Following this week’s news that Trinidad and Tobago will buy two Cape Class patrol boats from Austal, ASPI has released a report examining the growing role of coastal surface combatants in ASEAN member states.
The report’s authors (Dr John Boyne, Ashleigh Sharpe, and Dione Hodgson) argue that coastguards have become an “important strategic cushion” between south-east Asian navies.
That is because they are seen as “less threatening” during at-sea encounters, with less potential to inflame situations thanks to “increased freedom of movement” and a lower fear of conflict.
The report opens with a summary of threats facing ASEAN navies. Foremost amongst those are piracy, particularly by the Abu Sayyaf group in the Sulu Sea, which is looking to fund terrorism and insurgency operations on land.
Rising fish prices are another driver of increased demand on regional coastguards. Competition over stocks is increasing as fish numbers dwindle, fuelling fears of food insecurity and socio-political instability.
Finally, China’s distant-water fishing fleet is operating as the advance party of a hybrid strategy aimed at increasing Beijing’s strategic presence. In addition to fishing, the Chinese vessels collect intelligence, challenge exclusive economic zone (EEZ) boundaries, and occupy maritime territory.
In response to these threats, the report argues, ASEAN states are stepping up patrols and responses within their EEZs. Many states are buying more patrol boats, increasing the size of the boats they buy, and modernizing existing boats.
So, what does this mean for Australia, and for industry looking to capitalize on growing coast guard investments in south-east Asia?
The authors argue that Australia’s Maritime Border Command and the RAN often have overlapping responsibilities, and are assigned tasks according to “which gives the Australian Government more options and flexibility.”
Whilst the report does not advocate for the creation of an Australian coastguard, it does want to see the “continued development of a whole-of-government integration of MDA (maritime domain awareness) functions that supports strategic, operational and tactical decision-making.”
In regards to industry opportunities, the authors highlight the potential competitiveness of Australian companies looking to jump in on regional tenders.
“There’s certainly some evidence that there’ll be continued regional demand for vessels ranging from small riverine craft to fast patrol boats and offshore patrol vessels. Australian industry would need to be quite price-competitive and well supported by the Australian Government to realise those opportunities.”
“The ad hoc, short-notice nature of defence acquisition in ASEAN means that industry will need to be agile to meet short-notice demands. Furthermore, the often-limited capacity of the region to operate and maintain sophisticated defence capabilities could create a market for reliable and easy-to-maintain platforms.”
“Australian companies could also assist with the broader challenge of integrating and fusing all-source unclassified MDA data. At the very least, there could be opportunities to support further system-of-systems integration of MDA.”
Trinidad and Tobago, of course, is not a regional state, and has bought from Austal before. Yet it seems Australian industry may soon find similar opportunities closer to home.