Sharing information and intelligence in the Pacific
16 Sep 2021|

A new ASPI report, The Pacific Fusion Centre: the challenge of sharing information and intelligence in the Pacific, finds that much remains to be done in this area. The report examines the Australian-sponsored Pacific Fusion Centre, which was established to provide strategic assessments on non-traditional security issues to Pacific island countries. The report concludes that although the PFC is a useful soft-power initiative, the Pacific still sorely needs a regional information fusion centre to produce and share actionable intelligence in the maritime domain.

The PFC was set up in 2019 in response to the 2018 Boe Declaration on Regional Security issued by the Pacific Islands Forum. Its principal mandate is to provide strategic intelligence to help the forum’s member states formulate high-level national policy on human security, environmental security, transnational crime, and cybersecurity. Its strategic assessments are based on open-source and unclassified official data. The centre also promotes domain awareness, capacity building and information sharing among members.

The PFC currently operates from interim offices in Canberra and is due to open permanent offices in Vanuatu later this year. A permanent director, a Pacific islander, is being appointed. While this is an Australian-sponsored and -funded initiative, care has been taken to ensure that it’s seen to be ‘Pacific led’.

It’s in its early days, but over the long term the PFC could become a trusted source of strategic assessments, helping to better align perspectives across the region and inform national and regional policymaking.

The development of consensus views among policymakers on a range of potential threats can only be a good thing. But while the establishment of the PFC should be applauded as a useful soft-power initiative, in practice the impact of its strategic assessments is likely to be limited in several ways.

The first is the PFC’s reliance on open-source data. That might not be problematic in providing policy guidance on issues such as human health and climate change, but in other cases, such as transnational crime or cybercrime, reliance on open-source data may significantly limit the value of assessments. This might leave a gap in some strategic assessments that will need to be bridged by other means, including at the bilateral level.

The effectiveness of the PFC’s strategic assessments on policymaking may also be limited by their distribution to only a small number of government officials. Given the siloed nature of governance structures in many Pacific island states, limiting the distribution of assessments could well limit their policy impact.

These concerns could be partly addressed by establishing a two-tiered system of assessments. Strategic assessments that include sensitive information or analysis could have limited circulation. This would require the development of an appropriate communications system (with all the substantial challenges that would involve), but it would give the PFC’s assessments more potential impact and credibility. At the same time, assessments based on open-source or official data could be distributed to a wider group of stakeholders.

The lack of formal arrangements for intelligence inputs to the PFC from key partners such as the United States, international organisations such as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime or regional information fusion centres elsewhere is likely to also limit the PFC’s effectiveness. Those partners could contribute much to the understanding of the threats faced by the region.

There are also some widespread misperceptions about the PFC that need to be rectified. In practice, its role is considerably narrower than its name might suggest. The PFC is quite different from the regional maritime information fusion centres elsewhere in the world that fuse and share operational information or actionable intelligence on specific security threats.

These regional centres build maritime domain awareness through fusing and disseminating actionable information on specific security threats—for example, by identifying vessels that are engaged in crimes or threats such as illegal fishing or smuggling people, arms or drugs, and by providing actionable intelligence to relevant authorities in a timely way.

Indeed, unlike Southeast Asia or the Indian Ocean where several regional fusion centres have been established, the Pacific still sorely needs a regional centre to fuse and share actionable intelligence in the maritime domain.

The Pacific has several agencies that disseminate information on, for example, fishing (such as the Forum Fisheries Agency) or transnational crime. But they are limited to specified threats and there’s no single centre that brings information together, analyses it and distributes intelligence to security or law enforcement agencies.

There have been several proposals to establish a regional maritime information centre for the Pacific that would provide a one-stop shop for threats in the maritime domain and across the entire border continuum. Indeed, some originally proposed that the PFC would fulfil this role.

To be sure, there are a multitude of practical challenges in sharing operational or classified information and producing actionable intelligence across multiple agencies and countries. Not least is the legitimate concern of Pacific island countries about protecting their sovereignty.

But, as has been demonstrated in many other parts of the world, these challenges can be overcome. A regional information fusion centre for the Pacific may need to start with a small number of partners, but its benefits in providing a comprehensive understanding of the region’s threat environment should become quickly apparent to all.