What Is a White Shipping Agreement, and How Does it Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness?
"Information sharing is a critical component of maritime domain awareness and security, bringing valuable context to sparse and diluted datasets that otherwise would be too thin to act on in many cases."
What is White Shipping?
White shipping is a term used to classify maritime vessels as “commercial ships.” Commercial ships can operate as anything from container ships to passenger ships but are most often used in commercial maritime trade for public and private entities to turn a profit.
White Shipping vs. Grey Shipping vs. Dark Shipping
While there is no hard-and-fast rule on classifying maritime vessels, there is a general understanding of three primary vessel types. White ships are those used for commercial purposes, most often in the global trade of goods and resources, while grey ships describe operational military vessels. Dark ships are most often associated with dark fleets and are well-known for their nefarious roles in illegal parts of the maritime sector, supporting everything from IUU fishing to sanctions avoidance to trafficking and more.
What is a White Shipping Information Exchange Agreement?
If white shipping is considered an act of shipping involving vessels carrying out standard commercial operations, then “white shipping information” simply describes the information regarding the movement, sea routes, location, and identification of “white vessels.”
Taking that a step further, a “white shipping information exchange agreement” describes an agreement, or information network protocol, made between member countries to share non-classified information on commercial vessels operating within their territorial waters.
The purpose of such an agreement is to enhance maritime domain awareness and security measures through the mutual exchange of information, allowing countries or entities with active participation to better manage and prepare for illegal or questionable maritime activities, which can cause economic harm, environmental degradation, and risk to human life - and the list doesn’t stop there.
India’s Push for a Multi-National White Shipping Information Exchange Agreement (WSA)
For those with interest in the international maritime sector, it will come as no surprise to hear about the territorial disputes regarding the South China Sea. China’s claims to the territory are heavily disputed by numerous nations, which has fueled already existing conflicts. The dispute even helped rally Quad’s recent multi-national partnership to monitor and protect the waters of the Indo-Pacific.
In response to the territorial disputes in the Indian Ocean region, India began attempting to sign White Shipping Agreements with 36 countries. Of the 36 prospective countries, 22 have agreed and signed (including the United States and Singapore), and 17 are already operational.
India-New Zealand White Shipping Agreement
Most recently, the Indian Navy agreed on a White Shipping Information Agreement with New Zealand, a pact that encourages maritime transparency by sharing AIS information and other data on merchant ships passing through territorial waters. The exchange of unclassified maritime information is the first step toward robust domain awareness, which may include the exchange of prior information unreleased until now.
The White Shipping Information Exchange Agreement was signed by RNZN Rear Admiral David Proctor (Chief of Royal New Zealand Navy) and CNS Hari Kumar (the Chief of Naval Staff for India.)
Key Components of the India-New Zealand Information Agreement:
On a recent visit in late September, CNS Hari Kumar visited New Zealand, where an information-sharing agreement was made and put on paper, expressing each country’s views towards a closer collaboration for greater transparency in the maritime sector.
White shipping terminology was determined and categorized as white shipping, grey shipping, and dark shipping (described in the sections above).
White shipping information to be shared was determined for each nautical domain in the coming years.
When asked about the visit, the Ministry of Defense said, “An agreement on White Shipping Information Exchange was signed during the visit. Closer collaboration for enhancing shared Maritime Domain Awareness is in keeping with convergent views of both countries to promote greater transparency in the maritime domain.”
India-Oman White Shipping Agreement
Last year, India secured a similar agreement with an already long-term cooperative partner, Oman, to develop strategies to enhance maritime domain awareness and combat the potential threat of dark shipping in the region. As with other White Shipping Information Exchange Agreements, the goal of the partnership was to facilitate regional security by giving the coast guard and other maritime authorities a more in-depth scope of happenings in the maritime domain.
Key Components of the India-New Zealand Information Agreement:
Admiral Karambir Singh, Indian Chief of the Naval Staff in 2021, traveled to Oman on a 3-day visit to visit defense installations, including Oman’s primary Maritime Security Center, exploring new and innovative avenues for defense cooperation and information sharing.
On September 27, 2021, Admiral Saif bin Nasser bin Mohsen Al-Rahbi, Commander of Royal Navy of Oman, signed an agreement to exchange white shipping information.
How Do White Shipping Agreements Enhance Maritime Transparency, Maritime Safety, and Maritime Trade?
Information sharing is a critical component of maritime domain awareness and security, bringing valuable context to sparse and diluted datasets that otherwise would be too thin to act on in many cases.
In the past couple of years, the United States and many other countries have joined forces in the Quad Alliance to protect the Indo-Pacific region from threats (namely China), and a huge part of the strategy has to do with building and facilitating a multi-national information-sharing network for global outreach.
This information network provides valuable insights for quicker, more informed maritime management when used adequately.
Further, information sharing provides a direct pathway to mitigating human and environmental atrocities and other areas of mutual interest, including natural resource and wildlife conservation, human and drug trafficking, and undocumented or unlawful military operations.