Free and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPPartnerships

Combined maritime force could ‘underpin’ Indo-Pacific security, stability

Tom Abke

Unlawful maritime activities in the Indo-Pacific — including harassment of legitimate commercial and government vessels, and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing — could be countered with a combined maritime force (CMF) operated by like-minded countries, according to a new report by the Rand Corp.

The combined force could uphold a Free and Open Indo-Pacific within the framework of international law and follow the successful model of other joint maritime forces.

The region is home to about 85% of the world’s fisheries and aquaculture workers, and the surrounding oceans account for more than 60% of global catch, Eric Cooper, a senior policy researcher at the United States-based research organization, wrote in his February 2024 report. IUU fishing is a major threat to fisheries and livelihoods.

Unlawful harassment of vessels at sea, most notably by the Chinese coast guard and the People’s Liberation Army’s maritime militia, also raises tensions and undermines security. Beijing employs such gray-zone tactics to advance its expansionist objectives, including attempting to enforce territorial claims in the South China Sea despite an international tribunal’s rejection of those arbitrary claims in 2016.

Establishing a regional CMF could help counter IUU fishing, gray-zone tactics and other illicit activities that violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Cooper wrote. He noted the success of the U.S.-led multinational naval force that conducts counterterrorism and anti-piracy missions in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Northern Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Indian Ocean and other vital shipping lanes.

Headquartered in the Gulf kingdom of Bahrain, the voluntary force encompasses 41 member and partner nations operating across more than 8 million square kilometers to counter “illicit nonstate actors on the high seas and [promote] security, stability, and prosperity.”

“A significant advantage of the CMF concept is that the level of involvement is voluntary and scalable for each country,” Cooper wrote. “The contribution from each country, therefore, varies depending on its ability to contribute assets and the availability of those assets at any given time.”

In the Indo-Pacific, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have conducted joint sea and air patrols to counter piracy and terrorism since 2017 under their Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement. The nations also share intelligence.

Cooper said the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. — are positioned to initiate a regional CMF given their cooperation in initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness. Pacific island nations, which are among the hardest hit by IUU fishing, would also be potential CMF members.

The U.S. Coast Guard, meanwhile, is ideally suited to contribute training and operational support to a CMF, Cooper said. That also would contribute to U.S. goals of “building partnerships that focus on the issues that matter most in the Indo-Pacific region.”

“The establishment of a combined force focused on maritime law enforcement and consisting of international coast guards and maritime law enforcement agencies working together to address illegal activity is a solution to the continued degradation of rules-based order and would underpin a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he wrote.

Tom Abke is a FORUM correspondent reporting from Singapore.

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