It is no secret that the Indo-Pacific suffers from a maritime security shortfall. Natural disasters, criminal activities, and interstate tensions all endanger seafarers, undermine the well-being of coastal communities, and threaten regional calamity. While the risk of conflict in the South China Sea dominates the news, that is far from the region’s only maritime security challenge. Illustrating the scope of the problem, the Information Fusion Centre in Singapore counted 1,882 individuals as dead or missing on the regional seas during the first half of 2023. These tragedies are left mostly undiscussed because the dangerous character of the region’s seas is simply taken for granted. Yet, it does not have to be so. Establishing an Indo-Pacific Center of Excellence (COE) for Maritime Governance could be a valuable contribution to improving the region’s maritime safety and security.

The region’s lack of maritime security is directly related to its maritime governance insufficiency. As a general definition, “maritime governance” refers to the capacity to establish and enforce the framework of laws, regulations, policies, and institutions generated both within the legal jurisdictions of states and the international community that seek to establish “good order at sea.”

International law puts the bulk of the burden for maritime governance responsibilities on states and most of the region’s maritime security problems relate directly to the fact that many regional states cannot provide the necessary levels of governance. The practical manifestations of maritime governance include enforcement of safety regulations, management of natural resources, safeguarding the environment, and execution of law enforcement operations.

A lack of governance effectively guarantees that commercial entities will dangerously cut corners while criminals and militants will quickly exploit any seams for their ends. The same gaps enable states to employ dangerous grey-zone tactics in their efforts to gain advantages over one another. Thus, good governance is also an underpinning requirement for deterring international conflict.

Recognizing the nature of this problem, higher-capacity states, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations are all actively engaged in activities to build regional maritime governance capacity. However, these capacity-building activities are of varied quality, generally uncoordinated, and often poorly aligned with the recipient states’ needs. Thus, the United States should act now by leading the development of a maritime governance COE.

A COE is a hub for knowledge and action that collects and exchanges national good practices and augments them with its own independent research and analysis. Specific services that could be provided by this COE include: providing skills training to regional maritime governance professionals; sponsoring research; assisting the international coordination and deconfliction of capacity-building activities; developing best practices and doctrine; documenting and disseminating lessons learned; hosting conferences, workshops and tabletop exercises; supporting field training exercises; and facilitating more substantial interactions between stakeholders.

This proposal represents a refined version of ideas that have been circulating in the maritime policy community for some years. Half a decade ago, there was talk that Japan could host a NATO Maritime Security COE as a keystone contribution to the nascent Japan-NATO relationship. However, as NATO has shelved its plan to open a liaison office in Japan, it seems unlikely that this dormant idea will be going anywhere anytime soon.

In 2022, a pair of Australia’s leading maritime thinkers called for Australia and Japan to jointly establish a maritime law enforcement professional development center, perhaps in Darwin.  One of those authors also proposed an Indian Ocean Centre for Environmental Security the next year. The UK government has similarly commissioned an academic study about the potential for a UK-India maritime security COE. Any of these of these could be excellent, but each would address a sliver of the required work that could be addressed by an Indo-Pacific maritime governance COE.

At a July 2023 academic conference co-sponsored by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Near East South Asia Center for Security Studies, I presented a specific proposal for a Maritime Governance COE sponsored by the Quad (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States). As the idea received some praise and no dissenting comments from the assembled experts, the proposed details were documented in the conference report and delivered to the United States government.

Later in 2023, the House of Representatives-version of the National Defense Authorization Act tasked the Department of Defense with conducting a feasibility study for an Indo-Pacific Maritime Governance COE, but that language was removed in conference.  The final bill instead directed Indo-Pacific Commander to advance regional maritime security, including via the use of the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (DKI APCSS).

