Indo-Pacific island states face increasing maritime security threats

In a new ASPI report, titled Ocean horizons, we examine how Pacific island countries and Indian Ocean island states are managing and prioritising their maritime security challenges. The Indo-Pacific islands face an intricate offshore tapestry: the pervasive maritime nature of the strategic environment in the region makes most threats maritime in one way or another.

We found that maritime threats and risks for the Indo-Pacific island states are increasing. That’s in part because of the general lack of effective maritime security identified in our study.

The geostrategic location of the island states in the Indo-Pacific, though perhaps not the biggest security concern in their own eyes, is nonetheless an important factor in determining their approach and response to their maritime security concerns.

The island states are facing an increasingly diversified threat environment when it comes to maritime security. Illegal fishing and the impacts of climate change are the highest priority risks and threats.

There are also a range of other environmental security threats to the Pacific islands, such as illegal dumping from sea-based sources, oil pollution, World War II shipwrecks with corroding metal hulls, the introduction of harmful species through ballast water, and marine litter. Smuggling of drugs (especially cocaine) through the region that are destined for Australia from Latin America is also a growing problem.

In nearly all the Pacific islands there’s a lack of coordination between the many agencies concerned with maritime security. Most agencies are starved of equipment, maintenance and operational funds. Many islands lack the communications infrastructure that would enable a quick response to some national emergencies, including a major maritime search and rescue operation. Air surveillance of areas of national maritime jurisdiction is conducted only occasionally.

The security priorities of Indian Ocean island states have evolved in recent years in response to a changing regional environment. After more than a decade of focusing on Somali-based piracy, especially by the western Indian Ocean islands, that threat is now largely under control. But there are other types of threats, including climate change, illegal fishing, people smuggling and violent extremism.

Drug trafficking in the western Indian Ocean, especially via the so-called Smack Track, is a serious and immediate security threat. Maritime safety is also a big concern: there are numerous ferry accidents and four out of the seven worst container ship disasters in recent years occurred in the Indian Ocean region. The number of port state inspections of shipping is low.

Like in the Pacific, efforts to enhance maritime security of the Indian Ocean island states should focus on enhancing national and regional maritime domain awareness.

The Indo-Pacific island states are characterised by great diversity in geography, ethnic and social makeup and historical experiences. But despite that diversity they share many characteristics.

Major powers are targeting the Indo-Pacific island states to gain strategic benefits or expand their political influence. China is continuing to push its Belt and Road Initiative and its world view. There’s a focus on investment but also a clear geostrategic element in its engagement with the Indo-Pacific islands.

A combination of their small size, weak governance and limited financial resources make many island states uniquely vulnerable to the adverse effects of major-power competition.

But it shouldn’t be assumed that the islands are always mere pawns in a wider strategic contest. They have agency, often considerable agency, in pursuing their own national interests, whether through aligning themselves with larger powers or playing off larger powers against each other.

But that can be a risky game, and many small island states have little room for error in resisting larger powers. The difficulty for small island states to go it alone means that regional institutions play a vital role in building their resilience to address both maritime security challenges and strategic competition.

We found that few Indo-Pacific island states have published a national maritime security strategy for their country, although some have developed national security strategies, national oceans policies, border security strategies, or some combination of them.

For the most part, the level of surveillance and patrol of Indo-Pacific island states’ waters is inadequate. Significant gaps also exist in many of the island states’ national legal frameworks and maritime law enforcement training schemes to deal with the full range of illegal activity at sea.

Among our recommendations for Indo-Pacific island states, we suggest that they develop and implement national maritime security strategies and be encouraged to pool their air surveillance capabilities. Remote island and coastal areas should be patrolled regularly to protect sovereignty, prevent illegal activity and support nation-building.

They should consider building national systems for maritime domain awareness, starting with effective coordination and information-sharing among their own national agencies as well as private organisations and local communities. We suggest that Australia, Japan and other like-minded countries working with Indo-Pacific island states help promote the development of such systems. They should establish a working group of their coastguard agencies to take stock of and coordinate their assistance to Indo-Pacific island and littoral states.

Australia needs to take a more active role in building capabilities among selected Indian Ocean island states, especially Sri Lanka and the Maldives. This should not seek to replicate Australia’s Pacific Maritime Security Program but can draw valuable lessons from that experience.

Given the importance of environmental security to Indo-Pacific island states, Australia and its partners must do more to help shape the regional narrative by building shared understandings of environmental security threats. If we don’t do it, then others will.

In the Indian Ocean, the newly established Indian Ocean Rim Association Working Group on Maritime Safety and Security should be given material support to help develop regional norms relating to maritime security and safety.

Finally, countries such as Japan and Australia have much to offer in helping Indo-Pacific island states to develop their blue economies through capacity building. Australia’s new Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre could play a useful role, particularly in policy and management, aquaculture species development and renewable energy converters to provide energy and fresh water (desalination).

Australia and Japan should also convene a regular forum of Indo-Pacific island states to exchange ideas on identifying potential areas of cooperation on the blue economy.