Experts' Articles Geopolitics and IR

Underwater Domain Awareness in BIMSTEC: Towards a Sustainable Bay of Bengal

  • Indian Ocean region requires long-term regional treaties and agreements for socio-economic development.
  • The regulations and policies of the coastal nations create a complex system of marine governance.
  • India should use its position as the emerging leader of the global south to come up with a plan for increased scientific and economic cooperation.
  • Investment in capacity building and inter-disciplinary expertise is the need of the hour.

The recent shift to the Indo-Pacific region has far-reaching implications for regional and global politics and economies, and countries in the region will have to cope with complex geopolitical dynamics and reconcile economic possibilities and security concerns. The oceans are a vital part of the global ecosystem, and the need for resilient oceans has become especially necessary, in the face of climate change. Knowledge of the underwater domain becomes essential to the stability of the maritime system, to technological advances, and high-end and low-end economic cooperation for, both multilateral and bilateral. The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework proposed by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC), seeks to address the requirement for policy and technology intervention, along with acoustic capacity and capability enhancement. With the world shifting its focus towards the maritime domain, particularly the Indian Ocean region, the Bay of Bengal assumes a strategic position. Knowledge of the domain is always the first step toward effective capacity and capacity development. The need for UDA in the Bay of Bengal is mostly driven by the importance of marine resources in the region and the need to protect these resources from potential threats and risks. Our future depends on healthy oceans around the world; maybe we must look at the subsea area separately from the surface marine activity.

Why do oceans matter?

 The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and are a significant contributor to the global economy. As per the World Economic Forum data, the total GDP contribution is approx. $70 trillion, and the value of ecosystem services is $38 trillion annually. Moreover, the oceans facilitate 90 percent of global trade by volume and around 40 percent by value. With 40 percent of the world’s population living near coastal areas, billions of people depend on the ocean’ – as their primary source of food and livelihood, which highlights the need for sustainable utilization of the oceans. Apart from their economic value, the oceans have the richest biodiversity, supporting more than 50 percent of species ranging from vulnerable to endangered to critically endangered. Moreover, oceans are the largest carbon sink, absorbing nearly one-quarter of the world’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, mitigating climate change, and alleviating its impact. As a large portion of CO2 is absorbed by the deep sea, the continental shelf and microorganisms in the deep sea play a major role in sustainable carbon storage. Consequently, deep-sea ecology prevents greenhouse gases from resurfacing and accelerating climate change impacts but deep-sea ecology remains a young science. The oceans are a treasure, possessing unique characteristics, hiding secret phenomena, different marine environments, and much more. Realizing the economic, environmental, and geopolitical potential of the oceans, the world has shifted its focus toward the maritime domain vis-à-vis the Indo-Pacific Region. 

India is located at the heart of the Indo-Pacific, envisioning an open, free, and inclusive Indo-Pacific with respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. And to steer its vision, India, through various regional engagements, is pushing for economic development and shaping the security narratives in the wider Indo-Pacific. BIMSTEC, as a regional organization, acts as an important platform for consolidating regional cooperation among its neighbors. In recent years, China has relatively increased its presence in the region through various infrastructure projects coupled with a growing military presence by way of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has alarmed the regional powers. China has been deploying vessel and submarine patrols, particularly in the Indian Ocean, near the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which is of utmost significance to India. Chinese increased forays in the region have instigated strategic competition with regional as well as extra-regional powers.  

Understanding the criticality of the situation, India shifted its focus towards the Indian Ocean and envisaged taking on the role of security guarantor for the region. As a result, Prime Minister Modi’s articulated the SAGAR vision, which stands for Security And Growth for All in the Region, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018. In his speech, he highlighted three objectives: ‘safe’, ‘secure’, and ‘sustainable growth’ in the region, against the background of the emergence of the Indo-Pacific as a new theatre. These objectives can be achieved through:

(a)          Maintaining stability and strengthening regional cooperation in the region

(b)          Safeguarding maritime security

(c)           Promoting Sustainable Growth 

(d)          Ensuring environmental protection through the conservation of coastal and marine ecosystems 

“Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is very well aligned with the SAGAR vision of the PM. It encompasses the ideas of a smart digital India with high-end technology integration to overcome the specific challenges of the IOR. The effective UDA framework, being a new initiative, will require efforts in all dimensions, namely – policy support, infrastructure creation, and human resource development. “

Pooling of resources and synergy of efforts is the only way forward, and to achieve that strategic vision, stakeholders such as the national security apparatus, economic entities, environmental regulators, disaster management authorities, and science and technology providers have to come together.

The term UDA was first coined by Lt Cdr David Finch in his paper entitled “Comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness: A Conceptual Model”, published in the Canadian Naval Review.  He defined UDA as an aspect of Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA), focusing on events in the underwater environment. However, Lt Cdr Finch does not refer to the MDA. MDA and UDA might be related, but they are two distant concepts. MDA refers to the ability to monitor, track, and understand the activities in the maritime domain ‘in’, ‘under’, and ‘over’, the sea, whereas UDA, on the other hand, specifically refers to the ability to monitor, track, and understand the activities below the surface of the ocean. UDA includes not only security operations such as submarine operations and underwater exploration but, also, the monitoring of the physical and environmental characteristics of the underwater environment. With the growing recognition of the Indo-Pacific as a single strategic space, India recognizes the centrality of the location. Therefore, familiarisation with the underwater environment for effective Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) is a prerequisite.

In enhancing maritime security by detecting and tracking potential threats such as submarines, unmanned underwater vehicles, and divers, UDA is expected to play a prominent role. UDA technologies can help identify potential security risks and enable a more proactive response to potential Chinese threats. This is important for several reasons, including maritime security.

“India has been taking steps to develop a comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) strategy to enhance its maritime security and protect its interests in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). The development of a UDA strategy is part of India’s broader effort to strengthen its naval capabilities and expand its presence in the IOR.”

However, for any security framework to work, there is a need for information or awareness about the ongoing activities in that domain.

The Bay of Bengal plays an essential role in global geopolitics because of its strategic geographic position. Being located in the heart of the Indian Ocean region (IOR), it connects the Indian subcontinent and southeast Asia and has emerged as a focal point in global economics, diplomacy, and security. The region is enclosed by the fastest-growing economy, contributing 2.7 trillion USD to the world GDP, and is home to approximately 60 percent of the world’s population i.e., 20 percent of the world population. Not only does the region have unique features ranging from extensive forest covers, coral reefs, estuaries, deltas, and breeding sites for various species, it is one of the largest marine ecosystems, covering around 2.2 million square km and is home to a diverse range of marine species. Due to its hydrological condition, it is a favorable fishing ground and contributes to direct employment for people living on the coasts —nearly 2 million fishermen.  In addition, the geological structure of BoB has abundant natural gas and petroleum reserves in the Mahanadi-Godavari deltas, and countries adjacent to the region have some of the highest gas reserves. For instance, Bangladesh is estimated to have 200 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, whereas Myanmar has the fourth-largest proven natural gas reserve and the highest reserve-to-production ratio in the region. Given its proximity to important choke points and commercial shipping routes, half of the world’s container traffic transits through this region, and its ports handle 33 percent of the global trade. Against this backdrop, it is safe to derive that the region is an economic hub and is quickly becoming a zone of strategic competition. There is a need for the bordering countries to focus on developing the infrastructure to support economic growth.

The question arises: how do we understand underwater activities and to what extent are anthropogenic activities impacting the BoB region? And, more critically, why mapping the BoB becomes an important tool[1]. In recent years, ocean exploration has intensified, resulting in the discovery of untapped resources such as new medicines, genomes, food, and energy resources, and even aspects of our cultural heritage. The ecosystem in the Bay of Bengal, in particular, is under pressure due to over-exploitation, destructive fishing practices, habitat destruction, and pollution from land, as well as, from the sea, which has severely damaged the habitat. To make the situation worse, destructive practices such as bottom trawling, unsustainable exploitation of the hydrocarbons, and rapid expansion of plastic and oil discharge from the ships have further depleted marine wealth.  

Challenges posed by globalization and the underwater activities in the Bay of Bengal region have pushed the regional groupings to ensure they can bring issues specific to their region to a level of understanding and create an achievable framework. Ocean governance in the BoB through multilateral structures could help us create a positive impact on coastal communities.  BIMSTEC is a regional organization constituting of members from the littoral and adjacent areas of the Bay of Bengal. Post-COVID-19 and the ongoing Ukraine crisis, the global order has undergone a major downturn both geopolitically and geoeconomically. Given the value of UDA, the BIMSTEC countries realize it is fundamental to meeting sustainable development goals.

The theme of “sustainable development” has a particular resonance among the Bay States. The region comprising Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Thailand has almost 200 million people living on its coast either wholly or partially dependent on the marine resource, i.e., Fishing. Rich natural resources such as hydrocarbons, minerals, and energy in the region not only provide livelihoods but are also fundamental to both conservation and economic efforts. Unfortunately, these are at high risk due to high shipping activities along the coastlines, busy sea lines of communication, and the unprecedented scale of exploitation of hydrocarbons that have contaminated the marine ecosystem. As a result, a more in-depth understanding of ocean depths, obstacles, and tidal currents is not just for the safety of individuals but for the ecosystem.

“The bordering countries, along with regional organizations like BIMSTEC should come together to address the challenges of marine governance, and UDA is at the heart of those initiatives especially when the 14 sectors of cooperation in BIMSTEC, were rationalized into seven broad areas all co-dependent on each other. “

Lately, with the growing popularity among the BIMSTEC countries, the blue economy is acquiring more prominence on the international agenda, and it fits well with the countries’ agenda of sustainability. For instance, Bangladesh launched a mission called the “Bay of Bengal Partnership for the Blue Economy”, to provide a push for the blue economy agenda. It, also, partnered with India to advance ocean economic cooperation and sustainable cooperation. India, on the other hand, has increased its engagement in Blue Economy through active participation in the international and regional dialogues on the Blue Economy, and maritime cooperation. Alongside this, India has collaborated with Myanmar for maritime security cooperation through the regulation of ocean space, sovereign rights for commercial activities, etc. India also published the Blue Economy Vision 2025 which underlined the fact that the Blue Economy horizon is not limited to the oceans but encompasses a wide range of activities such as sustainable infrastructure development, food security, poverty alleviation programs, job opportunities, addressing disaster and climate change impacts, etc. While Sri Lanka, being a small island nation, has arguably adopted a more assertive approach, its document entitled ‘2025 Maritime Strategy’ focuses on improving underwater domain awareness as it is closely linked with the broader economic interest in the maritime sphere. Hence, by working together to develop and implement UDA strategies, BIMSTEC member states can enhance their collective maritime security, promote sustainable resource management, and effectively respond to natural disasters and other shared challenges.

Underwater Awareness (UDA) is the need of the hour for BoB countries, particularly in the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). Unlike the other regional groupings around the world, the BIMSTEC ocean governance structure remains largely at a nascent stage. Although the BIMSTEC is the only prominent organization in the sphere of the Bay of Bengal region, for the last 25 years of its existence, its success has been minimal. Most notably, it was only in its 4th Summit that the member countries embraced the sustainability and resilience aspects of its objectives. However, as the region continues to evolve, sustainability, i.e., the Blue economy has become the key priority area, as evidenced during the 4th summit chaired by Nepal by the creation of the Inter-governmental expert group. The group aims to develop an action plan for Blue Economy. Underwater ecosystems such as coral reefs and fisheries in the BoB region, are also threatened by the impacts of climate change, which will eventually impact the economies of the bordering countries, especially those that are dependent on natural resources for their livelihood. Having said that, sea-level rise has deepened the tension as climate-induced migrations are rising, the coastline is submerging, and the resources are becoming limited. Multiple security concerns have also risen to the surface, highlighting the need for multilateral efforts to address the relationship between the sea-level rise and regional security architectures. Storms and tidal surges cause coastal inundation which is a significant threat to the BoB region. It can potentially submerge surrounding areas in seawater – causing substantial damage to infrastructure and harm to vulnerable communities. With rising sea levels, it is estimated that this issue could affect up to 4.6% of the global population annually by 2100.

“The BIMSTEC country is not only at risk of losing its natural resources but also lives; over nine million people live in the vulnerable low-lying areas of the BoB littoral states. So, a comprehensive UDA framework will help in identifying areas at risk, and subsequently, measures can be taken to protect communities. Therefore, a good understanding of the seabed topography and the nature of the coastline could help the concerned authorities develop models that can predict the impact of coastal inundation on low-lying areas.”

Moreover, the shipping industry is responsible for more than 90 percent of global trade, of which half of the world’s container traffic transits through the BoB region. Ports in the region handle 33 percent of global trade. These marine vessels moving across the region contribute heavily to pollution such as carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions, which are a huge threat to marine life and corals. Also, the consumption of fuel and the production of undersea noise disturb marine animals and mammals, including whales and dolphins, which are sensitive to noise and could harm their hearing and be debilitating, often leading to unwanted deaths and an overall loss to the ecosystem.  A team of scientist international scientists, Bristow et al. (2016), discovered a Dead Zone in the Bay of Bengal (BoB) roughly half the size of Bangladesh is situated at depths of 70 meters and below with the minimum oxygen level. The dead zone is positioned east of India, northeast of Sri Lanka, south of Bangladesh, and west of Thailand and Myanmar; its expansion would have a severe impact on six different nations

Dead zones form in oceans or large lakes largely due to extremely low oxygen levels, making it difficult for marine life to survive. Reduced oxygen in the BoB can result in coral bleaching and minimize the fish catch, thus disrupting the food chain. Due to this a relatively large proportion of the population is directly or indirectly involved in fisheries and farming.

