In New Delhi, South Block for the past few months have been busy, with the socio-economic and political crisis brewing in all its neighbours whether it is Bangladesh’s fuel crisis or Pakistan’s and Sri Lanka’s crippling economy and unstable political order which have kept New Delhi on strict vigilance. These issues are been constantly been highlighted in India’s mainstream media discourse, but one contentious issue which was underreported was the controversial revelations made by Sherry Singh the CEO of Mauritius Telecom and a close confidant of Mauritius PM in his multiple interviews, which have slid New Delhi into the spotlight. Singh has levelled accusations against the Mauritian Prime Minister for objectively installing a “sniffing” device in 13,500-km SAFE (South Africa and the Far East) cable, an undersea fibre-optic cable linking South Africa, Mauritius, La Réunion in France, India, and Malaysia. That would spy on Mauritian internet traffic. Furthermore, he pinpoints New Delhi’s involvement in this alleged espionage episode by further stating that the team of Indian technicians were allowed access to The internet landing station which is located in a prohibited area in Mauritius at the historical landmark Baie-du-Jacotet. As this incident is still under investigation by the Mauritian police as said by PM Jugnauth, It was successful enough to highlight some critical questions firstly how much threshold does the issue of submarine/seabase cables hold in a nation state’s security and furthermore, what challenges they can pose to a nation’s Maritime Cybersecurity? Currently at the time when the world order is challenged not only through traditional security issues like the Russian-Ukrain war or the tensions between Taiwan and China but also by non-traditional security issues such as climate change, drug trafficking and transnational cyber-crimes. In such a crucial moment of global politics where even a slight moment and gesture can be interpreted in a thousand ways, In that environment, we have noticed New Delhi walking on a tightrope and managing its new shift from a non-alignment foreign policy to a strategic autonomous foreign policy.
As almost every day South Bloc in New Delhi is facing a new challenge on its foreign policy front, thus maintaining strong strategic manoeuvres becomes crucial for India to maintain its say on International platforms. One of the prominent geopolitical areas where India maintains its stronghold is the Indian Ocean. Due to its geopolitical, security apparatus, & territorial commitments, New Delhi views the Indian Ocean as a crucial tactical & monetary stage. Considering that, the Indian Ocean comprises New Delhi's close neighbourhood as well as its prolonged neighbourhood, the Indian Ocean has traditionally been quite a crucial arena for involvement and concern for Delhi and it might conceivably affect its geopolitical posture. Hence, a safe and steady Indian Ocean is vital for the strategic predicament of New Delhi. India views itself as a significant spatial and security player and benefits from a prime geographical positioning in the Indian Ocean. Therefore perseverance in Maritime Cyber-Security has become vital for India’s strategic interests, especially at the time when PM Modi is focusing on agendas like Blue-economy, the maintenance of free and open trade routes and fighting piracy and improving naval capacities. Unlike the naval capacity of a nation, the issue of submarine cables is the less debated issue within the topic of maritime security in the popular media discourse. Despite the fact that these are the main transportation routes for our globalised market.
Nowadays, the underwater cable serves as one of society's essential foundations, facilitating information technology in addition to the transport of online data and electricity generation. This has been necessary for governance, commerce, financial services, combat operations, and public institutions. Attacks towards the network, though, are escalating. The subsea technology was formerly exposed to a small handful of distinct threats, but additional problems presently pose a vulnerability. Thus Sumabrine Cables are usually the centre-point of Geopolitics in this digital globalised world. Distinctive trans-border ties are established through cable networks, which frequently go beyond or exceed more traditional diplomatic or territorial types of collaboration. Considering links spanning different geopolitical zones, several nations occupy a notably significant place within the global submarine cable network.
Nevertheless, the international community is worried about the fact that connections are growing. The resurgence of geostrategic inter-state disputes as well as the emergence of trans-border tech firms as geopolitics participants were the two most recent geopolitics phenomena relating to the modern fibre-optic connections that are especially illuminating. When we talk about geostrategic competition in cyber-warfare then one of the prominent ones is the tussle between the US and China, which started at the time of Trump’s presidency to establish the hegemony over Artificial intelligence, 5G technologies and semiconductors, which continued by President Biden. The Restrictions due to the concern of espionage committed by Chinese tech companies like Huawei, ZTE and SMIC by Washington have given a competitive push to Chinese tech private sectors to establish their stronghold in the arena of undersea/ submarine cables. Despite the fact of Bipolar hegemony of the US and China in the area of submarine cables, the tech war between them has also given the opportunity to a new player like India which is about to establish its first independent submarine cable with the collaboration of Reliance Jio Infocomm, which will originate from the Indian mainland. Currently, in India, there are a total of fifteen sub-sea cables and seventeen if SEACOM and MENA are categorised differently. These cables have five landing stations in Trivandrum, Chennai, Mumbai, Tuticorin and Cochin. As New Delhi is working towards this strategic ambitious project reflecting a public-private sector partnership towards achieving a strong tactical stand in the theatrics of world politics. But is New Delhi fully equipped to face maritime cyber-security threats?
