As the Quad grouping consisting of India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. looks to roll out an Indo-Pacific maritime domain awareness (MDA) initiative for information sharing and maritime surveillance across the region, two issues limit India’s ability to further expand its role, say government officials. These are infrastructure constraints and continued delay in posting Indian liaison officers at others facilities and centres in the region.
“There is interest and there are requests from several countries to post international liaison officers (ILO) at the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre-Indian Ocean Region (IFC-IOR) but it cannot induct any more at the moment due to infrastructure constraints. A proposal for expansion has been pending with the Defence Ministry for two years now,” a government official told The Hindu on condition of anonymity, which was also acknowledged by diplomatic sources.
In December 2021, Navy chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar said that ILOs from 14 countries have been invited to join the IFC-IOR. South Block officials said there is interest from many more countries in the region and beyond.
The scope of information sharing for MDA has significantly expanded in recent years among Quad countries as well as with littoral states in the backdrop of expanding Chinese naval presence across the region.
Elaborating on the value addition ILOs bring in, the official stated that ILOs bring to the table one’s local expertise which we are not aware of and can’t be determined from here and also help in building linkages with various agencies in their home countries.
At a different level, countries in the neighbourhood joining our information sharing framework is a strategic statement that these countries are aligning with India for their security needs, the official noted. The initiative will lose steam if not acted upon immediately as countries will lose interest, one South Block official cautioned.
The official cited earlier said it is not just important to have ILOs in India, but also equally important that Indian Navy officers be posted at similar centres in other countries.
The IPMDA initiative was announced at the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Tokyo on May 24 to track “dark shipping” and to build a “faster, wider, and more accurate maritime picture of near-real-time activities in partners’ waters” integrating three critical regions in the Indo-Pacific — the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the IOR.
Proposals to post Indian naval liaison officers (LO) at the Regional Maritime Information Fusion Centre (RMIFC), Madagascar, and the Regional Coordination Operations Centre, Seychelles, have been pending for more than two years.
India joined the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) as an observer in March 2020 and the proposal to send an LO to the RMIFC has been pending since. Another proposal to post an LO at the European-led mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) in Abu Dhabi has also not been approved so far.
In addition, there is a delay in continuing the present LOs as well. For instance, India has had an LO at the IFC in Singapore since 2009. “We have not been having our ILO in Singapore for over a year now. There has been no movement in the Ministry,” two officials confirmed. It is a place we should be, one of officials stressed.
Officials had described that this is in the overall realm of improving linkages of the IFC-IOR with the other IFCs and eventually becoming the repository for all maritime data in the IOR. With the impetus of the IPMDA, this becomes even more important, one of the officials cited above said.
The IFC-IOR, set up in 2018, is located within the premises of the Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) in Gurugram and currently has 12 ILOs posted there. India has signed white shipping exchange agreements with 22 countries and one multi-national grouping.
Real-time picture of Indo-Pacific
A fact sheet issued by the U.S. during the Quad summit said, “The benefits of this (maritime) picture are vast: it will allow tracking of dark shipping and other tactical-level activities, such as rendezvous at sea, as well as improve partners’ ability to respond to climate and humanitarian events and to protect their fisheries, which are vital to many Indo-Pacific economies.”
The Quad partners will begin immediate consultations on this opportunity with partners in the region, the fact sheet added.
In addition to the IFC-IOR, other existing regional fusion centres that will be integrated are the IFC based in Singapore; the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency based in the Solomon Islands, and the Pacific Fusion Center based in Vanuatu, both of which receive support from Australia.