Can coast guards tame the ‘wild west’ of the Indian Ocean?

Policing the high sea leaves navies adrift from their primary missions

David Brewster

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia

13 June 2018

Indian Ocean states can build maritime security through increased coast guard cooperation, David Brewster writes.

Addressing future maritime security challenges in the Indian Ocean will require much greater focus on cooperation with regional coast guards. This includes enhanced bilateral capacity building as well as sponsoring multilateral links among the region’s coast guard agencies.

The Indian Ocean is the ‘Wild West’ of oceans, one of the least governed spaces in the world. The ocean faces a host of security challenges, mostly involving non-state actors, including piracy; illegal fishing; the smuggling of drugs, people and arms; humanitarian and disaster relief; and search and rescue. But most Indian Ocean states lack sufficient capabilities to properly address maritime security problems in their own waters, let alone assist elsewhere.

A lack of enforcement capabilities in one state is a problem for everyone. The collapse of the Somali government led to a piracy problem that affected countries all over the world. The failure to address illegal fishing, for example, can allow for the growth of transnational criminal networks that are also likely to be involved in other activities such as the smuggling of people, drugs and arms.

In other words, it is not possible to clearly separate maritime security threats simply by nature or by location.

More on this: Soul-searching needed in the Indo-Pacific

Although navies have traditionally been the first port of call in the maritime realm, coast guards are likely to take an ever more prominent role in the future. Navies can have an important role in addressing transnational maritime security issues, but it is not the role that they were primarily built for. Their principal mission is to defend their homelands against state-based threats, not be an ocean-going police force.

The use of navies can be very costly. The international efforts to counter Somali-based pirates, for example, led to the deployment of many expensive high-end naval vessels to counter what was, essentially, just a policing problem that was mostly solved through the deployment of armed guards.

There can also be real political costs in relying too much on navies. Many countries, especially in the Indian Ocean region, are understandably cautious about seeing navies operating off their coasts. We saw that, for example, in Myanmar’s concerns about foreign navies offering assistance following Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

These issues are leading many countries to find other ways of addressing maritime security challenges, largely driven by the best mix in terms of cost and effectiveness. But in coming years we are likely to see the increasing deployment of coast guard-type forces and similar civilian agencies – also known as ‘white hulls’ – beyond their traditional narrow spheres.

In Australia, we have seen the evolution of the Maritime Border Command (MBC) as an agency that coordinates white and grey hull assets to address civil maritime security issues.

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Every country will have different answers to these problems, but a common theme is that in many cases coast guard agencies will assume greater responsibilities and send their vessels further and further afield. Future anti-piracy efforts might for example include greater use of white hulled vessels with the support of traditional military intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and logistics systems. This approach would not only save money but would also reduce the potential for naval rivalry.

This trend means that we need to think much more about leveraging capabilities and relationships among coast guard agencies. The Indian and Japanese coast guards have been conducting bilateral exercises off the coast of southern India for more than a decade – indicating the value those countries see in coast guard cooperation. Japan is also expending considerable resources in improving maritime law enforcement capabilities in countries such as Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Australia also has experience in capacity building. In 2013, the country gave two surplus patrol boats to Sri Lanka, principally driven by Australian concerns about people smuggling activities originating in Sri Lanka.

This cooperation, and the broader security partnership that subsequently developed between the two countries, was successful in stemming people smuggling and various other transnational criminal activities that were emanating from Sri Lanka. This can serve as a model for future bilateral capacity building activities with countries such as Bangladesh and Myanmar.

A key element of capacity building is facilitating regional cooperation among coast guard agencies. Many maritime security challenges need to be addressed on a multilateral and not just a national basis.

But there is currently no mechanism or forum for cooperation among coastguard agencies in the Indian Ocean. This is a big missing link in Indian Ocean security architecture.

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Currently, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) is the only effective forum for regional dialogue on maritime security issues. This is a grouping of regional navies (and, in some cases, coast guards where a state has no navy) that provides a useful forum for networking through regular meetings of the region’s naval chiefs. Although IONS promotes dialogue on a range of maritime security issues, it is almost inevitably navy focused.

Coast guard agencies have few opportunities to interact directly. The Heads of Asian Coast Guard Agencies Meeting (HACGAM) is an annual meeting of coast guard agencies along the Asian littoral from Japan to Australia to Pakistan. But there is no forum for dialogue among all Indian Ocean coast guards, nor is there one to promote cooperation on Indian Ocean security issues.

Australia and its regional partners should seek to create a mechanism for cooperation and coordination among Indian Ocean coast guards. While ideally this could be pan-Indian Ocean, it may be more fruitful to begin with a subset focused on the eastern Indian Ocean.

Key eastern Indian Ocean states, such as India, Indonesia and Australia could establish a minilateral mechanism for cooperation among their coast guard agencies. This could be expanded to include other agencies in the eastern Indian Ocean and even facilitate extra-regional contributions to capacity building within the region.

Australia has had a very successful experience in building the MBC to provide maritime security in its own waters. The MBC has made some important steps in regional engagement, but these need to be stepped up to include capacity building and the development of regional cooperation structures with key eastern Indian Ocean states.

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