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Southeast Asia needs a border management training hub

Posted By on July 10, 2019 @ 13:36

In 2018, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong predicted that in a little over a decade the ASEAN economy will become the world’s fourth largest, behind only the US, China and that of the European Union.

Lee has good reason for such optimism. The ASEAN region is already home to four of the world’s fastest growing economies. The Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative, which includes the construction of land routes (the Silk Road Economic Belt) and sea routes (the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road), is providing global economic opportunities, including access to markets through faster, more secure and more affordable transportation. In parallel, the comprehensive and ambitious blueprint for realising the ASEAN Economic Community promotes the increasingly free flow of goods, services, investments and skilled labour.

Unfortunately, while the momentum of the ASEAN economic integration agenda has increased since the publication of the ASEAN political-security community blueprint 2025, security integration hasn’t kept pace.

The ASEAN ‘single window’ harmonisation of national trade and customs procedures along regional air, sea and land routes is increasing the velocity at which people and goods move across international borders within the region. At the same time, the numbers of people and volumes of goods crossing those borders continue to rise, and the traditional approaches to border management applied by most member states are no longer able keep pace.

Collectively, these factors are substantially reducing the effectiveness of national border management controls, which in turn is creating new security vulnerabilities.

A vital and increasingly important response to this challenge has been the UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s Border Liaison Office (BLO) program. The BLO program was established under the auspices of the Regional Programme for Southeast Asia and the Pacific 2014–2017. Through this initiative, BLO officials are provided with training, tools, systems and equipment to improve border management and cross-border cooperation.

The BLO network currently consists of 70 offices located strategically at major crossing points along international land borders in the Mekong region. The offices are responsible for facilitating and promoting cross-border law enforcement collaboration, including operational coordination and information and intelligence sharing. Over recent years, the BLO network has made significant contributions to the disruption of illicit supply chains and transnational serious and organised crime syndicates.

Given the success of the program to date, and the significance of the region’s transnational threats, Australia should now focus on how we might support the continued development of the BLO program.

While much of Australia’s operational law enforcement success in the region can be attributed to strong police-to-police cooperation, it has also been highly effective at promoting multilateral law enforcement cooperation and capacity development. The Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC) has been invaluable to these broader regional engagement efforts.

JCLEC was created by Canberra and Jakarta in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombing investigation by the Indonesian National Police (POLRI), which exposed weaknesses in Indonesia’s capacity to investigate and disrupt terrorist networks. In 2004, the Australian Federal Police and POLRI agreed to establish a joint training school to enhance Indonesia’s capacity to respond to transnational crime and terrorism. From the beginning, JCLEC was focused on regional issues.

For 13 years, JCLEC has been a regional rallying point for much-needed counterterrorism capacity development and cooperation. More than 24,000 officials from 70 countries have trained at the centre since 2004. The capacity of many ASEAN police forces to undertake complex terror and criminal investigations has been dramatically improved by JCLEC training.

Australia should now consider the creation of a regional border management training hub, similar to JCLEC, to support the BLO program and regional cooperation. This training hub should be viewed as a regional activity that builds on the success of JCLEC.

The hub should be established in a Mekong state, given the number and length of land borders in that region. Thailand would be a strong contender because of its government’s continued focus on border management in the region.

The hub’s focus should be on border management and the promotion of border security cooperation. The curriculum would need a strong focus on the delivery of training on the planning and conduct of border operations. Courses would also need to be concentrated on enhancing the capacity of participants to identify and interdict the illegal movement and trafficking of people, narcotic drugs and precursor chemicals, wildlife, timber and counterfeit goods.

Importantly, the hub could also—like JCLEC—play a critical role in gathering together regional partners to create the low-key informal relationships of trust that make cooperation possible.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade should also consider supporting the BLO program as part of its official development aid investment in countering transnational crime in Southeast Asia. This investment should, as a priority, look to develop border management information-sharing capabilities, such as ICT infrastructure, in the Mekong region.

Cross-border or intra-regional cooperation in ASEAN is hampered by the stark differences in border management capacity across the region. As ASEAN continues to reach consensus on economic integration, this issue will need to be addressed through common minimum border management standards.

Now is a perfect time for Australia to offer practical support to increase regional border management cooperation before further regional security vulnerabilities are created.

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[1] predicted: https://sbr.com.sg/economy/asia/asean-become-worlds-fourth-largest-economy-2030-singapore-pm-lee

[2] ASEAN Economic Community: https://asean.org/?static_post=asean-economic-community-blueprint-2025

[3] ASEAN political-security community blueprint 2025: https://www.asean.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/ASEAN-APSC-Blueprint-2025.pdf

[4] ASEAN ‘single window’: http://asw.asean.org/

[5] Regional Programme for Southeast Asia and the Pacific 2014–2017: https://www.unodc.org/southeastasiaandpacific/en/2017/07/regional-programme-extension/story.html

[6] 2002 Bali bombing: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-19881138

[7] More than 24,000: https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/9a876d_d1a33383a9224e4b91cd3debfe8296d3.pdf

[8] continued focus: https://www.unodc.org/southeastasiaandpacific/en/2019/02/asean-border-management/story.html