Marine ecology is a key to maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific

Environmental challenges in the Indo-Pacific region’s maritime domain have both ecological and strategic implications, and are at the top of the agenda of challenges faced by many Indo-Pacific states. This was clearly recognised in 2019 when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative at the East Asia Summit. A key purpose of the initiative is to help shape maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific to support a rules-based maritime order. Australia’s participation provides many opportunities to work with India and other Indo-Pacific countries on a range of maritime-based initiatives to strengthen and enhance regional cooperation. It will be a valuable way of building relationships, resilience and mutual respect around the region.

The Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative is a non-treaty-based mechanism for countries to work together for cooperative and collaborative solutions to common ocean challenges in the region. The Australia–India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative Partnership sits under the two countries’ joint declaration on a shared vision for maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Australia is taking the lead in the field of marine ecology, while other Indo-Pacific partners are leading in areas such as security, infrastructure and resources.

In this context, we co-directed a year-long project, the Australia–India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative: regional collaborative arrangements in marine ecology. Our research collaborators were the Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. The study was launched last month in Kolkata.

The report sets out baseline studies on regional arrangements in the Pacific (for marine plastics; illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; and ocean science), Southeast Asia (marine plastics, emergency response and coastal conservation) and the Bay of Bengal region (marine litter, IUU fishing and marine disaster management).

The report didn’t identify any single form of regional implementation that’s optimal for all types of marine ecology challenges: an arrangement that works well in one setting may fall flat in another. Generally speaking, we found that the more well-understood problems were found to be easier to solve than those associated with a lot of uncertainty and that a favourable political context greatly helped achieve positive outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, the most successful regional cooperative arrangements are often built upon broad, pre-existing regional cooperative arrangements, such as arrangements to combat IUU fishing in the Pacific and to tackle marine debris in ASEAN. But that’s not always the case. The study found that the Coral Triangle Initiative that brings together Southeast Asian states including Indonesia, Philippines and Malaysia with Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands was a cross-regional initiative that’s relatively successful despite there being no prior history of substantial cooperation among those countries.

A key factor in the success of regional initiatives in marine ecology was the extent to which regional understandings were implemented in national legislation or by national authorities. In most cases, regional groupings won’t have the legal authority and will rely on the implementation of agreements by national members. Combatting IUU fishing in the Pacific was found to provide a good example of countries successfully coordinating the national implementation of agreed measures, such as through the creation of standardised licensing terms applicable to all distant-water fishers. But this coordination is facilitated and supported by relatively well-resourced regional institutions, such as the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency.

The baseline studies found substantially differing levels of cooperation on marine ecology issues in different parts of the Indo-Pacific. Regional mechanisms in Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands were found to be generally more developed. In contrast, regional cooperation in the Bay of Bengal region in the areas of marine plastics, IUU fishing and disaster management is weak. Even where declaratory statements exist, they aren’t backed by effective regional mechanisms and are poorly enforced or not enforced at a national level.

But these deficiencies can’t be addressed simply by trying to apply regional models that may work in, say, Southeast Asia or the Pacific, where there’s a much more established web of institutions and arrangements and habits of cooperation on a wide range of issues.

The study identified potential benefits from pursuing an inter-regional Indo-Pacific approach to marine ecology challenges. The development and application of norms across the Indo-Pacific in relation to marine ecology challenges could be extended to other issues beyond environmental challenges, thus encouraging habits of trans-Indo-Pacific cooperation.

We found that there should be much greater sharing between the Pacific and Indian Oceans of the lessons from and benefits of well-functioning regional arrangements or institutions with regions in which arrangements are less developed or don’t function well.

The report includes recommendations for how Australia can promote regional cooperation in marine ecology with its Indo-Pacific partners, including:

  • working with India to co-sponsor an Indo-Pacific declaration and action plan on marine plastics
  • undertaking a quantitative study on IUU fishing in the Bay of Bengal area
  • seeking observer status with key regional groupings, with a focus on engagement on marine ecology issues
  • promoting the pairing of Australian and Indian coastal cities to share experiences in addressing marine ecology challenges
  • facilitating sharing of experiences of Pacific and Indian Ocean island states on marine ecology issues by hosting events, workshops and training exercises
  • increasing support to the Group of 16 coastal states to strengthen regional fisheries management in the Indian Ocean
  • working with Pacific partners to establish a Pacific Ocean expedition modelled on the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition
  • sponsoring an Indo-Pacific environmental security centre as a regional hub for professional development and research in environmental security.

The last is a key recommendation. We are now preparing a detailed implementation strategy that will set out the processes required to establish an Indo-Pacific centre for environmental security, its functions and the resources necessary to support its services and activities. Our report will be released later this year.

The Indo-Pacific environmental security centre would be a key regional maritime confidence-building measure. It would fill a gap in professional development in regional environmental security affairs and play a critical role in securing a healthy marine ecology for the region.