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The success of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy hinges not just on U.S. capabilities and engagement in the region, but on cooperative efforts undertaken between the United States and its allies and partners. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe first gave voice to the FOIP concept in his August 2016 address at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development, stating: “Japan bears the responsibility of fostering the confluence of the Pacific and Indian Oceans and of Asia and Africa into a place that values freedom, the rule of law, and the market economy, free from force or coercion, and making it prosperous.” U.S. support for the concept subsequently arose in President Trump’s speech at the 2017 APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam and was then codified in U.S. policy in the December 2017 National Security Strategy., 
Since the articulation of FOIP by both the United States and Japan, there has been growing interest in and attention on the erstwhile neglected Pacific island countries (PICs). This greater degree of attention is a function of multiple factors, including the engagement of PICs in international organizations, the articulation of a regional Pacific identity through the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the ongoing existential threat of climate change, and increased activity by China in Oceania. In response to these and other factors, the United States and Japan must acknowledge and invest in their shared interest in stable, prosperous, and open Pacific island countries. In particular, three island nations north of the equator merit attention by virtue of their strategic importance and ties to the United States and Japan.
Sitting at a crossroads of the northern Pacific, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI), the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Republic of Palau (Palau) are active regional and international voices on the issues of climate change, human security, fisheries, marine conservation, and nonproliferation. Known together as the Freely Associated States (FAS), these island nations have substantial historic, economic, and defense relationships with Japan and the United States.
The Strategic Importance of the FAS
Since 1986, the FAS have held a unique relationship with the United States via the Compacts of Free Association whereby the United States holds full authority and responsibility for the security and defense matters of the FAS. In turn, the United States receives exclusive access to the water and air space around these islands. The United States also provides annual financial aid to these countries and visa-free immigration, with an estimated 94,000 FAS citizens currently living in the United States.,  Japan is one of the most important official development assistance (ODA) sources for the FAS, contributing $4.69M to the RMI, $5.15M to the FSM, and $12.97M to Palau through 2017 in the form of grants and loans. Palauan President Tommy Remengesau Jr. in 2018 went as far as to say that the Japan-Palau relationship is one “best described as brotherly. We really view Japan as something of an older brother.”
The Compacts of Free Association provide the United States with unparalleled strategic access to a massive area of ocean at a relatively low cost, while simultaneously preventing military use by other nations. Furthermore, the long history of the United States and Japan in the FAS has engendered a modern sense of cultural affinity and mutual goodwill. Generally, both the United States and Japan are held in high regard by the citizens of the FAS. This goodwill, however, is not inexhaustible. The FAS face persistent issues that, if left unattended, could lead to worsening economic strain and political instability. In the long-term, such instability could lead to geopolitical realignment that would be inimical to the interests of Washington and Tokyo. For this reason, it is imperative that the Japan-U.S. alliance adopt policies to mitigate challenges already identified by the governments of the FAS and thus, promote stability in the northern Pacific in line with the FOIP strategy.
The combined territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of the RMI, the FSM, and Palau cover 3,473,751 square miles, an area roughly similar to the land area of the contiguous United States. Effectively monitoring this vast swath of ocean is vital for the FAS to successfully protect their valuable marine resources and territorial integrity. Such monitoring is termed maritime domain awareness (MDA) and is defined as the effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact the security, safety, economy, or environment of a given state. Achieving MDA through traditional methods however, primarily patrol vessels and manned aircraft, is difficult for small nations like the FAS.
In 2018, Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the importance of enhancing partner nations’ MDA through the then-Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. On March 27, 2019, INDOPACOM Commander Admiral Phil Davidson mentioned in his statement before the United States House of Representatives Armed Services Committee that INDOPACOM has been working to deepen its engagement with Pacific island countries to “preserve a Free and Open Indo-Pacific region.”
In 2018, Prime Minister Abe met with RMI President Hilda Heine on the sidelines of the 8th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting and explained his intention to forge a closer relationship between the two countries along with stating his hope to discuss the challenges facing the region, including maritime security. Mr. Abe also expressed similar priorities in meetings with leaders of both the FSM and Palau.,  Regarding FOIP specifically, a November 2019 FOIP explanatory document from the Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs listed capacity-building efforts in the realm of MDA as critical to peace and stability in the region. While newly elected Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s approach to maritime security in the Pacific remains to be seen, Mr. Suga has repeatedly pledged broad continuity with his predecessor’s policies.
