Short Report

“Safeguarding the Indian Ocean: Navigating Multilateral Partnerships for Underwater Security and Environmental Resilience.”

  • Despite being a critical component of the Earth’s environment, the underwater ecosystem remains one of the least understood and underexplored areas.
  • Multilaterally, India actively engages in regional forums and organizations such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to collaborate on UDA initiatives.
  • Bilaterally, India has bolstered UDA capabilities through strategic partnerships. For instance, its collaboration with the United States under the Maritime Security Dialogue has enabled intelligence sharing, joint patrols, and capacity building, enhancing UDA in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
  • 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.
  • 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 own cultural heritage.
  • A recent survey of world leaders revealed that SDG 14 on life underwater is considered the lowest priority among the SDGs.
  • A comprehensive UDA framework will help identify areas at risk and, thereafter, actions can be taken to protect communities.
  •  An effective UDA framework can encourage a Safe, Secure, and Sustainable Growth model to manage the challenges and opportunities in the tropical littoral waters of the IOR
  • Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) technologies are instrumental in fortifying maritime security and safety.
  • The need for Underwater Domain Awareness in multilateral constructs is multifaceted and far-reaching. It enhances maritime security, safeguards valuable resources, protects the environment, enables rapid response to emergencies, fosters scientific discovery, and promotes international cooperation.
  • Small Island Developing States (SIDs) in the Indian Ocean region face an array of climate risks that threaten their underwater ecosystems and overall sustainability.
Executive Summary
  • The recent geopolitical shift to the Indo-Pacific region has far-reaching implications for global politics and economies. Navigating this complex landscape requires countries in the region to balance economic opportunities and security concerns amidst intricate geopolitical dynamics. Oceans, covering over 70% of the Earth’s surface, play a pivotal role in the global ecosystem, particularly in the context of climate change. According to the World Economic Forum, the oceans contribute approximately $70 trillion to the global GDP, with their ecosystem services valued at $38 trillion annually. Furthermore, oceans facilitate 90% of global trade by volume and 40% by value, providing crucial support to billions of people residing near coastal areas who rely on the ocean for sustenance and livelihoods. Beyond their economic significance, oceans harbor rich biodiversity, including over 50% of species, some of which are classified as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered. Additionally, oceans serve as the largest carbon sink, absorbing a quarter of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and mitigating climate change.
  • The Indian Ocean holds strategic importance for four primary reasons. Serving as a major sea route connecting West Asia, Africa, and Southeast/East Asia, it handles half of the world’s sea-borne trade. With 16.8% of global oil reserves and 27.9% of natural reserves, the Indian Ocean spans three continents and is home to 35% of the world’s population, making it central to the geostrategic aspirations of both regional and extra-regional powers.
  • Recognizing the underwater domain’s importance is critical for ensuring maritime system stability, technological advancements, and economic cooperation. The proposed Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) framework by the Maritime Research Centre (MRC) aims to address policy and technology needs while enhancing acoustic capacity and capability. As global attention shifts to the maritime domain, particularly the Indian Ocean region, the Bay of Bengal emerges as a strategically significant area. UDA in the Bay of Bengal is essential for protecting marine resources from potential threats and risks. With the global future dependent on healthy oceans, there is a growing recognition of the need to explore the underwater ecosystem independently of surface marine activity.

Despite being a critical component of the Earth’s environment, the underwater ecosystem remains one of the least understood and underexplored areas. There is an increasing need for a better understanding of this ecosystem due to its significant ecological, economic, and scientific importance.

  • Biodiversity: The underwater ecosystem is incredibly diverse, housing a wide range of species from microscopic plankton to massive whales. Researchers estimate that there may be millions of undiscovered species in the world’s oceans. Understanding this biodiversity is essential for conserving and managing marine resources effectively.
  • Climate Regulation: Oceans play a crucial role in regulating the Earth’s climate. They absorb and store vast amounts of carbon dioxide, helping to mitigate climate change. Additionally, the temperature and circulation patterns of the oceans influence weather patterns and can impact global climate systems.
  • Food Security: Over 3 billion people rely on seafood as their primary source of protein. A better understanding of the underwater ecosystem is essential for sustainable fisheries management to ensure food security for current and future generations.
  • Pharmaceutical Potential: Marine organisms have provided numerous compounds that have led to the development of pharmaceuticals. Studying the underwater ecosystem could reveal new sources of potentially life-saving drugs.
  • Economic Value: The ocean economy is worth trillions of dollars annually, including industries such as shipping, tourism, and offshore energy production. A comprehensive understanding of the underwater ecosystem is crucial for sustaining these economic activities.
  • Conservation: Human activities, including overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction, pose significant threats to marine ecosystems. Improved knowledge can inform conservation efforts and help protect vulnerable species and habitats.
  • Scientific Discovery: The underwater ecosystem holds countless mysteries and has the potential to advance our understanding of life on Earth. Discoveries in this realm can lead to groundbreaking scientific advancements.

This notwithstanding, the underwater ecosystem is a critical but poorly understood part of our planet. As we face increasing environmental challenges and seek sustainable solutions, a comprehensive understanding of the underwater ecosystem is essential. Therefore, investments in research, technology, and conservation efforts are necessary to unlock the secrets of the deep sea and ensure the long-term health of our oceans and efforts to gain a better understanding of the underwater ecosystem include:

  • Marine Research: Scientists use advanced technologies such as remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to explore the depths of the ocean and study its inhabitants.
  • Oceanographic Surveys: Research vessels equipped with sophisticated instruments collect data on temperature, salinity, currents, and marine life to create detailed oceanographic maps.
  • Conservation Initiatives: Marine protected areas (MPAs) and international agreements like the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) aim to protect and preserve marine ecosystems.

India’s pursuit of enhanced Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) has led to the development of both multilateral and bilateral relations with various nations. Multilaterally, India actively engages in regional forums and organizations such as the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) to collaborate on UDA initiatives. These partnerships facilitate information sharing, joint exercises, and technology transfer, strengthening India’s maritime security.

Bilaterally, India has bolstered UDA capabilities through strategic partnerships. For instance, its collaboration with the United States under the Maritime Security Dialogue has enabled intelligence sharing, joint patrols, and capacity building, enhancing UDA in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

Similarly, India’s relations with Japan have resulted in the acquisition of advanced technology, including underwater surveillance equipment. Meanwhile, cooperation with France includes joint maritime exercises and the sharing of naval infrastructure, further augmenting UDA capabilities.

Additionally, India’s engagement with Southeast Asian nations, such as Vietnam and Indonesia, has strengthened UDA efforts in the South China Sea, a region of growing geopolitical importance. This bilateral relations underscore India’s commitment to safeguarding its maritime interests and maintaining stability in the IOR, while also promoting regional security through UDA collaboration. Overall, these multilateral and bilateral efforts reflect India’s proactive stance in enhancing its UDA capabilities and fostering maritime security in the region.

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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