The number of unconnected voices calling for action from various vantages suggests that a COE would be a good idea even though it has yet to find the political commitment necessary for resourcing. Luckily, an organization would be most effective if it were a coordinated effort between a group of likeminded states that share resourcing responsibilities.  This could be the Quad or any of the other quadrilateral, trilateral, and bilateral U.S. partnerships in the region. Japan, Australia, India, and the UK have already shown interest in something along these lines. While U.S. leadership would require confirming a major resource contribution, it also allows the United States to shape the organization to meet its national policy objectives while respecting those of its partners.

In many ways, it is surprising that no Indo-Pacific Maritime Governance COE exists already. NATO and the EU have dozens of COEs focused on a range of issues, including a Maritime Security COE. It hosts lively training activities but it focuses on the other side of the world and is still building its lesson-learned, doctrine development, and concept validation programs.

Some organizations arguably provide functions similar to a COE for the Indo-Pacific, but these are not sufficiently meeting the region’s needs. Americans are likely to point toward the DKI APCSS as such an organization. Indeed, it connects with a range of stakeholders across the Indo-Pacific and has both education and research functions. However, constrained by resources, its maritime security training program is limited to a relatively small set of courses, and course content is focused primarily at the strategy and policy levels with minimal operational or tactical content. DKI APCSS’ maritime security research output has been limited in recent years.

DKI APCSS does have a strong track record for collaborating with the Indo-Pacific Command, Pacific Forum, the East-West Center, the University of Hawaii and others. When these groups have teamed up some good research has been created. However, the collaboration can be intermittent. Funding DKPI ACPSS to stand up a COE would enable them to enlarge their research and teaching capacity and improve the institutionalization of these linkages.  However, DKI APCSS is a DoD organization with will limit its appeal beyond the Indo-Pacific’s military and academic communities.  The relatively sparse nature Honolulu’s international maritime industry would amplify this challenge.

Tokyo would be a better option in terms of creating opportunities for whole-of-domain stakeholder collaboration. It has been ranked as the world’s fifth most important maritime city based primarily on its global importance in shipping, finance and law. Tokyo also hosts the headquarters of the Japan Coast Guard (JCG), the Asian coast guard with the most active regional role and the biennial Global Coast Guard Summit. The headquarters and primary ports for the powerful JMSDF and US Navy 7th Fleet are also located on Tokyo Bay. The Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) has a solid track record for conducting research and training support for strengthening international governance capacity. GRIPS’ Maritime Safety and Security Policy Program, which is administered jointly with the JCG, has a particularly strong teaching reputation.

It might also be sensible to choose a partner with less capacity to host the COE. This could lower costs, improve buy-in from the Global South, and give states receiving assistance stronger voices in the center’s administration. Manila and Jakarta would be especially appropriate if the COE were to be an ASEAN-centric organization. Despite their national maritime governance capacity shortfalls, the Philippines and Indonesia have both been establishing themselves as leaders of multinational maritime affairs, as is appropriate to their stature in the maritime world. These are the two largest archipelagic nations, and their central location means that their internal sealanes are of global importance. They are also the world’s first and third largest suppliers of seafarers. In the Pacific, Fiji could offer advantages.

Naturally, the United States would not invite China to participate in this COE although China’s strong navy, large merchant fleet, second-place ranking for supplying seafarers and multiple megaports mark it as a globally important maritime state. Chinese state actions, particularly those of its Coast Guard and maritime militia, routinely disregard international law and engage in actions specifically intended to undermine the maritime governance duties of its neighbors. China also undercuts good order at sea as the world’s worst offender of illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing.  While a lack of Chinese representation might be a challenge to getting full support from states that don’t want to appear tilting too far toward either great power, this is not a showstopper. Those same states have shown themselves ready to participate in other American-led capacity-building activities and, perhaps more importantly, their leading maritime thinkers would be eager to engage in a world-class institution in their personal capacities.

About John Bradford

John F. Bradford is the inaugural Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in Indonesia. He is also an adjunct senior fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His research focuses on Asian security with special attention given to maritime issues and cooperative affairs. He retired from the U.S. Navy with the rank of Commander.