Stable Seas recently released its third annual Maritime Security Index with one very important addition. This year, the geographic scope was expanded to include Australia for the first time. The index tells us about the current state of Australian maritime security, and, perhaps more importantly, raises questions about the future of Australian efforts to combat non-traditional maritime security challenges in its own waters and the larger region.
Maritime security is complex and multi-faceted. The Maritime Security Index brings data to bear on many aspects of these issues for the first time, providing a tool to explore trends within and the relationship between nine diverse components of maritime security across 71 states and territories in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It focuses on some of the non-traditional security issues facing the maritime domain that often affect the daily lives of coastal communities, challenge maritime governance, and contribute to transnational crime and organised political violence.
The index can assist in visualising, quantifying and analysing the challenges and opportunities policymakers face in their maritime domains. However, we also hope that it can serve as a tool for deeper inquiry. Quantifying these complex maritime security issues is no simple task, and in attempting to do so we hope that we have given policymakers ways to engage with the analysis that open up new lines of inquiry into the current state of affairs and future policy priorities in the maritime domain.
“Even states with extremely high maritime enforcement capacity can have difficulty keeping piracy and armed robbery from spilling into their own waters.”
Australia, as one might anticipate, ranks very highly across many measures of maritime security. It ranks at or very near the top of several index categories, including international cooperation, fisheries, rule of law, maritime mixed migration, and coastal welfare. These are all indications of Australia’s capacity to effectively govern its maritime domain but come as little surprise.
What may be much less intuitive are Australia’s lower scores on other aspects of maritime security, including illicit trades, piracy and armed robbery, and maritime enforcement capacity. Examining the broad factors that give rise to these results may generate productive discussions about the nature of the challenges and opportunities facing Australia.
On illicit trades, Australia sits just above the middle of the pack in the Maritime Security Index. This is primarily due to the persistent challenge of maritime drug trafficking. Australia, like many wealthy economies, is a destination market for drugs of various kinds, and some, particularly cocaine and opioids, appear to be trafficked into the country via the maritime domain at significant levels.
Beyond the impacts this illicit trade may have in Australia itself, it also affects the maritime security of the states it transits through and plays a significant role in funding transnational criminal networks and armed groups in Latin America, South Asia and Southeast Asia. While attempts have been made to use Australia’s efficient, well-managed ports as entry points and vigilance against that method should be maintained, it appears that much of this trafficking tries to use isolated portions of the coast and Australian waters for drop-offs and ship-to-ship transfers.
In the area of piracy and armed robbery, Australia ranks in the bottom half of the index. Because maritime threats are inherently transnational, the index measures piracy and armed robbery not only by the presence of incidents in a country’s waters, but also by proximity to attacks in adjacent marine regions. While Australia’s own waters are free from such activity, the challenge posed by these issues in Indonesia is significant, and, as has been seen with Singapore, even states with extremely high maritime enforcement capacity can have difficulty keeping such challenges from spilling into their own waters.
What’s more, Australia’s economic prosperity is directly linked to the safety and security of maritime trade through Southeast Asia, making piracy and armed robbery in these waters an issue of core national interest. As Australia reorients its security priorities to an increasing focus on areas closer to home, maritime law enforcement capacity building with Indonesia and other regional states struggling with piracy and armed robbery could be useful in mitigating the challenge before it has the opportunity to pose a more direct threat to Australia’s economic and security interests.
“The index takes Australia’s immense maritime domain into account as a significant challenge for projecting maritime security and governance.”
Finally, and perhaps most unexpectedly, in the maritime enforcement section of the index, Australia ranks 18th out of 71 countries and territories. This was a surprise, even for the Stable Seas team that developed the methodology. The Royal Australian Navy is a robust, modern force with capabilities that would be the envy of nearly any other navy within the geographic scope of the index.
However, the index weights the level of maritime enforcement capacity necessary against the size of each state’s respective maritime domain. Australia’s massive coastline and outlying islands generate an exclusive economic zone measuring roughly 8.5 million square kilometres, the largest in the Maritime Security Index’s area of study. The index takes this immense maritime domain into account as a significant challenge for projecting maritime security and governance.
The other factor that impacts Australia’s maritime enforcement score is the relatively small number of coastal patrol vessels available to the RAN and maritime law enforcement. While the RAN’s diverse assets are critical for “high-end” national defence missions, they have more limited utility in combating the non-traditional maritime security challenges that are the focus of the index.
These missions are likely to fall to the more limited number of the RAN’s Armidale-class patrol boats, along with the Cape-class patrol vessels operated by the Maritime Unit of the Australian Border Force. These are highly capable vessels for addressing the kind of non-traditional challenges in question, but their comparatively limited numbers still negatively affect the overall score.
There are certainly a variety of other capabilities that should be considered in a more detailed analysis of Australian maritime enforcement capacity, but the impact of limited patrol vessels on the maritime enforcement score is not detached from reality. In fact, it reflects policy conversations which are already being had in the Australian maritime security community, and the need to fill this gap has already been acknowledged by plans for procuring additional Cape-class and offshore patrol vessels.
These are exactly the kinds of conversations that Stable Seas seeks to help catalyse via the index project. With the inclusion of Australia in the scope of the project for the first time, we hope the index will be a valuable tool for members of the Australian maritime security community in identifying these nuances, advocating for resources and policy prioritisation, and building an evidence base for future efforts to ensure continued security in Australia’s maritime domain.
Jay Benson is the Indo-Pacific project manager for Stable Seas, a non-profit maritime security research organisation based in the United States.