China’s Activity in Oceania
China also views Pacific island countries as both geopolitically and geostrategically important. China’s expanding view of its security interests has prioritized the first and second island chains that lay astride its access to the Pacific Ocean. For these reasons, PICs, including the FAS, have begun to feature more prominently in China’s policies and its influence efforts in the region have grown in recent years. This increased influence is the result of China’s broad economic clout, as well as targeted programs like the Belt and Road Initiative. A watershed moment for China’s activities in the Pacific came in September 2019, when both the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Chinese aid was said to be the key factor in both nations’ decisions to move away from Taipei and towards Beijing. The Solomon Islands has allegedly been promised hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and Kiribati will receive help acquiring commercial passenger aircraft.,  The decision by the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to shift recognition from Taiwan to China in order to obtain more development aid highlights a repeatable risk in the Pacific.
Across the board, PICs are in dire need of economic assistance. In November 2019, the Tuvalu Foreign Minister, Simon Kofe, sat for an interview with Reuters in Taipei. In the interview, Minister Kofe shared that Tuvalu had rejected offers from Chinese companies to build artificial islands to help it cope with rising sea levels and explicitly expressed support for Taiwan. Tuvalu is an atoll nation whose 9 islands total just 10 square miles of land area and have a high point of just a few meters above sea level. The RMI is another Pacific atoll nation facing an existential threat from sea level rise and both the FSM and Palau include outer island atolls in their territory. How long such atolls will remain habitable is in question, but a 2018 study led by U.S. Geological Survey scientist Curt Storlazzi projected that most Pacific atolls will be uninhabitable by 2050 due to wave-driven flooding and its impact on freshwater resources. As sea level rise increasingly impacts islands in the Pacific, other policy considerations will inevitably become secondary for PIC governments.
Pacific need for economic and development assistance has only grown in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The Asian Development Bank’s most recent Pacific Economic Monitor report published in July 2020 estimates that the Pacific’s “3.7% growth in 2019 is projected to be reversed to a 4.3% contraction in 2020 as travel restrictions severely impact several tourism-dependent economies.”  Through the remainder of the pandemic and into the period of recovery, provision of economic and development assistance to PICs will be just as important if not more important than defense aid.
The Challenges of Vast Blue Space
The persistent challenges facing the FAS are common throughout Pacific island states. These nations, speaking collectively through the PIF, recognize their common issues and have described them in terms of “human security” in documents such as the 2018 Boe Declaration. This expanded concept of national security includes environmental protection, food security, water security, combatting transnational crime, and public health. Prominent among these issues is the challenge of governing their territorial seas and EEZs.
The FAS are uniquely vulnerable to the harmful effects of illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Located in some of the world’s most productive waters, fish are one of the most valuable resources of the FAS. The lack of robust domestic fishing fleets, however, dictates that the FAS monetize this resource by licensing foreign fleets to fish in their EEZs. Regarding the tuna purse seine fishery specifically, licensing is managed via the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Vessel Day Scheme.,  Although some fishing fleets play by the rules (U.S. and Japanese fleets are generally considered to be good actors), others either fish illegally, or more often take more fish than their licenses allow. This has the dual effect of depriving FAS governments of potential revenue and depleting fish stocks from over-fishing. 95% of IUU fishing in the Pacific is perpetrated by licensed as opposed to unlicensed vessels.
Connected to the IUU fishing problem are drug trafficking and human trafficking. Logically, any illicit movement into and out of the FAS takes place by sea or air. The Marshall Islands in recent years has had a growing problem with cocaine showing up in its territory and cocaine usage in the capital of Majuro is now a widespread problem. Earlier this year, hospital staff in Majuro reported an increase in patients seeking help with drug-related mental and physical health problems and the local Marshall Islands Journal has reported on just how easy it is to purchase crack cocaine rocks on the island.
