As a country that’s acutely aware of its own interests in the oceans around it, you’d think that Australia would be playing a leading role in ocean management and development in the wider region.
But in a new Policy Analysis out today, Sam Bateman and I point out that maritime assistance doesn’t figure prominently in our international aid. We think that there’s real potential for our aid policy to focus on oceans management and development.
While it would be a new direction for them in many ways, this would be a good strategic goal for AusAID and, at a time when the Australian Government is committed to raising its international aid spending, this is a good opportunity to launch some new initiatives.
Helping regional countries build their own maritime surveillance and constabulary capability would assist them with border and food security. As well, cooperative efforts between countries of the South Pacific would help build a shared maritime security framework where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This hasn’t previously been possible, but we’ve identified some steps that could start the process.
The principal intention of providing patrol boats in the Pacific islands is to ensure good law and order at sea. Building basic onshore civil policing qualifies as development assistance, and so should building civil policing at sea. Assistance in developing and protecting the economic potential of regional countries’ large EEZs would be a significant contribution to poverty alleviation in the region.
The first step is making sure that their hardware is up to the task. The Pacific Patrol Boat Program (PDF) has involved the transfer of 22 boats to the Pacific island countries between 1987 and 1995. The program is the largest component of the Defence Cooperation Program. But the patrol boats are near the end of their economic lives and, given Defence’s tight budgetary outlook, there’s a real risk that Defence will propose a least-cost solution that won’t be in the best interests of either Australia or the Pacific island countries.
We think that, as maritime security assistance for the Pacific island countries is an important part of nation-building, it should be seen as a whole-of-government activity by Australian agencies and funded within our international aid program. By our reading, patrol boats would count as aid as the relevant OECD guidelines state that whether spending qualifies as aid depends on the development intention underpinning assistance.
Under this mechanism AusAID could fund a Pacific air surveillance program and coastal patrol vessels. Defence might fund larger offshore patrol vessels to undertake regular patrols through the high seas and EEZs of the island countries and a regional maritime coordination centre.
And it’s not just about policing. Australia has a robust maritime scientific research community and is well placed to help developing countries to building their capacity in fields such as responding to climate change and managing coastal zones.
A dedicated focus in Australian aid across the spectrum of ocean management and development would support our aid priorities in fostering economic growth in neighbouring developing countries and help them to protect the marine environment.
Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI.