by Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das 

The Group of Twenty (G20) is a group of the world’s major economies. The G20 represents all inhabited continents, 80% of the world GDP, 75% of global trade and 60% of the world’s population. The G20 does not have a charter or a secretariat. The Presidency, aided by the countries holding the Presidency before and after it (Troika), is responsible for setting the agenda of each year’s Summit. The G20 process is led by the Sherpas of member countries, who are personal emissaries of the leaders. The 17th G20 Heads of State and Government Summit will take place in October 2022 in Bali, Indonesia. Under the Indonesian Presidency, the G20 in 2022 will focus on the theme “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”.

The impact of the pandemic across the globe has been devastating and the most of the countries lack capacity to address the crisis. The ongoing Indonesian Presidency has set three pillars for its 2022 term:

(a) Global Health Architecture
(b) Sustainable Energy Transition
(c) Digital Transformation.

The Indo-Pacific strategic construct has become the de-facto geostrategic discourse across the entire world. The extra-regional powers are also deploying significant strategic assets to ensure their presence in the region. The Indo-Pacific strategic space by definition is the tropical littoral waters of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. The tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific are marked by unique political, economic and physical characteristics. The political volatility brings significant security challenges and with the non-state actors operating as an extension of the state, makes it even more critical. The pre-modern states are yet to evolve in terms of governance mechanism, allowing the extra-regional powers to meddle in their domestic politics and internal decision making. The developing economies are unable to prioritise science & technology (S&T) and long-term capacity and capability building, keeping them continuously dependent on external support and know-how. The tropical littoral waters are also recognised for their rich biodiversity and mineral resources. However, in the absence of any local knowhow and extreme dependence on the West, these nations continue to remain subservient to the extra-regional powers.

The most critical aspect of the tropical littoral waters is the physical aspect. The sub-optimal performance of the sonars deployed for any acoustic survey underwater ensures substantial inefficiency and ineffective deployment for military and non-military applications. The ongoing practice of importing sonars from the West has been a failure, given the near 60% degradation of performance, when deployed for acoustic survey across sectors. The absence of any indigenous R&D effort to customize the sonar deployment and continued import of such products is a sure recipe for disaster. The fragmented approach by the stakeholders, namely maritime security, blue economy, disaster management and environmental regulators, and science & technology ensures effective and inefficient utilization of resources. The fragmentation is not only among the stakeholders within, but also among nations in the region.

India has been making significant strides in governance and global power play. The proactive government has prioritised the policy outlook and taken substantial measures to realise the maritime potential of being a nation with a strategic location. The Security And Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) declaration by the Honourable Prime Minister in May 2015, has been a significant geopolitical statement. It not only prioritizes the internal domestic policy outlook, but for the first time presents a regional foreign policy outlook. The SAGAR vision at its core, declares four critical aspects:

(a) It recognizes the security concerns that exists in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR)
(b) It acknowledges the growth potential that the IOR offers
(c) The maritime heritage India had in the past and could be revived with appropriate policy intervention
(d) The requirement of coordination among the nations in the region

The SAGAR vision and the Indo-Pacific strategic construct are all aligned to the geopolitical and geostrategic realities of the times we are in today. Another key issue is that the maritime commons have becomes extremely significant strategically and deserve to be treated with equal priority. The Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is a term that can potentially bring transparency and enhance the governance mechanism. The conventional MDA has remained event driven post the 9/11 in the West and 26/11 in the IOR. The significant limitation of the ongoing MDA is its security dominance that has limited the participation of the other stakeholders. Even in terms of the resource availability, the developing democracies can never prioritise the defence budget to ensure acoustic capacity and capability building at the scale to overcome the challenges and opportunities in the tropical littoral waters. Consequently, the traditional MDA is limited to the surface and has very limited penetration underwater. Given the fact that the underwater domain has massive importance, both from security perspective and also from the blue economic reasons, the ongoing MDA is grossly inadequate to address the ground realities. The Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) has to be driven with a nuanced approach to manage the unique challenges and opportunities of the IOR.

The UDA framework proposed (check illustration) talks about pooling of resources and synergising of efforts across the four stakeholders. The framework provides policy and technology intervention along with the acoustic capacity and capability building required to manage the specific tropical littoral challenges and opportunities.

The three agenda points of the G20, 2022 Summit meeting are explicitly addressed by the UDA framework as follows:

(a) Global Health Architecture: Post the pandemic, the global health architecture has become a prime concern. Fresh water is the most critical component of human survival and also human health. Effective utilization and availability of the appropriate quality of fresh water is a prime concern in multiple developing nations, particularly in the tropical littoral region. Massive siltation causes the freshwater systems to experience heavy sediment deposits and the de-siltation will require effective UDA. Sediment management is a major challenge, and significant acoustic capacity and capability building is required for water resource management. The online real-time monitoring of the freshwater quality will be an important first step for effective water quality management. Multiple parameters of freshwater quality, need to be monitored and also analysed for long term health policy formulation.

(b) Sustainable Energy Transition: The energy requirements are a direct derivative of economic growth trajectory. The undersea is a store house of energy, both conventional and unconventional alternate energy sources. Effective and efficient extraction of these resources will determine the sustainable transition. The UDA framework will be a significant driver to such requirements. The IOR is a major hub for such resources and the sustainable extraction will require massive acoustic capacity and capability-building focus.

(c) Digital Transformation: Digital transformation is the established way forward for enhanced governance mechanism. This has to be extended to the underwater domain, both in the marine as well as freshwater systems. The UDA framework is well aligned to support the digital transformation given its science & technology (S&T) leaning. Artificial intelligence (AI) and underwater robotics-based data analytics for realizing the digital framework will be an optimum and nuanced way forward. The specialized acoustic signal processing required to overcome the local site specific challenges of the tropical littoral waters will be critical. Field experimental validation of the modelling and simulation for mapping the tropical conditions will go a long way. The Digital Ocean structure will be a good start for achieving effective governance in the Indo-Pacific strategic space.

Indonesia is a maritime nation with close to one lakh km coastline, compared to 7,500 kms for India. Thus, a strategic push for effective maritime governance may not be resisted by Indonesia. Today, India is in a very good position to play the leadership role, well aligned to its declared SAGAR vision to implement the UDA framework at the IOR level or even the entire Indo-Pacific strategic space. The G20 could be an appropriate forum to progress the UDA framework for safe, secure, sustainable growth model for all in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent G20 foreign ministers meeting at Bali, Indonesia, highlighted the security concerns and the growth headwinds and appealed for enhanced cooperation and synergy among the member states.

India’s Presidency at G20 Summit could consider introducing the UDA framework for a comprehensive policy and technology intervention along with acoustic capacity and capability building. As discussed earlier, it addresses the agenda points under the Indonesian Presidency as well, however a more nuanced UDA framework realization will provide a more inclusive approach. The entire Indo-Pacific strategic space being included for the implementation of the UDA framework will allow all the member states to participate enthusiastically.

Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is Founder & Director, Maritime Research Centre (MRC), Pune