The Marshall Islands have seen professionally wrapped cocaine bundles washing up on their shores for decades. The bundles that wash up are often in good condition, lacking ocean growths such as barnacles that would indicate a long duration spent in the water. In 2018, a fisherman on Kwajalein Atoll, caught 48 kg of plastic bags of cocaine with his throw net. The fisherman reported the find to police who said the bags had a street value of approximately $4 million. Just last month, the Marshall Islands Police seized 3 kg of cocaine hidden in a cooler on an Air Marshall Islands flight coming into Majuro from an outer island. “U.S. and Marshall Islands law enforcement authorities have said these large volumes of cocaine washing up on remote atolls reflect either use of the area as a transshipment point between South America and Asia, or drugs thrown overboard to avoid arrest by law enforcement that drift to the islands.”
The murder of American lawyer Rachelle Bergeron on the island of Yap in the FSM last year shocked the local community and put a spotlight on the issue of human trafficking in Micronesia in the Western media. Ms. Bergeron was a lawyer who specialized in fighting human trafficking and was serving as acting attorney general on Yap at the time of her murder. Two Yapese men have been charged with the crime, but Yapese law enforcement has yet to connect her death to human trafficking. Regardless of whether the murder of Ms. Bergeron was motivated by her work combatting trafficking, human trafficking remains an issue in the FSM as well as in Palau and the RMI. The U.S. Department of State’s 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report places both the FSM and Palau in the Tier 2 category, indicating that their “governments do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act minimum standards but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into compliance with those standards.” The RMI is categorized in the Tier 2 watchlist, meaning the RMI meets the standards of Tier 2, but “the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions.”
These challenging circumstances present a critical need for the United States and Japan to not only leverage their respective capabilities in the region to advance MDA, but to also cooperatively manifest improved economic and security outcomes for the people of the FAS. Doing so will further advance shared interests including sustainable development and maintaining the rule of law.
U.S. and Japanese MDA Assistance
The following examples of both Japanese and U.S. assistance addressing the MDA challenge in the FAS do not represent a comprehensive list of such activities. The examples instead introduce three important avenues by which the U.S. and Japan have invested in solutions that have notably enhanced MDA in the FAS.
In 2018, the Nippon Foundation donated a patrol vessel, administrative building, and vessel berth to the Government of Palau. The Nippon Foundation further committed to cover 10 years of maintenance costs related to the new vessel and the Sasakawa Peace Foundation committed to provide training and salary for the vessel’s crew. Such a generous donation by two preeminent Japanese NGOs have undoubtedly increased Palau’s ability to protect its maritime resources.
The United States Coast Guard (USCG) and the United States Navy (USN) contribute significantly to tackling MDA and enforcement challenges in the FAS through the USCG Shiprider Program and the joint USCG-USN Oceania Maritime Security Initiative (OMSI). The USCG has 11 permanent, bilateral shiprider agreements with Pacific island countries, including the RMI, the FSM, and Palau. The program allows law enforcement officers from the FAS to embark on U.S. vessels in order to observe, protect, board, and search vessels suspected of violating laws or regulations within their EEZs. Together, U.S. forces and FAS partners are able to “close global maritime law enforcement gaps; improve cooperation, coordination and interoperability; and build maritime law enforcement capacity to more effectively combat illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing and other illegal activity.”
In 2018, a USCG law enforcement detachment embarked on the USS Michael Murphy to complete a 24-day joint mission in FAS waters as part of the OMSI. During the mission, the USCG detachment conducted 11 fisheries enforcement boardings in concert with USS Michael Murphy’s visit, board, search, and seizure team as well as law enforcement officers ship riding on the vessel from the RMI and the FSM. All of the boardings were conducted in the EEZs of the RMI and the FSM.
The capabilities offered by a new patrol vessel as well the boon to monitoring and enforcement available to the FAS through the Shiprider Program and OMSI have bolstered MDA in the EEZs of the North Pacific. However, the sheer enormity of the relevant maritime space necessitates the further augmentation of MDA solutions in the FAS.
The Potential of Technological Solutions
Innovative solutions to the MDA challenge in the FAS could include low-cost, commercially available satellite products or small unmanned air and/or surface systems. In each of these areas, the United States and Japan can help. Capable NGOs have already demonstrated how satellite monitoring can be used to reveal maritime activity that might otherwise fly under the radar. Two examples come from just this past summer via two NGOs: Oceana and Global Fishing Watch.
