Australia and Japan should lead the way in maritime law enforcement training

During the recent visit by Australian Defence Minister Richard Marles to Japan, the nations vowed to strengthen the interoperability of their armed forces amid shared concerns over Chinese assertiveness. The minister’s visit came shortly after the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida pledged US$2 billion ($2.9 billion) to help Indo-Pacific nations boost maritime security. ‘We will make use of technical cooperation, training and other means conducive to strengthening the maritime law enforcement capabilities of at least 20 countries to promote efforts to train at least 800 maritime security personnel and strengthen their human resources networks,’ he said.

This is a timely and important initiative by Japan at a time when law enforcement at sea is becoming more challenging. Strengthening civil maritime law enforcement is necessary to assist the region with managing common problems such as illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; drug trafficking; people smuggling; marine pollution; and search and rescue. These challenges were set out for Australia in April this year with the release of the first Australian government civil maritime security strategy.

Over the past decade or so, there’s been significant growth in both the size and use of coastguards and other civil maritime law enforcement forces in the region. But many regional states have limited capacity to respond to national and regional civil maritime security challenges, especially in maritime domain awareness.

The Japanese Coast Guard Academy hosts some regional students, and the Japan Coast Guard sponsors ASEAN coastguard personnel for training in Japan. The US Coast Guard has engaged in hands-on exercises to help train Southeast Asian coastguards on boarding procedures and vessel inspections. It has also supported the technical experts workshop run by the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative, a regional forum to increase maritime law enforcement cooperation and information-sharing among Southeast Asian nations.

Interpol has run courses in Southeast Asia on strengthening border controls and preventing and combating various forms of maritime crime. Under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s global maritime crime program, the Indian Ocean Forum on Maritime Crime conducts capacity-building through training sessions on visit, board, search and seizure procedures; maritime domain awareness; and criminal investigation skills. Based in Bangkok, the program’s Pacific Ocean team assists states in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region in building their capability to tackle maritime crimes.

But there’s no dedicated institution in the Indo-Pacific focused specifically on providing professional training and education for officers from regional coastguards and maritime law enforcement agencies.

An Indo-Pacific maritime law enforcement professional development centre would fill the gap to build partner capacity, promote professionalism in maritime agencies and strengthen regional cooperation to better meet maritime security challenges. The centre could also cover maritime safety and marine environmental protection, given that these activities are often subsumed in roles performed by regional maritime law enforcement agencies.

The proposed centre would encourage the emergence of long-term relationships between Indo-Pacific maritime law enforcement agencies and their counterparts in the region.

It would facilitate contributions to training in maritime law enforcement by partners such as the United States, France, Japan, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It would work with existing structures and regional institutions and would operate in a way that builds lasting, trust-based relationships to ensure that Indo-Pacific maritime law enforcement agencies see clear benefit in learning from and engaging with it. Early in its operations, the centre would engage with senior representatives from Indo-Pacific agencies in order to best tailor its programs.

One interesting model to look at is the US International Law Enforcement Academy in Botswana, which hosts and facilitates international law enforcement training, including maritime law enforcement events, particularly in Africa. Another interesting model would be the NATO concept of centres of excellence, and in particular the NATO centre of excellence for maritime security in Turkey.

The Indo-Pacific maritime law enforcement professional development centre should be located in Darwin given the city’s status as the gateway to Southeast Asia. Its establishment there would underline Australia’s strong links to the region. Darwin is a rapidly growing centre of maritime activity supporting the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Border Force, the offshore oil and gas industry, commercial fishing, ship repair and maintenance, and marine tourism.

For Australian Border Force staff there’s the possibility that some of the training that’s now conducted at the ABF College in Neutral Bay in Sydney might be undertaken in Darwin. The best place to conduct realistic, practical training is always in the environment that you intend to operate in: the wider Darwin Harbour and its maritime approaches are some of the best maritime training areas that the ADF, the ABF, maritime police units and regional allies already utilise. A centre of excellence in Darwin would also be ideal for the Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting collaborative framework, of which Australia through the Maritime Border Command is a member, to regularly conduct practical collective training and skills exchange.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese met Prime Minister Kishida at the Quad summit in Tokyo last month. The two leaders will meet again at the NATO summit in Madrid this week. In the sidelines of that meeting, Albanese might raise the idea that a maritime law enforcement professional development centre in Darwin be a joint venture between the Australian and Japanese governments. It could be managed by the Australian Border Force and the Japan Coast Guard. It would soon become the Indo-Pacific’s maritime law enforcement training facilitator of choice and promote a multinational approach to the conduct of regional law enforcement operations at sea at a time of increasing maritime insecurity.