in the Indian Ocean region”. In addition, they conducted “extensive exchanges on global and regional issues, including the security situation in the Indo-Pacific region and the Horn of Africa”.

The East African coastal region is gaining greater strategic importance as an independent theater and as a vital sub-region in the Indo-Pacific. Regional security and geopolitics are changing due to the strategic rivalries between the extra-regional actors. Therefore, a major coastal state like Kenya is expressing its concerns, articulating its priorities, and hoping to influence the debates on the region and put itself in a favorable position.

Kenya recognizes the need to develop a coast guard and security capacity to combat threats such as terrorism and sea piracy. It is also interested in reaping economic benefits by working with major Indo-Pacific powers through RCEP or otherwise. We have succeeded in building resilient relationships with China on the one hand and America, Great Britain and Japan on the other. The balance between great powers is a normal strategy for smaller but strategically important states. Kenya is no exception.

For India, Kenya is an important partner in East Africa and in the region of the western Indian Ocean. With Kenya showing greater interest, India could perhaps include 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 that appeared on the Indian Council of World Affairs website. Read the original article here. Views expressed are personal )

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