Constituent policy

India as next G20 chair set to give Indo-Pacific policy UDA edge

The Group of Twenty (G20) is a group of major world economies. The G20 represents all inhabited continents, 80% of world GDP, 75% of world trade and 60% of world population. The G20 has no charter or secretariat. The Presidency, assisted by the countries exercising the Presidency before and after it (Troika), is responsible for setting the agenda for the Summit each year. The G20 process is led by the Sherpas of the member countries, who are the 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 2022 G20 will focus on the theme “Recover Together, Recover Stronger”.
The impact of the pandemic across the world has been devastating and most countries lack the capacity to deal with the crisis. The current Indonesian presidency has set three pillars for its 2022 term:
(a) Global health architecture.
(b) Sustainable energy transition.
(c) Digital transformation.
Indo-Pacific strategic construction has become the de facto geostrategic discourse across the globe. The extra-regional powers also deploy important strategic assets to ensure their presence in the region. The strategic Indo-Pacific space is by definition the tropical coastal 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. Political volatility poses significant security challenges and, with non-state actors operating as an extension of the state, makes it even more critical. Pre-modern states have yet to evolve in terms of governance mechanism, allowing extra-regional powers to meddle in their domestic politics and internal decision-making. Developing economies are unable to prioritize science and technology (S&T) and long-term capacity and capacity building, which keeps them permanently dependent on external aid and know-how . Tropical coastal waters are also recognized for their rich biodiversity and mineral resources. However, in the absence of any local know-how and extreme dependence vis-à-vis the West, these nations remain subservient to extra-regional powers.
The most critical aspect of tropical nearshore waters is the physical aspect. The suboptimal performance of deployed sonars for any underwater acoustic study guarantees substantial inefficiency and inefficient deployment for both military and non-military applications. The current practice of importing sonars from the west has been a failure, given nearly 60% performance degradation when deployed for acoustic surveys in all areas. The absence of any local R&D effort to customize sonar deployment and the continued importation of these products is a sure recipe for disaster. The fragmented approach of stakeholders, namely maritime security, blue economy, disaster management and environmental regulators, as well as science and technology, ensures efficient and inefficient use of resources. The fragmentation is not only between the stakeholders within, but also between the nations of the region.
India has made significant progress in governance and global power play. The proactive government has prioritized political prospects and taken substantial steps to realize the maritime potential of being a nation with a strategic location. The Honorable Prime Minister’s Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR) statement in May 2015 was an important geopolitical statement. It not only prioritizes domestic domestic policy perspectives, but presents for the first time a regional foreign policy perspective. The SAGAR vision at its core, states four critical aspects:
(a) It recognizes the security challenges that exist in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
(b) It recognizes the potential for growth offered by the IOR.
c) The maritime heritage which India possessed in the past and which could be revived through appropriate political intervention.
d) The need for coordination between the nations of the region.
The SAGAR vision and Indo-Pacific strategic construction are all aligned with the geopolitical and geostrategic realities of the times we find ourselves in today. Another key issue is that the maritime commons have become strategically extremely important and deserve to be treated with the same priority. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is a term that can potentially bring transparency and improve the governance mechanism. Conventional MDA remained event-driven after 9/11 in the West and 11/26 in the IOR. The significant limitation of the ongoing MDA is its dominance of security which has limited the participation of other stakeholders. Even in terms of resource availability, developing democracies can never prioritize the defense budget to ensure acoustic capability and capacity building at scale to overcome challenges and opportunities in tropical littoral waters. Therefore, traditional MDA is limited to the surface and has very limited underwater penetration. Given that the underwater domain is of considerable importance, both from a security point of view and for blue economic reasons, the current MDA is completely inadequate to respond to the realities on the ground. Underwater Domain Awareness (UDA) must be conducted with a nuanced approach to managing the unique challenges and opportunities of the IOR.
The proposed UDA framework (see illustration) talks about pooling resources and synergizing efforts among the four stakeholders. The framework provides policy and technological intervention as well as the acoustic capacity and capacity building needed to manage the specific challenges and opportunities of the tropical coastline.
The three agenda items of the 2022 G20 summit meeting are explicitly addressed by the UDA framework as follows:
(a) Global health architecture: After the pandemic, the global health architecture has become a major concern. Fresh water is the most critical element for human survival and also for human health. The efficient use and availability of the appropriate quality of freshwater is a major concern in many developing countries, especially in the tropical littoral region. Massive siltation causes freshwater systems to experience heavy sediment deposition and de-siltation will require an effective UDA. Sediment management is a major challenge, and significant acoustic capacity and capacity building are needed for water resource management. Online, real-time monitoring of freshwater quality will be an important first step for effective water quality management. Multiple freshwater quality parameters need to be monitored and also analyzed for the formulation of a long-term health policy.
(b) Sustainable energy transition: energy needs are directly linked to the trajectory of economic growth. The submarine is a reservoir of energy, both conventional and unconventional alternative energy sources. Effective and efficient extraction of these resources will determine the sustainable transition. The UDA framework will be an important driver for these requirements. The IOR is a major hub for these resources and sustainable extraction will require massive acoustic capability and a focus on capacity building.
(c) Digital transformation: Digital transformation is the established path to improve the governance mechanism. This needs to be extended to the submarine realm, both in marine and freshwater systems. The UDA framework is well aligned to support digital transformation given its science and technology (S&T) orientation. Artificial intelligence (AI) and underwater robotics-based data analysis to realize the digital framework will be an optimal and nuanced way forward. The specialized acoustic signal processing required to overcome the local site-specific challenges of tropical nearshore waters will be critical. Experimental field validation of modeling and simulation to map tropical conditions will go a long way. The Digital Ocean structure will be a good start to achieve effective governance in the strategic Indo-Pacific space.
Indonesia is a maritime nation with a coastline of nearly one lakh km compared to India’s 7,500 km. Thus, a strategic push for effective maritime governance cannot be resisted by Indonesia. Today, India is in a very good position to play the leadership role, well aligned with its stated SAGAR vision to implement the UDA framework at IOR level or even across the entire Indo-Pacific strategic space. . The G20 could be an appropriate forum to advance the UDA framework for a safe, secure and sustainable growth model for all in the Indo-Pacific region. The recent meeting of G20 foreign ministers in Bali, Indonesia, highlighted security challenges and headwinds to growth and called for enhanced cooperation and synergy among member states.
India’s presidency at the G20 summit may consider introducing the UDA framework for comprehensive political and technological intervention, as well as acoustic capacity and capacity building. As noted earlier, it also addresses agenda items under the Indonesian presidency, but a more nuanced realization of the UDA framework will provide a more inclusive approach. The entire Indo-Pacific strategic space being included for the implementation of the UDA framework will enable all member states to enthusiastically participate.

Dr (Cdr) Arnab Das is the founder and director of the Maritime Research Center (MRC), Pune.