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How Will the Houthi Attacks on Commercial Ships Impact India and Japan?

The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea threaten resource-poor Japan and India. But given the immense stakes in the Middle East, the countries must tread carefully.



Houthi military helicopter hovers over the Galaxy Leader cargo ship as Houthi fighters walk on the ship's deck in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. (©Houthi Media Center via REUTERS)

Attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by Houthi rebels from Yemen have posed a significant danger since late 2023. This is especially true for both the Indian and Japanese economies, as both are energy-deficient countries.

Japan and India have been collaborating for a long time, in the field of maritime security. It was in September 1999 that a Japanese-owned Panama-registered ship, the MV Alondra Rainbow, was hijacked by pirates. The pirates were later apprehended by the Indian Coast Guard.

This will be a litmus test for both India and Japan as well as other countries. Attacks of such a scale and nature are unprecedented. Recently, the Indian Navy's Marine MARCOS naval commandos helped rescue the cargo ship MV Lila Norfolk, which was hijacked near the coast of Somalia. All 21 crew members, including Indians, were rescued.

The Houthis insist that they are "targeting vessels which are Israeli-owned, flagged or operated, or are heading to Israeli ports." However, in many cases, they have attacked vessels that have no connection with Israel.

Video still of Yemen's pro-Iranian Houthi militants hijacking a cargo ship operated by NYK Line, November 20. (©Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS)

What is at Stake for India?

There are many things at stake for India here.

For one, India depends hugely on oil imports from the Gulf countries. The Houthi rebels are backed by Iran. However, New Delhi cannot blame Iran directly as it has launched a series of infrastructure projects in Iran. Nevertheless, India has already stopped oil imports from Iran in light of Western-led sanctions on the country. 

Also, Iran remains an important country for India. Relations with Tehran are vital to countering China's China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the BRI (as a whole),

Second, India has not joined the international coalition against the Houthis. It is known as "Operation Prosperity Guardian." Besides the United States, it brings together countries like the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain. 


In addition, India's relations with the US seem to have hit a rough patch in recent times. For example, US President Joe Biden turned down India's invitation to be the Chief Guest at India's January 26 Republic Day celebrations.  

India's Energy and Economic Interests

Third, India has stakes in the region. A huge number of expatriates live and work in the Middle East. They make a big contribution to India's economy via remittances. Also, any increase in oil prices could have an impact on the domestic situation, as general elections are slated in the country for later in 2024.

Fourth, it will be a test case for the Indian Navy. In 2015, it successfully rescued Indian citizens along with those of other countries from war-torn Yemen. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson noted, "We attach very high importance to freedom of navigation and free movement of commercial shipping. It is an evolving situation and we are looking at all aspects of it."

The Indian External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar visited Iran in January and conveyed New Delhi's genuine concerns to Iran. 

Dr Jaishankar described the attacks on ships in the vicinity of India as a matter of "great concern to the international community." He underlined that "it also has a direct bearing on India's energy and economic interests. This fraught situation is not to the benefit of any party and this must be clearly recognized."

What is at Stake for Japan?

Many Japanese shipping firms like Nippon Yusen, also known as NYK Line, and Mitsui O.S.K. Lines have decided to temporarily alter the course of their vessels to and from Europe to avoid the Red Sea. Similar decisions have been taken by Kawasaki Kisen Kaisha or "K" Line. In addition, Ocean Network Express has also switched to the route around the Cape of Good Hope.

Video of Yemen's pro-Iranian Houthi militants hijacking a cargo ship operated by NYK Line, November 20. (©Houthi Media Center/Getty via Kyodo)

Furthermore, the Japanese foreign ministry in a statement noted that "Japan condemns the continued interference by the Houthis with the rights and freedoms of navigation in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the Red Sea."

It also stated that "Japan supports the determination of the United States and relevant countries to fulfill its responsibility in ensuring the free and safe navigation of vessels. To this end, we understand that this action was a measure aimed at preventing the further deterioration of the situation."

The Road Ahead

Circumstances have changed with the start of military operations against the Houthis by the US and UK. This is not likely to dramatically alter the situation on the ground as the Houthis have been able to withstand similar attacks in the past. However, it is highly likely to drive up the price of oil.


The US and partner forces released a joint statement after conducting early January airstrikes against targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.

It notes, "In response to continued illegal, dangerous, and destabilizing Houthi attacks against vessels, including commercial shipping, transiting the Red Sea, the armed forces of the United States and United Kingdom, with support from the Netherlands, Canada, Bahrain, and Australia, conducted joint strikes in accordance with the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense [...]"

New Delhi and Tokyo, along with countries like the US, will have to ensure that things do not go out of hand. Immense interests are at stake in the region. The Indian Navy has a big presence in the region while the JMSDF has a base in Djibouti. Both countries, just like many others, have seen their economies rebound after the hit in the wake of the pandemic and hence cannot afford yet another crisis.


Author: Rupakjyoti Borah

Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow with the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are personal.

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