In late July, the Ecuadorian Navy sounded the alarm regarding a Chinese distant water fishing fleet made up of hundreds of ships operating just outside the Galapagos EEZ. The size and presence of the fleet drew concern given its proximity to the rich and biodiverse waters surrounding the Galapagos as well as previous incidents of IUU fishing activity within the EEZ by Chinese vessels. On August 2, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued an official statement praising the Ecuadorian government for raising the alarm over the fleet’s presence and criticized China’s record on IUU fishing and marine environmental degradation. Apparently in response to international attention, China announced a 3-month fishing moratorium in an area immediately west of the Galapagos EEZ to occur from September 1 through the end of November. However, a late September report analyzing the activities of the Chinese fleet around the Galapagos during the July 13 – August 13 period by the NGO Oceana indicates that the area of the fleet’s activity was on the southern edge of the EEZ, not at all in the area of the 3-month ban. While the species being fished are migratory and therefore do not respect maritime boundaries, Oceana’s work visualizing the activity of the fleet from satellite data helps make clear the limitations of the Chinese fishing moratorium.
On July 22, Global Fishing Watch published a study in the journal, Science Advances, detailing their analysis of dark fishing fleets in North Korean waters between the upper Korean Peninsula, Japan, and Russia. The study reported that more than 900 Chinese vessels in 2017 and more than 700 in 2018 fished illegally in North Korean waters. In addition to traditional observation data from the South Korean Coast Guard, Global Fishing Watch used four different satellite-based technologies in their data collection. These included: (1) daytime optical imagery from aerospace and data analytics company Planet; (2) Synthetic Aperture Radar data from the European Space Agency, Kongsberg Satellite Services, and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency; (3) Automatic Identification System data; and (4) Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.,  The study concludes by advocating for the potential of satellite technology to combat IUU fishing, stating: “Combining these satellite technologies can reveal the activities of dark fleets, filling a major gap in the management of transboundary fisheries. Furthermore, these technologies, when accompanied by local expertise, can identify potential hot spots of [IUU] fishing.”
In addition to space-based MDA technologies, both aerial and surface unmanned systems offer potential solutions to the MDA challenge in the FAS. An example of such a system is the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle system provided to multiple U.S. partners in Southeast Asia through the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Maritime Security Initiative (MSI). The Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative was announced by Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter at the Shangri-La Dialogue on May 30, 2015. The initiative is ongoing and seeks to work with partners in Southeast Asia to expand regional maritime domain awareness capabilities with the goal of establishing common regional operating picture. The Southeast Asia MSI was renamed the Indo-Pacific MSI in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). In May 2019, the DOD awarded Insitu Inc. a $47,930,791 contract for “34 ScanEagle unmanned air vehicles for the governments of Malaysia (12); Indonesia (8); [the] Philippines (8); and Vietnam (6). In addition, [the] order provides for spare payloads, spare and repair parts, support equipment, tools, training, technical services, and field service representatives.” Six ScanEagle systems were already delivered to the Royal Malaysian Navy this past May.
Regarding unmanned surface systems, the New Zealand firm X-craft is testing an autonomous sea craft that could one day police Pacific island fisheries. The Proteus system prototype is designed to operate indefinitely via both solar and wind power, contains onboard sensors that can be used for scientific research, and can deploy aerial drones to augment its detection capabilities. While the results of testing and the ultimate cost at which the system would be sold remain undetermined, the potential of unmanned surface systems to enhance MDA in large ocean spaces is undeniable. Such a system could also help address the risks faced by observers placed on fishing vessels throughout the region.
The United States and Japan have an opportunity to demonstrate that FOIP will benefit the citizens of Pacific island countries. By working with the FAS to improve their MDA capabilities, the United States and Japan can directly address some of the most pressing human security concerns outlined in the Boe Declaration, including the threats to economic security, food security, and the environment posed by IUU fishing. The benefits of improved MDA will accrue directly to the FAS and will also safeguard the strategic interests of the United States and Japan while discouraging predatory behavior by China and other actors. Solutions are more affordable than ever before, are available now, and could result in immediate improvements to MDA as well as support the development of follow-on capabilities in data fusion, human resources, and maritime enforcement.
