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HYDROGRAPHY: GEOPOLITICAL COMPETITION IN INDIAN OCEAN



  Mar 30, 2024

HYDROGRAPHY: GEOPOLITICAL COMPETITION IN INDIAN OCEAN



Hydrography, the science of mapping the world’s water bodies and the seabed, has emerged as a new front in the geopolitical battle for influence in the Indian Ocean. Nations like India and China are intensifying efforts to chart not only international waters but also the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of regional countries, amidst growing concerns from smaller states about sovereignty and control over their maritime data.

The Importance of Hydrography

Hydrographic data is vital for safe maritime navigation, naval operations, and emerging activities like seabed mining.

Accurate and up-to-date charts are crucial for understanding and navigating the ocean floor, which remains largely unexplored compared to terrestrial and lunar surfaces.

The Indian Ocean is among the least charted, highlighted by the search for the missing Malaysian Airlines MH370 in 2014.

Geopolitical Dimensions

Major powers are vying to offer hydrographic services to nations lacking the capability or expertise, a move intertwined with demonstrating regional leadership and gaining access to data critical for military purposes.

Sovereignty concerns arise over who owns or controls sea-related information, especially in national jurisdictions.

India’s Role

India positions itself as a regional hydrographic service provider, with a fleet of hydrographic vessels conducting surveys in various countries and building local capabilities through training programs.

China’s Ambitions

China offers hydrographic services with its fleet of over 30 oceanographic surveillance and research vessels, some equipped with electronic surveillance capabilities, raising security concerns among regional players, particularly India.

Controversies and Responses

The presence of Chinese research vessels in Sri Lankan and Maldivian waters has led to diplomatic tensions and policy shifts. Sri Lanka has moved to regulate foreign hydrographic research more strictly, while Maldives decided not to renew an agreement with India for conducting hydrographic surveys.

The strategic implications of allowing foreign nations to map EEZs have led countries like Sri Lanka and Maldives to reconsider their hydrographic partnerships and seek to develop sovereign capabilities.

International Assistance

Countries like the United States, Britain, and Australia are exploring ways to assist nations in the Indian Ocean region in building their hydrographic capabilities. This support aims to enable these countries to take control of their hydrographic data and benefit economically while ensuring their security and sovereignty.

The Way Forward

The unfolding situation in Sri Lanka and Maldives may set precedents for other nations in the region, highlighting the need for a balanced approach that respects sovereignty while fostering international cooperation.

Australia, among other partners, is positioned to play a significant role in supporting the development of local hydrographic capabilities, ensuring that countries can govern their seas and control their data.

The geopolitics of hydrography in the Indian Ocean underscores the intricate relationship between maritime knowledge, sovereignty, and regional security. As competition intensifies, the ability to map the seas is becoming as crucial as the capability to navigate them.


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