Maritime law enforcement (MLE) vessels are non-naval vessels employed on maritime law enforcement duties, primarily coastguard vessels, but also vessels of other MLE agencies, such as marine police and fisheries protection services.
The growth of coastguards and other MLE forces has been particularly evident in Southeast Asia. There have been several reasons for this development.
There’s the general increase in maritime activity, especially shipping and the exploration and exploitation of offshore oil and gas, which require monitoring and possible policing for safety, security and environmental protection reasons. The regulatory environment for these activities has become more complex over the years, necessitating a higher level of training for the officers of MLE agencies.
There’s also been the continuation of a high level of illegal activity at sea, be it piracy, armed robbery against ships, acts of terrorism in the vicinity of the Sulu Sea, or trafficking in drugs, arms and people.
The third reason is the number of boundary and sovereignty disputes in the region, notably in the South China Sea. MLE forces are now regarded as preferable for sovereignty protection and their presence in disputed areas is preferred over navies, which carry a higher level of political risk, especially where there are pre-existing tensions between neighbouring countries.
“The development of MLE forces has provided increased opportunities for more advanced allies and partner countries to assist in building the capacity of less advanced countries to handle MLE and maritime safety tasks.”
Regional countries recognise that cooperation is necessary for most forms of MLE and safety, even though there may be no agreed maritime boundary. Again, MLE forces are preferable to navies for these operations.
MLE forces, ships and aircraft are generally cheaper to acquire than their military equivalents. They are also cheaper to operate, invariably requiring smaller crews and less sophisticated equipment.
MLE is also becoming more complex with the increased number of international conventions and regulations dealing with illegal activity at sea. It’s more difficult for navies to undertake MLE on an ad hoc basis. Meanwhile, regional navies are focusing more on war-fighting capabilities. Most are reluctant to be too heavily involved in policing tasks.
The development of MLE forces has provided increased opportunities for more advanced allies and partner countries to assist in building the capacity of less advanced countries to handle MLE and maritime safety tasks.
Pacific island countries are now facing increasing maritime security challenges. Much of the transnational crime reported in the region has a maritime dimension.
The tasks of MLE in the Pacific islands’ ocean domains have never been more difficult. There are operational gaps in maritime patrolling by many islands. Aerial surveillance of remote areas, offshore zones and adjacent areas of high seas is only conducted on a limited basis.
In the Indian Ocean, maritime safety and security have been identified as priorities for the Indian Ocean Rim Association, with specific reference made to piracy, sustainable fisheries management, and the need for preparations to deal with natural disasters. The association has established a working group on maritime safety and security that may sponsor some training courses.
“An Indo-Pacific maritime law enforcement centre would reflect the position that MLE and maritime safety are common interests of all regional countries and necessary tasks, regardless of any discord or disagreement.”
MLE training around the Indo-Pacific is available in a variety of forms, ranging from online delivery to in-country delivery of capacity-building assistance to residential programs extending over weeks or even months.
Most regional coastguard academies are focused on providing basic training for coastguard officers, but some, such as the Japan Coastguard Academy, also offer advanced training programs for middle-ranking officers both national and international.
The US Coast Guard has helped in hands-on exercises to train Southeast Asian coastguards in conducting boarding procedures and vessel inspections. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Thailand has a global maritime crime program that conducts capacity-building.
But overall, there’s no regional institution focused on providing professional training and education for middle-ranking officers from regional MLE agencies that enhances their knowledge and skills to enable them to exercise command within their organisations.
By careful analysis, engagement and intelligent program design, an Indo-Pacific maritime law enforcement centre (IMLEC) would effectively identify strategic interventions that leverage the respective strengths of existing MLE programs and institutions in the Indo-Pacific.
The IMLEC would reflect the position that MLE and maritime safety are common interests of all regional countries and necessary tasks, regardless of any discord or disagreement. The centre would deliver modular training and focus on MLE, but with some attention also to maritime safety and marine environmental protection.
Once established, IMLEC might also offer bespoke courses and workshops that might be agency- or country-specific, or multi-agency, multi-sector and/or multilateral in nature.
IMLEC should have a research function that would enable it to keep abreast of technological developments and how they might be employed by regional countries to assist them with MLE and providing maritime safety in their waters.
The main role of IMLEC would be to promote a combined, joint, intragovernmental, interagency and multinational approach to the conduct of regional MLE operations drawing on the very best expertise and skills. It should host high-level regional MLE gatherings that foster links between partner-nation MLE leaders as well as host track 1.5 dialogues on sensitive topics.
Critical to the success of the centre as a facilitator for integrating MLE training across the Indo-Pacific would be sponsors ranging from national MLE authorities, national governments and various regional and international bodies — such as Interpol, UNODC and the International Maritime Organisation — that are committed to better MLE and stronger maritime security and safety in the Indo-Pacific.
“The range and depth of civil maritime security efforts in Darwin would provide participants with opportunities to engage with operational commanders and senior executives from a diverse array of agencies.”
In terms of location, given Australia’s regional reputation as a country with a strong civil maritime law enforcement regime, there’s a strong case for IMLEC to be based in northern Australia.
Darwin has deep links to the region. It’s a rapidly growing centre of maritime activity supporting the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Border Force, the offshore oil and gas industry, commercial fishing, ship repair and maintenance, and marine tourism.
The range and depth of civil maritime security efforts in Darwin would provide participants with opportunities to engage with operational commanders and senior executives from a diverse array of agencies. This would be invaluable for generating a shared understanding of regional civil MLE challenges.
For Australian Border Force staff, there’s the possibility that some of the training that’s now conducted at the ABF College in Sydney might be undertaken in Darwin.
By maintaining engagements with all MLE authorities in the Indo-Pacific, IMLEC would be able to nimbly shift to develop programs on emerging policy issues at the request of key stakeholders. It would operate innovative MLE programs to build partner capacity, promote professionalism in MLE agencies and strengthen regional cooperation to better meet civil MLE challenges.
Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.