Some satellite monitoring data is already freely available, and the cost of commercial satellite services are dropping fast. The well-developed U.S. commercial aerospace sector could be a valuable source of capabilities and expertise in potential public-private partnerships if space-based monitoring is ultimately pursued by FAS governments. The potential of space-based data collection to be used for MDA has been demonstrated by Global Fishing Watch’s recent study on dark fishing fleets in North Korean waters, but such an approach must be combined with the requisite data analysis capabilities and human resources to make the most of information flows. Real-time usage of such satellite monitoring would have to be tied to enforcement options to have a concrete impact on maritime security in the region.
With training and financial assistance from U.S. and Japanese entities, space-based monitoring capabilities could be used by FAS governments and marine law enforcement agencies to maximize their existing enforcement resources and monitor their vulnerable fisheries.
The United States has made substantial contributions to MDA capacity development in Southeast Asia through the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative. In the Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 NDAA, the MSI was expanded to include Pacific island countries including all three of the FAS. The Senate FY2021 NDAA includes an MSI budget of $163M. The inclusion of PICs in the MSI in 2020 and the substantial budget for operations in 2021 shows that the U.S. is poised to play an even greater role in supporting the maritime security of partner states in the Pacific. U.S. H.R.7797, or the BLUE Pacific Act, introduced by Congressman Ed Case earlier this year, includes provisions to develop and implement a plan to expand shiprider agreements with the Pacific islands, create a multi-year strategy for the implementation of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Initiative in the Pacific Islands, and establish measures of success for the MSI in the Pacific. If adopted, these provisions would be game-changers for U.S. MDA engagement and capacity building in the FAS.
Furthermore, it is worth investigating the potential of unmanned MDA systems such as those provided to Southeast Asian partners to address the MDA challenge in the FAS. However, the capabilities and geographic reality of the North Pacific differ markedly from nations in Southeast Asia, so unmanned solutions would have to be adapted to the unique circumstances of these isolated island nations.
In recent years, Japan has increased its maritime security cooperation and capacity building efforts with Southeast Asian partners. In 2016, Japan and Indonesia established the Indonesia-Japan Maritime Forum. Also in 2016, Japan donated two decommissioned patrol vessels to the Malaysian maritime enforcement agency. In 2017, Japan signed an agreement for ¥38 billion in Japanese aid to upgrade Vietnamese Coast Guard vessels and improve their patrol capability. These are just a few examples of Japan’s concerted investment in Southeast Asian maritime security and capacity building more generally. Japan is clearly interested in seeing increased maritime capacity of its partners in the Indo-Pacific.
The FY2019 Japan National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) include mention of Pacific island countries, stating that “Japan will promote port and airport visits by SDF as well as exchanges and cooperation that utilize capabilities and characteristics of each service of SDF.” Inclusion of PICs in the NDPG may indicate a greater openness on the part of Japan to engage with PICs on security and not just development concerns. Japan is capable of doing more in the Pacific and increased involvement by Japan would most certainly be welcomed by the U.S. and Pacific partner nations. U.S. interlocutors would do well to broach the subject of greater cooperation on maritime security in Oceania with their Japanese counterparts.
The integration of MDA solutions leveraging technologically advanced services and platforms in the FAS has the potential to further round out the model of MDA development in the Pacific. While traditional methods including the use of patrol boats by national maritime enforcement agencies, the USCG Shiprider Program, and multilateral efforts to combat IUU fishing are absolutely necessary and in need of expansion, space-based and unmanned solutions could significantly augment the MDA capacity of the FAS. The United States and Japan have immense expertise in this area and could do much more to help the FAS bolster their MDA and accompanying follow-on capabilities. Such development, in concert with regional allies and partners, can serve as the backbone of regional MDA in the 21st century.
Adam Morrow is an Associate Program Officer at Sasakawa USA, where he works on the Sasakawa USA Pacific Islands Maritime Domain Awareness Program. Born and raised in Hawai‘i, he has a deep interest in both traditional and nontraditional security issues in the Pacific. Prior to starting his career in international affairs, Adam taught middle and high school science. He holds an MA from the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs and a dual BA from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
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 Some of these technologies are more often referred to by their acronyms: Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), Automatic Identification System (AIS), Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS)
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 Former Sasakawa USA Research Fellow Christopher Rodeman contributed to an earlier version of this article