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The Bab-el-Mandeb: Who is ‘swimming naked’?

By 12th December 2023, war risk insurance premiums for a seven-day transit of the Red Sea tripled from 0.07% to 0.2% the value of the cargo, adding tens of thousands of pounds to each transit. The repeated attacks on civilian and military vessels in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, linked to the Houthi rebels’ support for the Palestinian cause, have not only military but also legal and geoeconomic consequences that may be long lasting.

The disproportionate financial effect when the American destroyer USS Mason, or the French frigate FS Languedoc, engage drones worth at most a few tens of thousands of pounds with supersonic missiles costing millions is both unsustainable in the long-term and impeding for the respective militaries in the short-term. In fact, these missiles, designed to deal with highly sophisticated anti-ship missiles, require a geopolitical climate that limits both the frequency they are used (their numbers can be counted in dozens) and the extent to which they need to be reloaded (stocks are docked in a safe port, with reloading requiring complex logistics).

But that is not all. The access of non-state actors to off-the-shelf precision weapons undermines the doctrine of the ‘substantial link’ with a state, the fundamental basis of the security architecture created in 1945 by the United Nations Charter. It is worth recalling that in October 2001, after the attacks on the Twin Towers, this concept was the basis of Resolution 1333 (2000), establishing the ‘substantial link’ between the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda, which enabled the implementation of Resolution 1373, allowing for military action to be taken against the Afghan State as an act of self-defence in response to the attack perpetrated by Al-Qaeda against the United States (US). 

Today, the existing legal framework is powerless in qualifying a state’s right to defend itself against attack by a non-state actor whose ‘substantial link’ with a state cannot be demonstrated. There is thus an asymmetry between the military means available to non-state actors and the legal framework for responding to them.

Finally, and this is perhaps the point with the most significant consequences, these attacks are taking place in one of the busiest but lesser known choke points in the world – the Bab-el-Mandeb, which is less widely known than the Hormuz Strait or Panama Canal. Apart from the tactical opportunity (the Houthi rebels have been engaged in a decade-long bloody guerrilla war supported by Iran), the position of this strait is unique: it allows potential adversaries to selectively threaten maritime traffic to Europe without restricting oil traffic between the Persian Gulf and Asia. The strategic consequences are twofold. 

Firstly, Europe could become restricted from engaging and trading with the Indo-Pacific region. After all, only a few European countries have substantial material interests in the region (in particular, Britain, France and Denmark) and a few years ago they had difficulty in getting a pan-European position adopted. 

Secondly, there may be a greater challenge to the paradigm whereby importing countries and not exporting countries (particularly the People’s Republic of China (PRC)) are more concerned about the safety of commercial maritime traffic and guaranteeing ‘freedom of navigation’, something which will rapidly become costly in military terms in the face of new threats. The PRC has a major naval establishment at Doraleh, north of Djibouti. Any reinforcement of its naval capabilities in the region could be seen as a signal as to whether or not Beijing will place greater focus on protecting and defending its exports to Europe, or on attempting to re-order the trading arteries of the Indo-Pacific.

As Warren Buffet used to say: ‘Only when the tide goes out do you learn who has been swimming naked.’ In the current situation, this maxim applies to ammunition stocks, and even to the units themselves: reducing the number of platforms on the grounds of their greater military capability is ineffective in the face of attrition. 

But above all, it will become clear who is serious and who is not in terms of defending freedom of navigation and claiming interests in the Indo-Pacific. There is no doubt that France, with its numerous military outposts and sovereign spaces in the region, will not lose interest. It is equally clear that the United Kingdom will not either, owing in particular to its commitment to partnerships old and new (such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements and AUKUS). 

On the other hand, it will be clear what a ‘strategic compass’ really means in the face of Houthi drones, and how the European Union will exercise solidarity with the particular interests of its few members (including Denmark, with Maersk) which have a direct need to protect commercial shipping lanes. This question arose in 2019 in the Strait of Hormuz (Operation EMASOH/Agenor) in the face of a putative threat. It is being asked again – this time in the face of a very real threat.

Julien Lalanne de Saint-Quentin is an Associate Fellow in Comparative Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and has been an officer in the French Navy for 27 years.

Embedded image credit: (CC BY-SA 4.0 cropped and overlaid)

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