As we begin a new year, it is worth reflecting on some recent trends that have shaped the maritime security landscape, as well as policy options for improving maritime security. The maritime security environment in Asia has always been difficult. Maritime security agencies in the Indo-Pacific region have always had their work cut out for them, dealing with a wide range of traditional and non-traditional security issues. However, recent developments have revealed the growing complexity of maritime threats.
Growing Geopolitical Contestation
The year saw escalating tensions between the United States and China over Taiwan, as well as a tense contest between claimant states in the South China Sea. When US Congress Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August 2022, the island province became a flashpoint in an already strained US-China relationship.1 Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was interpreted as a direct challenge to Chinese sovereignty, and Beijing reacted with characteristic zeal, conducting a series of hostile military manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait.2 In response, the Biden Administration increased its support for Taiwan, intensifying the conflict with Beijing.
The US-China conflict isn't the only international geopolitical schism with implications for maritime security; tensions in the Persian Gulf have been high between Iran and the US. Since Iran seized two American maritime drones in the Red Sea in September 2022, US forces in the region have been on high alert. 3 Tehran's provocation came just days after President Joe Biden attended a regional summit in Jeddah with the heads of state of six Arab Gulf countries to develop a joint strategy to counter Iran in the Red Sea.4
Conflicts between the United States and China in two sensitive Indo-Pacific regions have implications for Asia's strategic balance of power. The United States, as the primary defender of the international rules-based order, has consistently sought to preserve access to the maritime commons. However, revisionist states are increasingly challenging the United States' ability to enforce norms. The recent incidents in the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf signal a return to the era of aggressive military posturing in disputed areas, raising concerns about the long-term security of the vital sea lanes connecting Asia and Africa, particularly regarding Indo-Pacific powers' willingness and capability to halt state aggression in sensitive littorals.
Trade and Transnational Crime
The problems of maritime security extend far beyond the geopolitical implications of Asia's strategic contestation. Following the COVID-19 outbreak, shipping in the Indo-Pacific region has declined as economic activity has slowed.5 The maritime industry is facing challenges as a result of rising energy prices and inflationary pressures. Recent data show a significant drop in regional container growth as a result of declining demand.6 Despite reductions in port congestion in Europe and the United States, vessel delays continue to clog warehouses and disrupt local markets. Notably, in the post-pandemic era, state capacity to guarantee marine security has drastically decreased, raising concerns in the shipping industry about the viability of commercial operations. Trade logistics have deteriorated as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, and many nations in the region remain unwilling to accept an open access and free movement system.7
The problem of transnational crime has been no less perplexing. While piracy in the Gulf of Aden has decreased as a result of a collaborative effort by regional maritime forces, Asian and African countries have struggled to combat people smuggling, armed robberies, illegal fishing, and drug and contraband trafficking. Rising drug smuggling cases, particularly massive drug consignments originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan and bound for Indian and east African shores, have been particularly concerning.8
Rising militia attacks in the littorals, particularly in the Pacific, have made security cooperation more difficult. 9 In recent years, the line between conventional and irregular maritime security has become increasingly blurred, with state support for covert operations targeting other states' key vulnerabilities in the littorals. Many states have shifted operational resources from high-seas missions to coastal security.
The more significant challenge has been marine governance, specifically governments' inability to address the issue of overfishing.10 The issue is not limited to illegal and excessive resource exploitation, as is commonly assumed; lax regulatory implementation and faulty policy, particularly the provision of subsidies to the fishing industry, are also growing sources of concern.11 The latter has fueled unsustainable fishing practices, which have been exacerbated by rising ocean acidification and marine degradation. With the Indo-Pacific experiencing more humanitarian crises than ever before, maritime forces are increasingly being called upon for disaster relief tasks such as non-combatant evacuations and search and rescue missions.
China's military and militia operations, without a doubt, pose the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. The Peoples Liberation Army Navy's (PLAN) littoral presence has grown significantly since 2008 when Beijing first sent warships to the Gulf of Aden for anti-piracy tasks. Chinese attempts to assert sovereign territorial claims in contested waters, such as the South China Sea, have also failed. Worryingly, Beijing has reclaimed undersea features, constructed dual-use infrastructure, and established strategic outposts in sensitive littoral areas. China's assertive actions in the western and eastern Pacific are a tactic to intimidate rivals and dominate contested spaces.12 Unsurprisingly, many regional states have drawn closer to the US in order to balance rising Chinese power and influence in maritime Asia.
