Beyond the Shoreline

Beyond the Shoreline

Coast guards across the Indo-Asia-Pacific increase partnerships and see their prominence rise as countries expand their roles in regional security


These days, the task of policing waterways requires substantially more cooperation. Gone is the time when a single maritime agency had the desired resources and personnel to do it alone.

Fleets worldwide are shrinking while seaborne challenges continue to expand.

Seafaring agencies in the Indo-Asia-Pacific — which contains eight of the 10 countries with the world’s longest coastlines (Canada, Indonesia, Russsia, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, the United States and New Zealand) — recognize that facing today’s maritime challenges requires a concerted effort. Furthermore, international law mandates certain obligations to countries to prevent security incidents at sea, on ships and at ports.

Members of the Philippine Coast Guard Special Operations Group participate in the Joint Maritime Law Enforcement exercise with the Japan Coast Guard. REUTERS

It’s to that end that coast guard units across the region have seen their prominence grow.

“Coast Guards are emerging as important national institutions in Asia and the Pacific with the potential to make a major contribution to regional order and security,” according to an analysis titled “Coast Guards: New Forces for Regional Order and Security” published by the East-West Center, an education and research organization established by the U.S. Congress. “This development reflects a concern for cooperative and comprehensive security and will facilitate regional maritime cooperation and confidence building. It is a positive factor for regional order and security and may constitute a revolution in maritime strategic thinking.”

Expanding the coast guard role can yield greater security for a country, experts say. Coast guard vessels often appear less intimidating than naval ships, which tend to be larger and equipped with wartime capabilities. The bulkiness of naval ships limits their access to certain sea channels, whereas smaller coast guard cutters have a greater chance of navigating narrow straits. In Indonesia, authorities have worked to put the advantage of size on their side. Coast Guard personnel there now deploy even smaller vessels able to chase sea bandits who often travel in high-speed boats, an Indonesian Navy commander told FORUM. Indonesia has also given its maritime officials the authority to sink the vessels of illegal fishermen by blowing up their ships upon capture.

Other countries as well have employed measures to advance their naval and coast guard operations, but experts suggest that attention to multinational and interagency interoperability remain a priority.

“The importance of regional maritime cooperation flows from the complexity of the maritime environment in the region, overlapping maritime jurisdiction and the risks of tensions and disputes at sea,” according to the analysis published by the East-West Center. “As well as being essential for the effective management of regional seas, maritime cooperation is an important maritime confidence- and security-building measure and a recognized building block for greater regional stability.”

Sea crimes — including piracy, smuggling, and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing — remain a serious concern for all nations with a stake in safe water passages. Japan saw fit to help ensure safety by boosting cooperation among member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

In September 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his country’s intention to train 1,000 maritime security officials from ASEAN. The three-year initiative would include mostly members of coast guards, as well as other personnel who monitor sea traffic, according to The Straits Times newspaper.

A Vietnamese Coast Guard officer patrols the South China Sea. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

“We are responding to countries’ call for assistance to enhance their capacity to deal with ocean management,” Yasuhisa Kawamura, press secretary for Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told The Straits Times, adding that training for rescue operations at sea would be included.

A month earlier, in August 2016, Japan provided the Philippines with the first of 10 Coast Guard vessels to aid the Philippines in its maritime and law enforcement capabilities.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced his country’s plans to expand military relations in ASEAN. In September 2016, Modi detailed a U.S. $500 million line of credit to Vietnam. Among the dozen defense cooperation agreements to occur, India will outfit the Vietnamese Coast Guard with high-speed boats to patrol offshore.

“Our decision to upgrade our strategic partnership to a comprehensive strategic partnership captures the intent and path of our future cooperation,” Modi said, according to The Indian Express newspaper. “It will provide a new direction, momentum and substance to our bilateral cooperation.”

August 2016 also saw cooperation among the coast guards of two of the most talked about powers in the Indo-Asia-Pacific: China and the United States. The two nations held a joint operation in the Pacific as part of regular patrols “to detect and deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activity, including large-scale pelagic drift-net fishing on the high seas,” The Japan Times newspaper reported. U.S. officials noted they conduct such operations with Japan, South Korea, Russia and Canada and have done so for more than 15 years.

“There is increasing recognition of the value of Coast Guard-type forces — dealing with transnational threats and crimes at sea — for peaceful and routine engagement at sea with counterpart maritime forces from other states,” according to the 2015 analysis on “Enhancing Maritime Law Enforcement in the Pacific.”

Therefore, the analysis advocated, continued improvements for communication and cooperation bilaterally and multinationally must continue with coast guards, because of the “increased need for sea lanes to be safe and secure to serve as the shipping routes for the global economy.”