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UDA and Indian Diplomacy for Maritime Cooperation

By Ambassador (retd) Yogendra Kumar

Ambassador (retired) Yogendra Kumar believes that greater focus on underwater domain awareness can boost the nation’s diplomatic effectiveness


Maritime cooperation has emerged, in more recent times, as the centrepiece of India’s diplomacy. The Indo-Pacific region has assumed dimensions of a grand strategy for sustaining a certain power equilibrium in both the Indian and Pacific oceans in all its hard and soft power aspects. With the geopolitical and geo-economic centre of gravity shifting to Asia, its engagements with other powers, including those from outside the region, have a significant maritime character for the same reasons. The maritime domain has a salience in the era of globalisation as global trade is predominantly carried out at sea and an increased international scramble for the enormous, yet inadequately tapped, marine resources is in evidence. Thus, the challenges of creating or sustaining maritime governance mechanisms are the focus of international diplomacy where security of sea lines of communication (SLOCs), balance of power equilibrium, maritime safety, piracy and transnational crime, and good order at sea are considered as critical determinants.


The maritime domain has a salience in the era of globalisation as global trade is predominantly carried out at sea and an increased international scramble for the enormous, yet inadequately tapped, marine resources is in evidence.


No less importance can be ascribed to other challenges. Climate change is pressing enough to negatively affect any type of maritime governance mechanism. This includes ocean warming and the impact of acidification on maritime environment for sustainable use of this space for navigation or exploitation of resources. The growing frequency and intensity of cyclones and storm surges present considerable threat to the viability of the vast coastal communities and economies. These threats aggravate the already fragile economies of island states dependent mostly on a single commodity or service which, in turn, puts pressure on the political systems and governments there. The robustness of any maritime governance mechanism cannot be developed unless these ‘non-traditional’ challenges are factored in and consequent stakes of these island and littoral countries secured through such action by these mechanisms.


Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is a critical basis for effective functioning of any maritime mechanism.


Situational awareness not only enhances capacity, its sharing also generates mutual confidence. Maritime domain awareness (MDA) is, thus, a critical basis for effective functioning of any maritime mechanism. Through a wide spectrum MDA most of the above challenges can be tackled in a significant measure. Such MDA capacity can be the result of collective effort of the participating countries as also the national effort of a single country; collective and collaborative effort also enhances the capacity of the countries which require it. This is, therefore, an important contribution to the technological and socio-economic progress of the country concerned.


MDA, in its current status, has a missing dimension in underwater domain awareness (UDA) since it is largely confined to situational awareness on the water surface. UDA, having its origin in the Cold War era of superpower confrontation, is now a significant capacity-multiplier due to the dual-use nature of technological revolution in this area. It is adding to better stewardship of marine resources for the much-needed, vital impetus for developing the blue economy sector of the national – and, indeed, global – economy. UDA provides a substantial capability for the monitoring of the manifestations of ocean warming and acidification, including the state of ‘dead zones’ which represent potential climate change ‘tipping points’ from the point of view of food chain, ocean currents, and monsoon patterns. In the strategic and economic perspectives, this is an imperative domain for achieving the state of ‘digital ocean’ through the leveraging of artificial intelligence (AI), communications and robotics, a system of underwater drones powered by sun, wind and waves, advanced sensors, cameras and acoustics for a real-time UDA; this has important bearing on big data, analytics, and regulatory frameworks. Thus, UDA is critical for maritime system stability, technological progress, and high-end and low-end economic cooperation for Indian diplomacy in both the multilateral and bilateral formats.


UDA is critical for maritime system stability, technological progress, and high-end and low-end economic cooperation for Indian diplomacy in both the multilateral and bilateral formats.


UDA is not possible without acoustics and sonar capabilities. The science of underwater sound propagation is an effective way of determining underwater geo-physical features, hydrological characteristics, and the state of marine biodiversity. It provides an early alert capability against security threats from state and non-state actors, environmental disasters such as oil spillage, ecological degradation of living and non-living resources, and the mapping of hydrocarbon/poly-metallic reserves.


India’s major articulation was Prime Minister Modi’s SAGAR speech (March 2015) on the Indian Ocean wherein he not only laid emphasis on littoral nations’ cooperation in peace and security but also on strengthening maritime capacities and regional integration based on sustainable development and blue economy. In his keynote speech at the Shangri-La dialogue (June 2018), he spoke of ‘common pursuit of progress and prosperity’ in the entire Indo-Pacific region. At the East Asia Summit (November 2019), he outlined the Indo-Pacific Ocean Initiative for safe, secure and stable maritime domain: its seven pillars comprise maritime security, maritime ecology, maritime resources, capacity building and resource sharing for disaster risk reduction and management, S&T and academic cooperation, and trade, connectivity and maritime transport. The Prime Minister launched the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure at the UN Climate Action Summit (September 2019). These specific Indian initiatives complement the programmes related to maritime security, disaster response, and economy by multilateral organisations like Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in which India plays a prominent role. India also has robust maritime cooperation programmes with several littoral countries in the Indian Ocean and in Southeast and East Asia. Different Indian ministries and agencies participate in a very large number of maritime and marine science cooperation programmes with other countries and organisations. The scope of cooperation is virtually inexhaustible, and Indian diplomacy can provide the thought leadership and pursue its larger strategic objectives.


UDA is, in sum, a significant enabler of the country’s diplomatic effectiveness.


UDA is, in sum, a significant enabler of the country’s diplomatic effectiveness. Even as a lot of ground needs to be covered at home in terms of greater synergy within a holistic policy framework, India has considerable capabilities in this domain for leveraging in this pursuit: many of these areas have been mentioned above. The spectrum of these capabilities also includes immediate international commercial opportunities in start-ups in the blue-tech sector as also deriving commercial/technological spin-offs through international cooperation with the S&T, academic and management communities. In the strategic sphere for example, as India helps in providing hydrographic maps to our neighbours for better management of their maritime interests holistically, UDA capacity building can also be added to such cooperation.


Ambassador Yogendra Kumar

Former Diplomat and Author