Red Sea Crisis: Causes, Effects, India’s Response

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As of February 2024, the Red Sea remains a focal point of global attention due to its critical importance in international trade and regional geopolitics. The area is witnessing escalating tensions, including military conflicts, environmental risks, and geopolitical rivalries, which threaten the security of vital maritime routes. These developments underscore the need for enhanced cooperation and strategic measures to ensure the stability and security of this crucial maritime corridor.

Red Sea Crisis mind map

This topic of “Red Sea Crisis: Causes, Effects, India’s Response” is important from the perspective of the UPSC IAS Examination, which falls under General Studies Portion.

The Strategic Importance of the Red Sea

  • The Red Sea is a vital economic artery for global trade, with more than 10 percent of the world’s trade passing through its waters annually.
  • It serves as a critical link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, significantly impacting the economies of the surrounding regions and beyond.
  • The Red Sea’s importance is further magnified by its role in the energy sector, as it is a key route for oil and natural gas shipments from the Middle East to Europe and other parts of the world.

The Suez Canal

  • The Suez Canal, located in Egypt, is one of the most significant maritime passages globally, facilitating the direct movement of ships between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
  • This canal is responsible for the transit of a substantial portion of global trade, including critical energy supplies such as oil and liquefied natural gas.
  • In 2019, the Suez Canal saw the passage of nearly 19,000 vessels, highlighting its heavy use and strategic importance to international shipping.

The Bab el-Mandeb Strait

  • The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is a narrow passage that connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, serving as another crucial chokepoint for maritime navigation.
  • It is particularly significant for the transportation of petroleum and natural gas, with millions of barrels of crude oil passing through daily.
  • The strait’s strategic position has made it a focus of geopolitical interest and, at times, a hotspot for piracy and regional conflicts, which can pose risks to the uninterrupted flow of maritime traffic.

Geopolitical Tensions and Conflicts

Overview of the Regional Power Struggles and Proxy Activities Contributing to Instability in the Red Sea Area

  • The Red Sea region is experiencing increasing geopolitical tensions, significantly influenced by the strategic competition among regional and global powers.
  • The conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has escalated, threatening regional stability.
  • Turkey and Iran are expanding their influence in the region, with Turkey denying plans for naval and military facilities but aligning with its broader policy of strengthening ties with African states. Iran seeks a permanent naval presence in the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden to counter Arab Gulf states, albeit without notable success so far.
  • The ongoing war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, along with conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan, adds layers of complexity and potential for broader regional instability.
  • The creation of the Council of Arab and African Littoral States of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden by Riyadh aims to enhance security and stability in the Red Sea, excluding Qatar, which indicates the deep-seated rivalries affecting the region.

The Role of External Powers in Shaping the Security Dynamics of the Region

  • The United States, European Union, and China play significant roles in the Red Sea’s security dynamics, each pursuing their strategic interests.
  • The EU and the US have emphasized the importance of maritime security and navigational rights in the Red Sea, coordinating efforts to protect these vital trade routes.
  • China’s presence in Djibouti, marked by its military base, alongside the US and other countries’ naval forces, highlights the global significance of the Red Sea as a strategic maritime corridor.
  • The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran exacerbates regional tensions, with Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen leading to attacks on commercial shipping and military vessels in the Red Sea.
  • The United States has expressed a vital interest in safeguarding the free flow of oil and other shipping through the Red Sea, reflecting the global economic stakes involved in maintaining stability in this region.

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Environmental Threats and Challenges

Examination of the Environmental Risks Facing the Red Sea

  • The Red Sea is facing significant environmental risks, including the threat of a catastrophic oil spill from the decaying FSO Safer tanker.
  • The FSO Safer tanker, stranded off Yemen’s coast, contains 1.1 million barrels of oil and has not undergone maintenance since 2015 due to the civil war.
  • A potential spill from the Safer is estimated to result in $20 billion in cleanup costs and have severe environmental impacts on water, reefs, and local fish stocks, taking up to 25 years for recovery.
  • A UN-led operation concluded on August 11, 2023, with over one million barrels of crude oil safely removed from the tanker, thus averting an immediate massive spill threat in the Red Sea.
    • This effort involved extensive fundraising and coordination with marine salvage experts, emphasizing the international community’s commitment to preventing environmental disasters.

