India recently signed “white shipping” agreements with different countries for reciprocal exchange of information on merchant vessels in an attempt to bolster its Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA).

The Indian Defence Ministry has said in a statement that the move will help the South Asian country tackle threats emanating from the sea. “Of the 29 countries and three multi-national constructs identified for the purpose, white shipping agreements have already been inked with 10-11 till now. The main focus is on our primary area of geopolitical interest stretching from Africa’s east coast to beyond the Malacca Strait,” added the ministry.

According to the ministry sources, India is developing “a holistic operational picture” of the seas around it, as there are several busy shipping lanes around the country (in the Indian Ocean Region or IOR). A senior ministry official claimed that the move would allow the Navy to detect, track and tackle both conventional and unconventional threats.

With the Indian Navy, Coast Guard and other security agencies monitoring movements of foreign warships and illegal vessels through warships, patrol aircraft, drones and satellites, the Defence Ministry has started concentrating on movements of commercial ships. The official, who wished to remain anonymous, stressed that a number of countries have agreed to exchange Automatic Identification System (AIS) transponder data and other information on cargo vessels with New Delhi to mutually improve their MDA.

Speaking at a media conference in the Indian capital last week, the official said: “No one country can keep the vast areas on the high seas under surveillance…some of the gaps can be plugged through such pacts to share real-time positional information. It can help in detection of threats away from our shores, providing us with enough reaction time to neutralise them.”

Apart from friendly nations, like Japan and the US, India has signed such accords with countries that are considered as “choke-points” in the IOR. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Singapore and Malaysia in 2015, India decided to share commercial shipping information with these countries to ensure safe navigation of ships through the Malacca Strait and other crucial shipping lanes.

India is also enhancing its MDA by setting up Coastal Surveillance Radar Stations (CSRS) in strategically-located IOR countries, like Mauritius, Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Maldives. In Seychelles, India has installed eight CSRS that have navigation radars, electro-optic sensors and AIS transponders. An Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC) has also been set up in the northern Indian city of Gurgaon to track around 30,000-40,000 vessels on a daily basis.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog – Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]