The Indo-Pacific has become a central region for the balance of the world, not only diplomatically – the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus are, for example, the newly in-vogue places to be – but also economically. The region comprises at least 38 countries that share 44 percent of world surface area and 65 percent of world population, and account for 62 percent of world GDP and 46 percent of the world’s merchandise trade. Because of globalization and the so-called “maritimization,” the Indo-Pacific highly relies on a free circulation of raw materials and consumer goods. This is the reason why maritime security in the Indo-Pacific is a critical issue not only for regional countries but also for the entire world.
MDA as a Necessary Step to Secure the Indo-Pacific Seas
Alas, the sea is a particularly favorable place for the expression of strategic competition. The proliferation of surface vessels, submarines, and naval weapons is the clearest and most worrying illustration of this increasing competition. The maritime security in the Malacca and Singapore Straits, as well as the peace and the stability of the South China Sea or of the Bengal Gulf, are just as topical as ever. Challenges in these areas have global implications and consequences, whether it be overfishing, sea robbery, maritime terrorism, drug trafficking, or even illegal migration. For instance, there have been 44 attacks in the Strait of Singapore in 2021 so far according to the Singaporean Information Fusion Centre (IFC), constantly evolving since 2016.
Climate change – and the threats it poses to humanity – concerns every single country in the world and especially in the Asia-Pacific area. Climate change will bring extreme climatic phenomena, melting glaciers, global warming, salinity changing, and sea level rise. That’s without mentioning the excessive exploitation of nature and fishing stocks, the increasing pollution of the oceans, and the reduction of biodiversity. These and other critical environmental security issues will eventually lead to instabilities that will affect all the maritime economy, especially the fishing communities.
In this situation, regular exchanges, information sharing between regional actors, and the acquisition of a common “grammar” (or paradigm) and a common picture are the first but necessary steps for stability in Asia-Pacific. This common grammar is a powerful factor of security as it helps prevent escalations and avoid misunderstanding. A common global picture is also necessary to share a common analysis and assessment about a regional situation. This is exactly what the regional IFCs try to do on a daily basis.
In other words, it is mandatory to improve Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) bridges between all the maritime actors, including all the human or technological tools that enable a clear and comprehensive picture of the maritime situation. France can undoubtedly contribute to it.
France’s Long Experience and Expertise in MDA
France was the first European country to formalize a strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. In May 2018, the president of the Republic set the framework of its regional policy: resolution of disputes through dialogue and multilateralism, contributions to the maritime security of the region, support for strengthening the sovereignty of states, and fighting against climate change. The following year during the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, France’s minister of the armed forces unveiled the “French Defense Strategy in the Indo-Pacific,” which was completed in July 2021 during the fifth France-Oceania summit.
France is also the only EU country to have permanently pre-positioned forces in the Indo-Pacific and regular warship, submarine, or aircraft deployments. France systematically carries out high-level interactions with its strategic partners such as India, Japan, the United States, and Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam in Southeast Asia. France also has undeniable assets to take an active part in the maritime security of this region: shipowners operating at a global level such as CMA-CGM, a first rank navy (four ballistic missile submarines, one CATOBAR-equipped aircraft carrier, and five naval bases all around the world) or its unique model of governance at sea – namely “State Action at Sea,” which relies on coordination under the authority of maritime prefects or governors, instead of having proper coast-guard forces – at a time when many states in this region question the efficiency of their own maritime governance.
Furthermore, France has established some bilateral protocols between its Maritime Information, Cooperation, and Awareness Centre (MICA Centre) and shipowners, operators, and charterers, which are beneficial for everyone concerned by maritime issues in Asia-Pacific. The French navy has been working hand-in-hand with the shipping community for two decades through initiatives such as the Voluntary Maritime Cooperation (VMC), which allows the sharing of information between shipowners, charterers, and operators (French and foreigners) and the French navy. In the same vein, last October, the French Pacific Command hosted in French Polynesia the PACIOS (Pacific and Indian Ocean Shipping) working group to share best practices regarding maritime security and MDA expertise between stakeholders. In this regard, the MICA Centre has become in a few years the center of excellence of the French navy in order to sustain this new impetus for maritime cooperation. The ability to provide valuable assessments to national or foreign actors in the maritime industry has become absolutely necessary, and this is facilitated by the large global network of maritime stakeholders with which the MICA and the liaison officers inserted in the IFCs work on a daily basis.
France seeks to engage further to advance MDA in the region. In this aim, France’s ambition has always been to support bilateral and multilateral partnerships actively, such as the IFCs in Singapore, India, or Madagascar, in which France has established liaison officers since the very beginning. The large number of French assets operating in the Indo-Pacific each year (7,000 military personnel, about 15 warships and 40 aircraft) as well as the diplomatic and military network in this area (made up of 18 defense attachés accredited in 33 countries) also contribute to the French MDA knowledge. France intends to develop and accelerate its cooperation with the maritime industry, including overseas, through maritime cooperation protocols and to actively participate in the constitution of a network of trust with national or regional MDA/MARSEC (Maritime Security) centers. The idea is to always improve the sharing of information and analysis between maritime stakeholders and to improve our ability to truly establish a common “grammar” and picture for the benefit of the maritime community at large.
In this vein, the European Union is also obviously a key partner. ASEAN and the EU face the same challenges, such as illegal migration due to an economic or ethnic crisis, drug trafficking, maritime pollution due to illegal cleanings of tankers, sea flights, maritime terrorism, or cyber threats. These mutual challenges make it possible to foresee many avenues of cooperation in the maritime sector. As an example, the European project named Critical Maritime routes in Indian Ocean (CRIMARIO-II) has intended to promote maritime security, through multi-domain cooperation, capacity building, workshops, information exchange, and training for a few years. It emerges as an essential lever of cooperation for regional partners who would like to share best practices and analyses on all the categories of MDA, whether in particular clandestine migration, environmental security, or maritime terrorism.
We have entered a new geopolitical phase shaped by the maritime context. Understanding maritime issues has become strategic even as the current geopolitical environment poses real risks to the stability of the area. The relationship between the navies and the maritime industry has become absolutely central in this region. It has become vital to improve the sharing of MDA information between all relevant actors in the region – with the coast guards and navies, of course, but also with all the actors of the maritime industry (shipowners, charterers, operators, insurance companies, NGOs, etc.), with the common objective of maintaining safe navigation for all. It is in this virtuous spirit that France, ALPACI, and the MICA Center particularly, will continue to work in confidence with all partners.