25 Nov 2019
Security challenges rule the waves in Pacific
Earlier this month the latest Guardian-class patrol boat was handed over by Australia to Solomon Islands. It was the fifth of 21 Guardian-class boats to be gifted to 12 Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste.
Next year Fiji, Palau, Kiribati and Tonga will receive their boats. Following this, a new patrol boat will be delivered approximately every three months until 2023. Australia has committed $2bn to the program over the next 30 years.
This Australian maritime program is now needed more than ever. Pacific Island countries are now facing increasing maritime security challenges. The estimated cost of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing within the western and central Pacific Ocean is over $US616.11m per year. Climate change-enhanced storms, rising sea levels, and coastal flooding are disproportionately affecting many island nations.
Much of the transnational crime reported to occur in the region has a maritime dimension.
There has been a dramatic expansion in the number of boats carrying cocaine and methamphetamine from Latin America intended for Australia that is causing problems for the islands that straddle the drug highway. In the last three years, there have been six major seizures of drugs in French Polynesia.
There is evidence of the illegal entry of people into the Pacific from Asia by fishing vessels or fisheries support vessels. Yachts often make illegal calls to outer islands and are involved in smuggling of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Human trafficking is now a concern in the region. The UN recently assisted Vanuatu with the deportation of around 100 Bangladeshis who had been lured there with promises of jobs by people traffickers.
Acts of sea robbery in the region are not uncommon. There have been incidents of armed attacks on small craft at sea carrying betel nut in various locations along the north coast of Papua New Guinea.
Threats to the islands’ marine environment are rising. Earlier this year a significant oil spill occurred off Rennell Island, part of Solomon Islands. Rennell Island is the first natural site that is customarily owned to be listed as a World Heritage site.
There’s the problem of thousands of World War II shipwrecks around the Pacific that are ticking timebombs. Their metal walls are now corroding, posing a significant threat of oil spills. Marine plastics from states not in the Pacific are ending up in the region. Plastic pollution contributes to the degeneration of coral reefs and affects tourism. There is a vast range of marine species carried in ships’ ballast water. The introduction of harmful species through ballast water discharge could wipe out the marine life in the island waters.
Maritime safety is a growing problem. There have been numerous ferry disasters in the region. Last year 95 people were killed in such a disaster in Kiribati. The increased presence of smaller eco-tourism vessels in remote locations poses risks of shipping accidents. Small vessels are used extensively in the Pacific and are often over-loaded. Most small craft do not carry locator beacons.
Submarine cable networks are being developed across the region to provide the backbone telecommunications needs for the islands. But the protection for submarine cable infrastructure in the Pacific is inadequate. Any breakage or damage can have serious consequences for islands’ communications.
The tasks of securing the Pacific Islands’ maritime domains have never been more difficult than they are today. There are operational gaps in the current lack of maritime patrolling by many islands. Air surveillance of remote areas, offshore zones and adjacent areas of high seas is only conducted on a limited basis.
A more integrated approach is required by the islands to the conduct of surveillance and enforcement operations, including the collection, analysis and dissemination of data related to maritime security and safety.
A Pacific Fusion Centre will be located in the region next year to inform both strategic and operational responses to issues like illegal fishing and drug trafficking. But to work effectively it will need to bring together a number of separate “empires” and overcome some significant national sovereignty instincts.
Pacific island states should develop and implement national maritime security strategies that reflect their own needs and circumstances. Where appropriate island countries should be encouraged to pool their air surveillance capabilities.
Maritime security operations are crucial for safe and effective commercial ocean industries in the Pacific Islands. Australia has recently established a Blue Economy research centre that could play a useful role in Pacific capacity building in areas like aquaculture development and renewable ocean energy. It might assist the islands by seeing if there is there the potential for a demonstration site where multiple island countries could learn.