Impact of Climate Change on the Red Sea’s Unique Coral Ecosystems

  • The Red Sea’s coral reefs are among the longest continuous living reefs in the world, extending along 4,000 km of shoreline and hosting a broad latitudinal temperature gradient.
  • Coral reefs in the Red Sea are experiencing temperatures above their thermal tolerance, with significant bleaching events already occurring.
  • An estimated 25 percent of all marine species depend on coral reefs at some point in their life cycle, making the potential loss of these ecosystems a threat to marine biodiversity and human socio-economic well-being.
  • The Red Sea’s coral reefs are showing resilience to rising sea temperatures, but localized anthropogenic stressors like pollution and overfishing compound the effects of warming seawater.
  • The Transnational Red Sea Center has been established to foster regional scientific collaboration and conservation efforts for the Red Sea’s coral reefs.

Broader Implications for Biodiversity and Local Economies

  • The Red Sea’s biodiversity, including endemic fish species and corals, is at risk due to environmental pressures such as pollution, overfishing, and climate change.
  • The region’s economy, heavily reliant on tourism and fisheries, could suffer significant losses due to the degradation of marine habitats.
  • Sustainable management of the Red Sea’s blue natural capital is crucial for the long-term economic and social benefits of the surrounding nations.

The Red Sea Crisis and Global Shipping

Analysis of How Recent Tensions Are Affecting Global Trade Routes

  • The Red Sea, a critical maritime route, has been affected by escalating tensions and military conflicts, particularly involving the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
  • Houthi rebels have seized vessels, such as the cargo ship in the southern Red Sea, which has raised international security concerns.
  • The attacks have been linked to the broader conflict in the region, including the war in Gaza, and have been interpreted as a response to the “heinous acts against our Palestinian brothers”.
  • These incidents have prompted international security warnings for ships operating in the Red Sea, emphasizing the heightened threat level in the area.
  • The strategic location of the Red Sea, especially the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, is vital for the passage of oil tankers and containerships between Asia and Europe, making security in the region paramount for global trade.

The Economic Ripple Effects of the Crisis on Global Supply Chains

  • The disruption in the Red Sea has the potential to cause significant delays in global supply chains, affecting the timely delivery of goods and commodities.
  • Increased security risks and the threat of vessel seizures have led to rerouting of ships and heightened war risk insurance premiums, contributing to higher shipping costs.
  • The suspension of shipping operations by major companies due to the crisis could lead to increased transport costs and impact global shipping and supply chains significantly.
  • The conflict has also highlighted the vulnerability of global supply chains to geopolitical tensions and the importance of maritime security for the uninterrupted flow of trade.
  • Long-term disruptions in the Red Sea could have broader economic implications, including potential shortages of goods, increased costs for consumers, and global inflation risks.

India’s Perspective and Involvement

India’s Strategic Interests in the Red Sea

  • India’s strategic interests in the Red Sea are significant due to its reliance on the region for a substantial portion of its trade.
  • The Red Sea serves as the shortest maritime route for Indian ships traveling from Asia to Europe, which is crucial for India’s trade with West Asia, Africa, and Europe.
  • Approximately 30% of global container traffic, including Indian trade, passes through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, emphasizing the importance of this route for India’s economy.
  • India’s energy security is closely tied to the Red Sea, with a heavy reliance on crude oil and LNG imports that transit through this region.

India’s Response to the Red Sea Crisis

  • The Indian Navy has taken decisive steps to safeguard India’s maritime interests in the Red Sea region, particularly in response to Houthi attacks on shipping.
  • India has deployed at least a dozen warships east of the Red Sea to provide security against piracy and has investigated more than 250 vessels.
  • The Indian Navy’s guided missile destroyer, INS Visakhapatnam, is stationed in the Gulf of Aden to protect Indian interests and ensure the safety of vital sea lanes.
  • India has engaged in diplomatic dialogues and cooperation with international partners to address regional tensions and maintain stability in the Red Sea.
  • Despite the crisis, there has been no adverse impact on India’s exports and imports so far, although transportation costs have increased due to rerouting and heightened security measures.

