Current Affairs

Boosting India with maritime domain awareness

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    World Affairs
  • Published
    14th Jan, 2021


  • In the modern maritime arena, war is a more complex proposition.
  • Today, the enemy at sea is often unrecognisable a terrorist, a pirate, a criminal or a sea robber an invisible presence that lurks behind regular actors such as fishermen and port workers.
  • Law enforcement agencies today need to be a lot more vigilant, highly reliant on high-grade sensors and communication networks that observe and track suspicious movements, sharing information in real time.
  • This state is described as enhanced consciousness of maritime domain awareness.
  • The Indian Navy has been on a drive to improve domain awareness in the Indian Ocean.
  • The Navy is seeking to expand India’s surveillance footprint by setting up radar stations in the Maldives, Myanmar and Bangladesh; Mauritius, the Seychelles and Sri Lanka have already integrated into the wider coastal radar chain network.
  • The Indian Navy’s efforts seem focused primarily on monitoring Chinese activity in the Eastern Indian Ocean, particularly in the seas around the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
  • Since 2020, when the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army clashed in Galwan in northern Ladakh, Indian maritime planners have been wary of the possibility of a greater Chinese presence in the eastern littorals.
  • In recent months, India’s P-8I aircraft have scoured the near-seas for People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines, and Indian naval ships have patrolled the Andaman Seas and eastern chokepoints to deter any maritime adventurism by Beijing.
  • The Indian Ocean, India’s initiatives could help generate intraregional synergy. Time to shift focus to the maritime sphere, Nature of the enemy at sea. Think beyond a division the current ‘Indo-Pacific Division Briefs’ document put out by the MEA.

Neighbourhood Synergies

  • Maritime domain awareness is also generating cooperative synergies in the neighbourhood. Seven Indian Ocean countries Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles will soon post Liaison Officers at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region in Gurugram.
  • France already has an officer at the IFC, and four other Indo-Pacific navies Australia, Japan, the U.K and the U.S. have also agreed to position officers at the centre, fast emerging as the most prominent information hub in the Eastern Indian Ocean.
  • Engagement in the Western Indian Ocean by positioning a Liaison Officer at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC) in Madagascar.
  • Indian Ocean Commission that India joined recently as an ‘observer’, the RMIFC is a key centre of maritime information in the Western Indian Ocean.
  • India has also posted an officer at the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) in Abu Dhabi to assist in the monitoring of maritime activity in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.

Importance of Indian Ocean Region (IOR)

  • The region contains 1/3 of the world’s population, 25% of its landmass, 40% of the world’s oil and gas reserves.
  • The most important trade routes of the world pass through this region. The Indian Ocean provides the predominant outlet for oil from the Persian Gulf to various destinations all over the world.
  • The Malacca Strait is a critical choke point through which the oil bound for the West coast of USA, China, Japan, Australia and other countries of South-East Asia must pass Oil being of vital interest to most nations, major powers, especially the USA, maintain a visible and credible presence in the region.
  • The IOR is a critical waterway for global trade and commerce. This strategic expanse hosts heavy international maritime traffic that includes half of the world’s containerized cargo, one third of its bulk cargo and two third of its oil shipment.
  • Its waters carry heavy traffic of petroleum and petroleum products from the oilfields of the Persian Gulf and Indonesia, and contain an estimated 40% of the world’s offshore oil production.
  • Roughly 55 per cent of known oil reserves and 40 per cent of gas reserves are in the Indian Ocean region.
  • Since dependence on oil will continue to increase in the future and exports from the Central Asian Republics by sea would also have to be routed through the ports of this region, the Indian Ocean is likely to witness clashes of economic interests and a turbulent security environment.
  • India is one of very few (06) countries in the world to have developed the technology to extract minerals from the deep sea bed.
  • India imports 70 % of its oil requirements, 4000 tankers come to Indian ports annually and almost 95 % of Indian trade moves by sea.
  • Almost 5 million Indians work in Gulf countries and it is in India’s interest to ensure that the environment in Gulf remains stable.
  • In addition to providing precious minerals and energy source, the ocean’s fish are of great importance to the bordering countries for domestic consumption and export.
  • The region is home to continually evolving strategic developments including the competing rises of China and India, potential nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan, the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Islamist terrorism, growing incidence of piracy in and around the Horn of Africa, and management of diminishing fishery resources.

India’s objectives in the Indian Ocean Region

  • To spread its influence across the entire Indian Ocean Region, through trade and investment, diplomacy and strategic partnerships
  • Upgrading relations with Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia; regions that hold mineral deposits and energy reserves critical to India’s economic development and great power aspirations
  • Positioning itself to emerge as the dominant Indian Ocean power in the decades ahead
  • Ensuring that China does not gain a significant strategic foothold in the region
  • Strengthening influence and control over Indian Ocean choke points through security relationships with key littoral states such as Singapore, Mauritius and Oman.
  • 90% of India’s international trade by volume is dependent on sea. India has been enhancing its strategic influence through the use of soft power, by becoming a major foreign investor in regional mining, oil, gas and infrastructure projects.