Therefore, the BIMSTEC countries need to address the expanding dead zone and work towards reducing its impact in the region. With UDA technologies such as environmentally friendly propulsion in nearshore, and remote sensing can, it will be possible to turn the tide on this ecological disaster and ensure a healthy and sustainable future for the Bay of Bengal and its surrounding communities. However, ocean survey requires a game-changing technological leap. The most likely direction for this is in autonomous vessels – small, uncrewed vessels that can operate semi-independently, either through programming or remote control – that don’t operate using fossil fuels. Even so, such technology on its own is not yet at the stage where it will single-handedly change the amount of data collected.

Apart from environmental threats, diving underwater has evolved as a sophisticated method for various smuggling and terrorist activities. As it is easier to obtain underwater re-breather technology and diving training requires minimal skills, due to the lack of physical barriers, seaports are not easy to protect. One such case was seen when a Southeast Asian group linked to Al-Qaeda was training terrorists for a seaborne terrorist attack.

“Underwater domain awareness (UDA) includes the ability to inspect, detect, and identify anomalies on vessels, bulkheads, jetties, and channel bottoms. As a consequence, underwater security becomes crucial for the Bay of Bengal region countries, territorial waters are not used as part of geostrategic calculations by larger states in a destabilizing manner.”

Owing to the strategic momentum in the Indian Ocean region, particularly the Chinese aspiration to build maritime infrastructure across the BoB region and to explore the ocean bed and untapped resources, has ostensibly been a belief in potential exploitation. Considering the BIMSTEC dormancy, inadequate funding, and lack of initiatives from each country, the need for UDA has not been featured in its agenda. Lately, Blue Economy cooperation has been a focal point of interest for the BIMSTEC and among the 7 areas of cooperation in BIMSTEC, almost every sector is linked to Blue Economy. Yet each country has its interpretation of the blue economy. For example, Bangladesh has a pragmatic blue economy policy focusing on both growth and sustainability aspects in the short, medium, and long term, while Thailand and Sri Lanka have made sustainability a priority over resource monetization. That being the case, there is a need for the regional countries in the BoB to emphasize the need for sustainable practices in harnessing marine resources and identify potential risks to the runaway exploitation of marine wealth.

Ocean governance is not only fundamental to maintaining the health of the marine habitat, but it is also a prerequisite for regional efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“A comprehensive Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework in the Bay of Bengal could balance sustainable economic activity and marine conservation. However, UDA cannot be achieved without acoustic and sonar capabilities. Understanding the science of underwater acoustic spread can help us determine the geophysical, hydrological, and ecological characteristics of marine biodiversity. Therefore, achieving the state of a ‘digital ocean’ is only possible if the UDA can leverage artificial intelligence (AI), communications, robotics, a system of underwater drones powered by sun, wind, and waves, advanced sensors, cameras, and acoustics.”

These capabilities can provide an early alert capability against various security threats from state and non-state actors, environmental catastrophes like oil spills, the ecological deterioration of living and non-living resources, and the mapping of hydrocarbon and poly metallurgical reserves. Improvements in the UDA could also ensure the protection of undersea cables, which are primarily responsible for the majority of intercontinental internet traffic.  UDA framework in BIMSTEC could also help Bay States address the “skills gap” endemic to the region. Beyond a lack of expertise in ocean-related trades, the lack of awareness and limited knowledge of the oceans have dampened the prospects for marine conservation and industry in the region. To achieve the set goals, the BIMSTEC countries should support the work of think tanks undertaking research on the underwater domain and tertiary educational institutions offering programs in subjects such as underwater security, oceanography, and underwater environment and economics.

Ms. Divya Rai

About Author

Divya Rai is the Program Executive and Researcher at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi, India. At the NMF she is conducting her research on East Asia.  She is also undertaking research on the Underwater Domain Awareness framework in various multilateral structures in South Asia under the Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) Project Fellowship offered by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC).

Before this, she was working as a Research Intern at the NMF and after her successful completion of the internship, she was promoted to the Programme Executive of the NMF. As a Research Intern, she focuses on the Indo-Pacific geostrategy of China & India’s maritime geostrategy. She has previously worked with reputable think tanks in India as a research intern and research associate.  Her expertise lies in analyzing the need for the UDA framework in the BIMSTEC and India’s role in it, she has also worked on various issues related to South Asia such as regional and intra-regional connectivity, economic architecture, maritime security, environmental issues, and transport connectivity.  She has published articles in reputed digital and print news platforms and magazines on issues about South Asia and the growing maritime influence of China in the Indo-Pacific, and geopolitics and non-traditional security threats in the South Asia region. She holds a Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies and a Bachelor of Science in Physics, Mathematics, and Defense and Strategic Studies from Allahabad University, Prayagraj.

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