Indian Ocean environmental security needs a regional centre
Toxic spill from ship

Environmental risks can be disastrous for Indian Ocean states

Written by

Anthony Bergin

Environmental challenges such as climate change, marine plastic pollution and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing are increasingly posing serious threats to Indian Ocean countries, especially the smaller island states. 

Other threats include sea-level rise, severe weather events such as cyclones and storm surges, marine heatwaves, loss of primary producer habitats and organisms due to ocean heating (for example, coral bleaching) and ocean acidification. 

Shipping accidents, including massive oil spills, also threaten to wreak havoc on island states whose economies are highly dependent on fishing and marine tourism. There’ll be future risks in shipping hydrogen-derived ammonia through the region’s shipping lanes that are crucial to the energy security of many countries.With the dramatic scaling up of shipping ammonia the likelihood of a serious incident grows: a large ammonia spill would be highly toxic to marine life.

These environmental threats have ramifications not only for the natural world, but are likely to act as force multipliers, exacerbating water, energy, food and health challenges that diminish resilience and increase the likelihood of conflict. Accordingly, “marine ecology” has been identified as one of the seven pillars in the Australia-India Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative, aiming to ensure the security and stability of the region’s maritime spaces. 

Australia should implement a coherent approach to Indian Ocean environmental security as part of an integrated Indo-Pacific strategy. It’s no longer good enough to adopt a business-as-usual approach to these problems on our western front. Just as we’ve done in our engagement with the Pacific Island countries, environmental security should be a key pillar in our engagement with our Indian Ocean neighbours.

Australia should sponsor the establishment of an Indian Ocean Centre for Environmental Security (IOCES) to provide professional development and training to personnel from civil and military agencies across the region.  IOCES would build regional state capacity for responding to environmental issues that may impact on regional stability. 

The Centre would provide world-class education to environmental and security practitioners from across the Indian Ocean as well as attracting practitioners from Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands region.

IOCES would conduct leading research on environmental security challenges and environmental governance best practices. It would develop as a hub for persistent contact between the full range of environmental security governance stakeholders including government, industry, and academia.

IOCES would conduct public education on environmental security topics and serve as the leading repository of environmental security knowledge in the Indian Ocean region. The Centre would create a network of cross-sector alumni and researchers with common understandings and shared experiences. IOCES would demonstrate cooperative resolve to address environmental security challenges in the Indian Ocean, our “second sea”. 

There could be a range of sponsors for such a Centre:  it might, for example, be the Quad or Australia-Japan-US. It might be two of the three members of the Australia-Japan-US trilateral or sponsored by Japan alone or Australia alone. The latter option would send a clear message that we’re giving priority to the environmental security challenges faced by our partners. 

In some ways, however, the more sponsors the better. Funding from multiple sponsors would spread material and non-material costs. IOCES could also seek industry support and foster public private partnerships with the Centre. Sponsors could provide teaching and research experts, as well as diplomatic assistance in recruiting regional partners and students. With a modest staff of around twelve the Centre’s budget would be around $3 million a year.

It would be important to guard against partners with divergent interests that may erode the Centre’s unity of effort. I’d suggest that (quietly) Chinese representatives should not be invited to join IOCES. The response to inevitable PRC criticisms would be to highlight that the IOCES exists to support states that are seeking to build better environmental governance collaboratively and cooperatively; China interferes with regional states environmental good governance, (for example China’s destruction of the marine environment with its South China Sea dredging operations).

The ideal host location for IOCES would be Perth. It would reinforce the city’s status as the natural gateway for our educational, business, and scientific engagement with the Indian Ocean region and for the pursuit of “blue economy” opportunities. Perth affords IOCES participants the opportunity to engage with a variety of specialists from a diverse array of agencies concerned with environmental security.

In the maritime environmental area, for example, Perth is already home to an impressive field of agencies and programs in marine science, including CSIRO, the Integrated Marine Observing System, the Indian Ocean Marine Research Centre,  and the IORA Blue Carbon Hub . Several Western Australian universities are engaged in environmental policy research and training. On a practical level, Perth offers direct air access to many regional participants. 

The key risk to the success of the IOCES would be if Indian Ocean states do not perceive that it has status or relevance and so it has a low success in attracting participants or funding partners.  But as awareness of IOCES services increases, that risk will be reduced. And, if IOCES adheres to its objectives of adding value, avoiding replication, and facilitating partnerships, the risk should be minimised. 

The Indian Ocean region is faced with a wide range of increasing environmental threats. That’s going to require Australia to take a much more active role. We can’t afford to just muddle through when it comes to the security, sustainability, and stability of our region.

Next year Australia will host the Indian Ocean Conference, (in consultation with the India Foundation), an important forum for the region. It’s the perfect platform to launch the IOCES.

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at SAA and an expert associate at the National Security College. This article draws on the author’s recent study (with David Brewster), Good neighbours: Strengthening environmental security in the Indian Ocean region