The External Perspective

  • Cambodia
    • Historically, Cambodia’s foreign policy has been primarily driven by a regional rivalry with Vietnam.
    • This anti-Vietnamese sentiment among the populace has manifested itself in all the international diplomatic manoeuvring that Cambodia has undertaken ever since then.
    • China was more than happy to fill in that position by providing strong economic support while also possessing the political muscle to keep a check on Vietnamese influence in Cambodia.
    • This symbiotic relationship between Cambodia and China has proved to be largely beneficial to both countries to the extent that Cambodia is now regarded by many analysts as essentially a Chinese satellite state.
    • Had India possessed China’s level of economic and military power, Cambodia might have turned to India to play the role of its guarantor in the region.
    • But since Indian naval power is not adequate enough to project power in the region, there is little the Act East Policy can do to help India gain a foothold in Cambodia.
  • Laos
    • Laos, along with Cambodia, is perceived as China’s most trusted political partner in the Southeast Asian region.
    • But one key difference between Laos and Cambodia is that the former enjoys relatively peaceful relations with Thailand and Vietnam, and anti Vietnamese sentiment isn’t quite as ubiquitous.
    • As a result of not having to face pressing security and strategic challenges like Cambodia, Laos is more even handed in its approach to China.
    • More significantly for India, Chinese influence over Laos’s foreign policy is extensive.
    • Despite India’s vehement protestations, Beijing succeeded in including Laos in the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) Project in 2015 which is China’s response to the India-led Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (MGC).
  • Myanmar
    • For many years, India had followed the Western nations in shunning Myanmar’s military junta on account of gross human rights violations. China, however, was unperturbed by these allegations and continued to economically and diplomatically engage with them.
    • Given China’s consistent support to Myanmar over the years when other major powers turned their back on them, there is plenty of goodwill towards Beijing among the local populace and the Middle Kingdom has shrewdly tapped this by promoting Chinese investments in the region.
    • Despite being the only ASEAN member to share a land border with India, the India-Myanmar trade relationship has been nowhere near its full potential.
    • While the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway is an important step towards improving trade and connectivity ties with Myanmar, India’s consistent refusal over the past many years to deal with Myanmar has undoubtedly made New Delhi secondary to Beijing in the eyes of Myanmar.
    • Unless India can offer something of substantial value to Myanmar in the coming years, it will struggle to break the fraternal bond that has developed between its eastern land neighbour and China.
  • Vietnam
    • Unlike Cambodia, Vietnam has actively been pursuing a multidirectional foreign policy by cultivating relationships with most of the regional powers like China, the US, Japan and in recent times, India.
    • Vietnam has consistently opposed Chinese maritime activities in the South China Sea.
    • Although China’s stance towards Vietnam has considerably softened after tense times in 2016, Vietnam’s public apprehension of Beijing’s ambitions provides the most encouraging opportunity for India to forge deeper economic links.
    • Vietnam’s hedging strategy of leveraging of multiple powers as a means of protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity will enable India to make significant strides in the fields of trade and military ties.

Main Challenges for India

  • By examining each individual country’s interests and strategic goals, it becomes clear that despite the superficial façade of unity consistently portrayed by ASEAN members, there is a significant conflict of interest between them on a variety of issues.
  • China being the largest trade partner to a host of ASEAN countries means that Beijing will be in a privileged position to influence their foreign policy to a degree that is beyond India’s capability at the moment.
  • Additionally, India does not have the naval capacity to provide support to ASEAN members in the South China Sea and as a result these countries are often left to either fend for themselves or align with China.
  • This also means that India’s constant posturing and propagation of freedom of navigation is essentially only a rhetorical exercise, without any credible capability to back it up.
  • In terms of economic investment and connectivity, India’s ties with ASEAN seem a fraction of the investment that China pours into the region and the Act East Policy has done little to reduce the gulf.
  • So far the policy has mostly been “political symbolism” with an overwhelming emphasis on building cultural links, while offering little in terms of tangible economic benefits to ASEAN.
  • India’s structural problems have been a bigger obstacle to improving connectivity with ASEAN than China’s economic might.


  • Indian initiatives, however, are yet to bring about an alignment of objectives and strategies of regional littoral states.
  • While cooperative information sharing allows for a joint evaluation of threats, countries do not always share vital information timely.
  • To bring real change, India must ensure seamless information flow, generating operational synergy with partners, and aim to expand collaborative endeavours in shared spaces.
  • That would be the real test of the maritime domain awareness ‘game-changing’ potential.

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