The Role of the European Union

Examination of the EU’s Proposed Naval Mission, Aspides

  • The European Union launched a naval mission named EUNAVFOR Aspides to enhance maritime security in the Red Sea.
  • EUNAVFOR Aspides was established in response to Houthi militants attacking international shipping in the Red Sea, which threatened freedom of navigation.
  • The mission’s mandate includes providing maritime situational awareness, accompanying vessels, and protecting them against possible multi-domain attacks at sea.
  • The operation is part of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and involves contributions from member states such as Germany, France, and Italy.
  • EUNAVFOR Aspides operates along the main sea lines of communication, including the Baab al-Mandab Strait and the Strait of Hormuz, as well as international waters in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Oman.

The EU’s Strategic Interests in the Region

  • The Red Sea routes account for around 12 percent of global trade and 40 percent of trade between Asia and Europe, making the region strategically significant for the EU.
  • The EU has a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation and maritime security in the Red Sea due to its economic implications for European trade.
  • The EU’s engagement in the Red Sea aligns with its broader maritime strategy and diplomatic efforts toward Arab countries.

Challenges of Coordinating a Unified Response to the Crisis

  • Coordinating a unified response among EU member states involves balancing different national approaches and interests.
  • The EU must work with existing initiatives and regional officials to ensure the effectiveness of the mission and avoid overlapping efforts.
  • Securing participation from Middle Eastern countries in the Aspides mission would represent a significant diplomatic success for the EU.
  • The EU faces the challenge of convincing regional countries and its own member states of the mission’s usefulness beyond the immediate crisis.

Future Prospects and Policy Recommendations

Analysis of Potential Scenarios for the Resolution of the Red Sea Crisis

  • The resolution of the Red Sea crisis hinges on a multifaceted approach that addresses both immediate security concerns and underlying geopolitical tensions.
  • A potential scenario involves a ceasefire agreement in Yemen, facilitated by international mediation, which could significantly reduce tensions in the Red Sea region.
  • Enhanced cooperation between regional powers and external actors, including the United States, European Union, and China, could lead to a coordinated effort to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation.
  • The establishment of a regional security framework involving Red Sea littoral states could provide a platform for addressing security challenges and fostering dialogue on shared interests.

Policy Recommendations for Stakeholders

  • For Regional Powers:
    • Engage in diplomatic dialogues aimed at de-escalating military conflicts and enhancing mutual trust.
    • Commit to respecting international maritime laws and agreements to ensure the safety and security of shipping lanes.
    • Support initiatives for environmental protection in the Red Sea.
  • For External Actors (United States, European Union, China):
    • Provide diplomatic and logistical support for peace negotiations in conflict zones affecting the Red Sea region.
    • Enhance naval presence and cooperation in the Red Sea to deter attacks on commercial shipping and promote maritime security.
    • Offer technical and financial assistance for environmental conservation efforts and disaster prevention initiatives.
  • For International Organizations:
    • Facilitate dialogue and cooperation among Red Sea littoral states and external powers to address security and environmental challenges.
    • Coordinate international funding and expertise for critical projects, such as the safe transfer of oil from the abandoned FSO Safer tankers.
    • Promote adherence to international maritime laws and conventions to protect shipping lanes and marine ecosystems.
  • For Non-Governmental Organizations and Civil Society:
    • Advocate for peaceful resolution of conflicts and environmental protection in the Red Sea region.
    • Raise awareness about the strategic importance of the Red Sea and the potential consequences of continued instability and environmental neglect.
    • Support community-based initiatives that contribute to regional stability and sustainable development.


The Red Sea’s strategic significance is underscored by its role in global trade, energy security, and regional geopolitics. Addressing the multifaceted challenges it faces, including geopolitical tensions, environmental threats, and maritime security risks, requires a collaborative approach involving regional powers, external actors, and international organizations. Through concerted efforts and adherence to international laws, the stability and security of the Red Sea can be safeguarded, ensuring its continued importance to the global economy.

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