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Quad’s Maritime Domain Awareness Initiative Needs Time to Deliver

Ms Shruti Pandalai is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
Cmde Abhay Kumar Singh (Retd) is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 24, 2022

    The Quad is often criticised for underplaying its security agenda for the greater good of consensus-building. The Tokyo Summit in May 2020 may have changed that, with an announcement which is being seen as a clearest signal yet to China on its aggressive tactics at sea. A collaborative effort by the US, India, Japan and Australia—the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) Initiative—is aimed at delivering on the promised goals of enhancing maritime security and shared domain awareness  in the region via technology and training support.1 Capacity-building of regional countries to guard against Chinese misadventures near their waters, in essence, is the focus of this effort.

    South East Asia is among the key focus regions of this initiative. The White House read-out outlines that the IPMDA will share commercially available satellite data and alert smaller Southeast Asian states on possible territorial intrusions or illicit activity such as illegal fishing, smuggling or piracy in waters within their maritime boundaries.2 China’s muscle-flexing in the South China Sea was discussed by India and the ASEAN leaders during the recently held Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue in New Delhi. For a grouping like the ASEAN, which finds itself at the receiving end of the strategic fallout of US–China competition and Chinese belligerence, capacity-building measures like IPDMA could augment strength.

    Aims of the IPMDA

    Simply put, Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) is about having comprehensive position and intentions of all actors at sea in the given area of interest. This requires creation of compilation, correlation and fusion of surveillance data collected from diverse sources, i.e., satellites, radar, reconnaissance planes or human intelligence, in order to detect and identify actors with irregular or threatening behaviour.

    Given the vast expanse of the ocean and resources required for comprehensive surveillance at sea, a collaborative approach for information-sharing and domain awareness has remained a major ask. The end goal is to develop among like-minded countries a shared understanding of developments and threats at sea.

    The key to this line of effort is to link up existing regional collaboration mechanisms which are already analysing and assessing threats and challenges in their respective areas of interest. Each of the Quad members have their space-based assets for maritime surveillance, which are supplemented by their airborne and land-based sensors.

    In addition, the Quad countries support/operate regional fusion centres. These include India’s IOR IFC, Australia-sponsored Pacific Fusion Centre in South Pacific, Japan’s MDA Situational Indication Linkages (MSIL) and the US Navy’s SeaVision platform.3 Protocols exist, as it is, for information-sharing and by creating more linkages with other such mechanisms, the initiative aims to develop the ability to predict patterns for big picture analyses.4

    Keeping China in Check

    IPMDA is an effort to supplement existing arrangements and is a reiteration that habits of cooperation and trust among like-minded countries can help augment regional capacities through rapid distribution and processing of shared data.5 Official statements explain that integration of three regions—South East Asia, South Asia and the Pacific—and being responsive to their needs as to what “is happening in countries’ territorial waters and in their exclusive economic zones” in real time, drove this effort.6

    Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing has emerged as a major area of concern. Many regional countries are endowed with vast Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) but have limited resources for effective monitoring of these zones. IUU Fishing has led to many countries losing fiscal revenues and has had disastrous consequences on conservation and sustainability efforts.

    The scale of the challenge is compounded given that most fishing vessels are not obligated to carry any vessel tracking system, i.e., Automatic Identification System (AIS) or Vessel Monitoring System (VMS). Even when they are mandated, as in the case of vessels more than 300 metres, illegal actors go dark by either switching their tracking system off or transmitting false/spurious data as spoof. Identifying such illegal actors requires persistent monitoring of relevant areas with high resolution, surveillance sensors. It is only when you process this data that illicit actors’ patterns of behaviour can be identified. Therefore, the challenge in identifying illegal actors at sea is as much about data collection as it is about data processing. IPMDA aims to address this gap via pooling of resources.

    While the stated goal is to contribute towards an effective deployment of maritime assets by regional partners to respond to humanitarian and natural disasters, and combat illegal fishing, the signpost of ‘We are watching you’ to China is not explicitly stated but is implicit. It is no secret that fishing fleets from China have aggressively targeted Indo-Pacific waters and have sparked outrage with frequent clashes. The IPMDA initiative would in practical terms assist in not just identifying Chinese actions but also help push back on its grey-zone activities.

    Limitations of the Initiative

    Critics have argued that the announcement was the lowest hanging fruit the Quad countries could deliver on, given that the collaborative efforts this initiative aims to institutionalise are already in play. However, the fact is that regional MDA remains far from comprehensive and extensive gaps remain in terms of information sharing. To deter China actively at sea, investments for the long haul in terms of persistent tracking of the vast span of Indo-Pacific are essential for realising the stated goals.

    Clearer answers on how Quad members will mobilise necessary space-, air- or land-based surveillance assets required for such constant tracking or queries on how demands for additional resource mobilisation will be met, requires further elaboration. India, for one, is already setting up coastal surveillance radar stations (CSRS) in strategically located IOR countries, but has faced problems where demand has exceeded supply.7

    For Quad to succeed as a force of public good, a strategic buy-in from South East Asia is essential. Given the region’s scepticism towards the Quad and apprehensions about the Quad’s rhetoric on ASEAN centrality, the IPMDA could serve as a reassuring platform to deliver on the most fundamental requirements on regional maritime security and prove its effectiveness.8 However, time will be of essence, as Quad countries divvy up responsibilities and resources while managing the crunch of post-pandemic economies.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.