China in the Indian Ocean
China’s strategic expansion in the Indian Ocean has been a cause for deep disquiet in New Delhi. The PLAN has been more active than ever in the IOR since the Chinese military base in Djibouti became fully operational.13 The Chinese government has also sought to woo Indian Ocean Island states like the Seychelles and Maldives with economic largesse and infrastructure development.14 Under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has begun to exert influence in the Bay of Bengal, with offers to export military hardware to littoral countries. China’s non-military presence in the Indian Ocean has also grown substantially. With regular deployments of Chinese research vessels, intelligence ships, and fishing fleets, Beijing has sought to underline its strategic stakes in the Indian Ocean.15
So, what are the policy options for Indo-Pacific powers to improve maritime security? First, Asian and African states must consider an integrated security model, as resources have shrunk significantly in the post-Covid and post-Ukraine eras. This would necessitate the utilisation and synchronisation of capabilities across multiple domains. The strategy will necessitate the sharing of resources, expertise, and critical technologies in addition to joint naval and coast guard operations.
Second, regional states must fund capacity-building initiatives. South and Southeast Asian governments should develop mechanisms to strengthen littoral security and make it a focal point of future collaboration. The emphasis should be on developing capabilities and means for joint maritime law enforcement in sensitive littoral areas. There are opportunities for planning and exercises related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, particularly in South Asia and other countries in the region where engagement is acceptable. Such collaboration has the potential to create effective mechanisms for inter-state cooperation on maritime law enforcement in Indian Ocean domestic jurisdictions. Following the launch of the Quad countries' Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) initiative in Tokyo in May 2022, an opportunity for greater cooperation in shared domain awareness and maritime governance in the Indian Ocean has arisen.16
Third, technology transfers from advanced countries to smaller littoral states could help to reduce the combined burden of maritime security and development. Many Indo-Pacific countries require assistance with blue economy projects such as fisheries, aquaculture, alternative energies, and smart tourism. There has been a shortage of trained personnel in South Asia to carry out projects to protect the marine environment. In critical sectors, there has been a lack of innovation and technological development. The global north can assist southern states in implementing blue projects through finance, innovation, and training. India has attempted to prioritise ocean development, specifically the blue economy. 17 With its G-20 presidency, India is well-positioned to encourage field testing of BE models.
Another potential area of collaboration is climate change adaptation. The Indo-Pacific region must work together to develop efficient low-carbon fuels and strengthen port infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events and sea-level rise. The United States, Japan, Australia, and the European Union should consider training South Asian marine law enforcement agencies jointly for disaster relief operations. The Indo-Pacific powers should also develop a comprehensive ocean governance framework that balances sustainable economic activity with marine conservation while also meeting the needs of coastal communities. In ecologically sensitive zones, one method is to use spatial zoning and marine spatial planning (MSP). The Australian government's efforts to establish the Great Barrier Reef as a marine park are a good example of the value of marine spatial planning.
Following the Quad's IPMDA initiative, Pacific powers should think about collaborating with Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) countries to implement sustainable marine governance practices. For example, the United States and Japan could assist Indian Ocean states in transforming manufacturing processes by providing green technology tools for long-term development. A “Quad Blue” initiative under the Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI) could prove useful in spurring marine conservation efforts.
It will be critical for policymakers to prioritise conservation and ecosystem maintenance on the maritime agenda. States must redouble their efforts to address the regulatory landscape collectively. Individual approaches to nontraditional security and marine conservation must be coordinated going forward. Many countries have struggled to translate ideas into effective policy, despite their willingness to use BE for diplomatic purposes. Asian and African countries must reach an agreement on a working model of marine governance and make the necessary investments to put proposals for sustainable growth and marine development into action.
Maritime security dynamics in a post-pandemic world are likely to be flexible, and cooperation between states could well be motivated by the imperatives of economics and national security concerns. With the growing demand for resources and energy and the declining capacity of regional states to police the sea lines of communication (SLOC), policymakers may have little option but to pool national resources to collectively secure the maritime commons. Even though countries have different political views and levels of power, they will likely feel pressure to work together to protect the sensitive littoral.
Growing contestation between world powers will be a complicating factor, in particular the possibility of a US-China conflict in the South China Sea. Even absent a military conflict, a trade war between the two countries could complicate the delivery of maritime security. The pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine could also lead the region’s states to act in unpredictable ways, especially if shifting patterns of trade and economics are found to favour particular countries. Even so, Asian powers have tangible incentives to cooperate in a post-pandemic world.
For now, the threats to maritime trade remain largely unchanged, even if security capacity appears to be shrinking. An intensification of non-traditional security challenges, particularly the threat of transnational crime and climate change-induced migration, could result in a strong drive for cooperation. Yet geopolitics may still reign supreme. If geopolitical trends remain manageable, a cooperative approach in the commons is the best way forward for the Indo-Pacific.