Australia deepens maritime security cooperation with Pacific island neighbors

Tom Abke

Defense partnerships between Australia and the island nations of the Pacific have an enduring history dating back decades. In recent years, Australia has significantly increased its efforts to bolster maritime security cooperation with those nations by ensuring the security of sea lanes, and combating illegal fishing, piracy and other maritime threats through joint patrols, maritime surveillance, capacity-building measures and partnership agreements.

These evolving efforts reflect the changing dynamics of regional security and Australia’s commitment to its Pacific neighbors, Carlyle Thayer, former director for regional security studies at the Australian Command and Staff College, told FORUM.

Australia’s first major initiative in this regard was the Pacific Patrol Boat Program, launched in May 1987, according to Thayer. Under the program, Australia provided 22 vessels to 12 island nations, primarily to monitor fishing within their exclusive economic zones. Canberra escalated its commitment through the Pacific Step-up initiative announced in September 2016, a demonstration of its increasing focus on regional security.

Pivotal to the ongoing cooperation was the 2018 adoption of the Boe Declaration on Regional Security by the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), an intergovernmental organization whose 18 members include smaller island nations, along with Australia and New Zealand. The declaration broadened the definition of security to encompass transnational crime, and human, cyber, resource and environmental security, including climate change, Thayer said.

“Under the Boe Declaration, Australia inaugurated a 30-year Pacific Maritime Security Program [PMSP] that included replacing the Pacific patrol boats, launching an aerial surveillance program and promoting enhanced regional security coordination,” he said.

The surveillance component, coordinated by the PIF Fisheries Agency and fully funded by Australia’s Defence Department, began in December 2017. Civilian contractors provide 1,400 hours of aerial surveillance annually across the Central and Western Pacific, assisting island nations with intelligence targeting and patrolling.

The PMSP’s primary focus is countering illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, of which vessels linked to the People’s Republic of China are reported to be the leading perpetrators, according to the Rand Corp.

Australia’s capacity-building priorities under the PMSP are multifaceted, Thayer said. These include replacing the original patrol boats with advanced Guardian-class vessels, a $1.3 billion investment that also encompasses in-country advisors, training and infrastructure upgrades. The program includes annual meetings of the Joint Heads of Pacific Security, regional training through the Pacific Security College in Canberra and enhanced funding for regional coordination centers.

“In addition, Australia pursues defense engagement through prolonged naval ship deployments to the region that conduct comprehensive training programs with regional states such as Fiji, French Polynesia, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Vanuatu and Timor-Leste,” Thayer said.

The efforts are complemented by regional organizations such as the PIF Fisheries Agency, which coordinates the aerial surveillance program, and the Quadrilateral Defence Coordination Group, including Australia, France, New Zealand and the United States, which supports maritime intelligence and surveillance.

Recent developments highlight Australia’s commitment to regional security, Thayer noted. These include Canberra signing a status of forces agreement with Fiji, a security treaty with Tuvalu and a security agreement with Papua New Guinea. Additionally, the Defense Cooperation Agreement signed between Papua New Guinea and the U.S. in May 2023 exemplifies the growing regional cooperation.

Tom Abke is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Singapore.

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