Ensuring complete security of the global commons is indeed a tall order. Implicit in this statement is a recognition that it is certainly beyond the power of any single maritime force. A coordinated and cooperative effort across the spectrum of intelligence gathering, surveillance, policing and information sharing amongst all the shareholders is vital to its success. It simply cannot be accomplished through the military instrument alone. The first step is the identification of weak links in the entire chain of the global maritime trading system. There are around 4000 ports worldwide from where maritime trade originates and ends, with the top 30 accounting for nearly 50% of all container shipments. Their security is obviously important but what needs equal attention is the ability to track each container from the moment it is packed till its offloading at its final inland destination. The security equation is compounded by the fact that containers tend to take the most convenient route, which is not necessarily a direct one, by virtue of trans-shipment through maritime hub ports.
An unintended consequence of containerised trade is that nearly 20% of the containers perforce remain idle at any one time. Maritime trade is at present conducted through around 45000 merchant vessels, the major bulk of which being container carriers. With containers having reduced the handling and turnaround time in port, most of these ships would be plying on the sea at any one time. Now just imagine such a large number of ships cross-crossing the oceans of the world at all times of the day and night, and the problems of affording them foolproof protection become apparent. Shipping routes in general are dictated by market forces, more appropriately world trade flows, being most dense where demand is the greatest. Apart from the trans-Atlantic trade flow between Europe and the US east coast and the trans-Pacific trade between the countries straddling the South China Sea and the US west coast, the bulk of the world’s maritime trade is carried out through a limited number of international straits and artificial canals, where they are most significantly at risk, but can best be protected at the same time through a collaborative approach.
So, while formulating a broad framework for moving towards an ideal where operations at sea can be undertaken in perfect unison, ways can and should be found along the way to first skirt and then move on to progressively overcome the constraints that stand in its way. This may not prove so simple as it seems, as can be seen from the contrasting approaches on display in the South East Asian region. On the one hand is the South China Sea arena, where regional tensions, geopolitical rivalry and maritime boundary disputes preclude an effective regional maritime alliance of any sort. On the other hand, we have the example of the Malacca Straits patrol, a trilateral coordinated policing scheme involving the navies of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which succeeded in drastically curtailing the crime rate in the waterway by nearly 70% in five years.
One of the biggest problems that Pakistan faced was a near total lack of coordination between the various public sector agencies charged with maritime responsibilities and which ultimately had an adverse impact on safety and security issues. Pakistan Navy took the initiative of setting up a Joint Maritime Information Coordination Centre (JMICC) under the auspices of Coastal Command Headquarters in 2013, which helped foster interagency coordination and joint decision making in matters involving two or more agencies. Apart from developing a local tactical picture, JMICC enhanced this coverage by entering into strategic linkages with other info sharing portals like Information Fusion Centre of Singapore and Virtual Regional Maritime Traffic Centre of Italy. Owing to its greater reach and mobility, the Pakistan Navy endeavours to supplement the efforts of the Maritime Security Agency in maintaining order at sea within the country’s maritime zones.
Many industry backed initiatives like the ICCs International Maritime Bureau and its Piracy Reporting Centre in Kuala Lumpur, European Union Naval Forces (EU NAVFORs), Maritime Security Centre – Horn of Africa, UKs Marine Trade Operations (UKMTO) office in Dubai and the Maritime Trade Information Sharing Centre (MTISC) for the Gulf of Guinea have helped considerably in strengthening the maritime security chain.
The effective policing of such a vast area that constitutes the global maritime commons can only be done through a unified multilateral approach in terms of surveillance, intelligence gathering, collation, dissemination and sharing of information and above all, well-coordinated and timely responses to all emerging threats. The only way a consensus can be forged is by sidestepping continental fault lines and perceived national interests in favour of a collective regional and global maritime security template, and by extending regional linkages into a wider capacity-building, info sharing and enforcement network. A Common Information Sharing Environment (CISE), which offers real time situational awareness to the maritime fraternity through an inter-linked maritime surveillance network is an essential tool in the battle against the dark forces of the sea.
The evolution and utilization of technology has been crucial in strengthening all tiers of maritime security. If ever it will be needed more than ever, it is possibly in countering the sophisticated cyber crimes of the future. Almost all countries have a vital stake in preserving the freedom of the seas, and it is thus in their common interest to join hands in clamping down on all illegal activities at sea of every shade.