The defence of undersea cables has long been threatened by the enormous, inadequately known seawater in which the undersea wires are laid. These characteristics of the maritime ecosystem and human use thereof have produced a challenging climate for infrastructural upkeep. Even though wires were originally put into use, weathering, earthquakes, shipping anchors, and fishing nets have represented several of the most common environmental and unintentional sources of premature damage or malfunctions. The employment of cyber weapons against the core technologies of the subsea wire system is also a significant source of worry. Cyberattacks against the system could be conducted in a variety of approaches. The deployment of distant networking monitoring solutions is associated with some of the biggest cybersecurity dangers. Networking monitoring platforms are vulnerable to a variety of cyberattacks because they frequently access the web, depending upon the HTTP and TCP/IP interfaces, and use quasi-programs. Network management system intrusion could provide hackers access to various cable administration technologies, insight into networking and information movements, intelligence about physical cable weaknesses, as well as the power to track, sabotage, and redirect traffic. The hybridization of conflicts and confrontation across seaborne and cyberspace sectors is becoming prevalent.
Due to the advancement of the traditional mode of combat in this digitalized and globalised world, It is becoming difficult to distinguish whether the attack was state-sponsored or a privately conducted third-party operation, which can be hard to trace despite having advancements in technologies. Due to its vital strategic importance, New Delhi is keen to maintain a special relationship with countries positioned in the Indian Ocean. Despite India’s efforts to maintain its Indians in the Indian Ocean, New Delhi on an array of fronts engages in a continuous power struggle with Bejing. In 2015, China liked Belt Road Initiative, its most ambitious project with the Chinese digital silk road initiative which oversees the global investment in submarine cable infrastructure. Under this initiative, It is been noticed that there has been a dramatic rise in the establishment of ties between the Chinese government and China’s big tech companies in respect of submarine cable development and ownership, the prominent one is HMN technologies which created approximately 400 submarine cables across the globe. Furthermore, Beijing commands strict control over decision-making about where, when and how submarine cables have to be constructed, thus giving it full control not only to the Chinese private companies but also to the Chinese government, thus leading to compromised security and resilience open to Chinese intrusion and data breach.
Therefore, when the Chinese made a deal with Mauritius of 350 million dollars to set up 4000 cameras with face recognition software under the most controversial ‘Safe Cities Program’, It alarmed New Delhi because it can give the Chinese a free hand on data information not only of Mauritius but also can provide an opportunity of data breach towards India because of the fact that additionally to the “Safe cities program” Chinese also offered to build a submarine cable from Port Louis the capital city of Mauritius to the Baie-du-Jacotet which got further linked to SAFE cable. Thus creating a security dilemma a facility built by India, at Agaléga island, which is considered vital to gather intelligence or keep a watch on Chinese expeditions in the Indian Ocean. Chinese is not the only challenge to India’s maritime cyber security, But, terrorist organisations and other non-state actors have already demonstrated the capacity and desire to attack critical infrastructures. Nevertheless, instead of explicitly attacking the global market or financial marketplaces, the bulk of such assaults have focused on a large population of individuals and generated as much attention as possible. Overseas crime syndicates are indeed well-known to extensively rely on internet connectivity to conduct their businesses and as a crucial entry point for cyberattacks, including ransomware. This increases the likelihood that potential international criminal groups would look for chances to take advantage of the underwater cable network's weaknesses.
India under its “Neighbourhood first policy” initiative is working towards becoming a Net Security Provider in the Indian Ocean. Recently, India signed six agreements with the Maldives centred around maritime defence and security which specifically included cyber-security. Under the initiatives launched by the Modi administration like Security and Growth for all in the Region, the Indian Navy has also increased bilateral/multilateral defence and security cooperation with countries like Myanmar, Bangladesh and Thailand. Furthermore, as India plans to lead the draft plan for cybersecurity in the BIMSTEC group of countries, It can be further challenged by its own outdated National Cyber Security Policy which was supposed to get renewed and remodified according to current needs. India is globally the top sixth whose data has been breached. These data breaches can not only affect mear internet connectivity but can also endanger the nuclear command of the country.
Therefore it becomes of utmost importance for New Delhi to devise a new cyber security policy which satisfies the needs of ongoing cyber security challenges, most importantly by including the safeguarding provisions related to submarine cables. Within the reformed framework of the National Cyber Security Program, Firstly Central Government of India, can coordinate and collaborate with the state governments where the landing stations are being situated so that smooth functioning and proper coordination can be established especially at a time when there is some physical damage occurred to the submarine cables, Secondly, a country’s perseverance of security comes under the principle of sovereignty thus, the Big Multi-National companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, should be directed to work more efficiently to secure submarine cables, furthermore adding to the point, The public-private sector partnership and accountability must be ensured for the proper maintenance of the submarine cables through adopting a strong international framework by states together under UNCLOS. Thirdly, nowadays, as military infrastructures and operations are majority dependent upon secure cable connectivity, Thus as this dependency is increasing day by day, the Indian ministry of defence should set up a commission which will primarily focus on improving the security and surveillance of these undersea cables with a special focus on our Naval facilities and ports and detect any fault in infrastructure which might infringe the operations. Lastly, these subsea cables and their infrastructure is indeed prone to damage which can also disrupt the eco-system of the sea, thus under the initiative of the green revolution, the Indian administration with multi-lateral partnership must collaborate on this vital issue by conducting studies to make the undersea cable more climate-friendly in this process they can also collaborate with various international organisations like United Nations Environment Programme and many other non-governmental organisations.
Currently what’s observable is that New Delhi does understand the importance of Maritime cyber-security but the pace at these steps that are taken to attain the goal of securing the country from cyber-attacks, create not only the security repercussions but also pushes back India’s progress to attain a strategic autonomous foreign policy, especially at the territorial space like Indian ocean which is always considered as a stronghold of New Delhi security and strategic interests. Thus it becomes vital for the Indian administration to bring its fragmented strategy together to counter the cyber threats so that it can truly emerge itself as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean.