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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

How Quad’s Maritime Initiative Will Challenge Dark Shipping in the Indo-Pacific

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

“This initiative will transform the ability of partners in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean region to fully monitor the waters on their shores and, in turn, to uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific."

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD), otherwise known as Quad, is an international strategic forum comprised of four countries: the United States, Japan, India, and Australia. One of Quad’s primary objectives is to collectively develop a “free, open, prosperous, and inclusive” Indo-Pacific region - a region that has historically been threatened by illegal fishing, human trafficking, and unauthorized military activity.

At the Quad Leaders’ Tokyo Summit earlier this year, Quad representatives unveiled their plans to launch an initiative to combat some of the most common and detrimental activities in Indo-Pacific seas, including a maritime initiative that will help identify dark shipping incidents, mitigate illegal fishing, and prevent other tactical-level intrusions from occurring. The Maritime Initiative Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) will utilize a regional network of partners to address humanitarian issues and fight illegal (IUU) fishing by offering real-time, integrated, and economic maritime domain awareness through the identification and tracking of ‘dark vessels.’

"The benefit of this maritime initiative will allow tracking of dark shipping and other tactical-level activities, such as rendezvous at sea, as well as improve partners' ability to respond to climate and humanitarian events and to protect their fisheries - which are vital to many Indo-Pacific economies,” said the US White House in a media statement at the Tokyo Summit.

The IPMDA initiative will almost immediately enhance the ability to monitor the waters and shores of partner countries in the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Ocean - ultimately giving way to a ‘free and just’ Indo-Pacific region.

How Will Quad’s Maritime Initiative Identify and Track Dark Shipping Events?

At the Tokyo Summit, Quad leaders discussed how they plan to identify and track ‘dark vessels’ in the region - vessels that intentionally turn off their AIS transponders to operate unnoticed. IPDMA will utilize commercially-available data - much of which comes from small-satellite constellations in space - alongside open-source information, satellite imagery, and RF frequency data to identify when a ship’s position is being manipulated or to confirm or refute a ship’s recorded AIS position.

While this type of data would traditionally be categorized as “classified,” the commercial-based nature of the information will allow Quad partners to openly share insights and take on as many strategic partners or technologies as needed.

Apart from simply identifying dark shipping events, the IPDMA will also support and enhance information-sharing networks for all nations involved - ushering in a new era of communication and collaboration to protect international waters and territories.

Why is Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing Such a Considerable Threat to the Indo-Pacific?

For those living in the Indo-Pacific, fisheries provide gainful employment, predictable income, and food security - all of which are imperative for a suitable standard of living. Not only do fisheries provide security on an individual level, but they also support national economic security - generating tens of billions of dollars every year in the region. Without healthy and sustainable fishing operations, the region will face challenges on every socio-economic level, many of which may become too severe to remediate.

IUU fishing is a primary driver of overfishing, threatens vulnerable and fragile marine ecosystems, puts economic and food security at risk regionally and globally, and is commonly linked with humanitarian issues such as human trafficking, low-wage or forced labor, and other nefarious activity.

Although it’s difficult to put an exact number to, it is estimated that IUU fishing costs global economies up to $23 billion annually - making it one of the world’s most costly economic challenges.

China is undoubtedly the biggest offender of illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific. While Quad leaders did not call out China by name at the Tokyo Summit, China’s role in IUU fishing in the region is well-known and long-lived. Although ownership of the waters in the South China sea is disputed, Chinese vessels have been known to travel far beyond the area and well-into exclusive economic zones - using AIS darkness and other manipulation tactics to try and avoid detection.

In a report published by the Environmental Justice Foundation, research showed more than 230 instances of Chinese vessels having been accused of fishing illegally between 2015 and 2019 - and those formal accusations only scratch the surface of the growing problem. The report also highlighted how Chinese fishing fleets harm protected and endangered marine life like sharks, whales, dolphins, and seals.

Ken Jimbo, a professor and security expert at Keio University, said, “China’s rise is now the global phenomenon that not [only] involved the neighboring nations, but also the safety of maritime security in the South China Sea, Malacca Straits, all the way to the Indian Ocean.” He also stated, “China may feel alarmed that the Quad could develop into an Asian version of Nato, but that’s far from reality. Having a framework for the leaders to gather and discuss is the Quad’s symbolic significance.”

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