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French "State Action at Sea" as a Model for SE Asian Coast Guards

South-East Asian countries like Philippines and Indonesia have to cope with an increasing number of maritime issues in order to exert their sovereign rights over their territorial waters, archipelagic waters and exclusive economic zones (EEZ). In the midst of a tense geostrategic environment, the security of maritime areas and, more broadly, security in the high seas, are subject to major threats and illegal activities as recently summarized in the last Information Fusion Centre (IFC) annual report: piracy and sea robbery, maritime terrorism, cyber-attacks and AIS spoofing, trafficking of all kinds, illegal fishing activities and maritime pollution.


With their abundant coastal areas and archipelagic waters, South-East Asian countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia could be considered as maritime powers. In addition to the size of the area coming under their sovereignty or their jurisdiction, entire facets of their economy, their industry and their diplomacy are centred on the sea. The security of their EEZ is also critical for their own defence. Globalization is also another key factor in understanding the new strategic situation in the area, characterized by an explosion in tangible and intangible flows, increased pressure on resources and a major impact on the environment. This globalization, which is a growth factor, contributes to the growing interdependence of States and disrupts the concepts of space and time.

At the same time, the development of maritime trade favours the emergence of transverse threats targeting or using ships as part of illegal activities. More than 90 percent of international trade by volume are shipped by sea and the combination of issues concerning access to energy and profound interstate rivalries in South China Sea is likely to directly affect the security of the shipping route of major strategic interest for South-East Asian countries. The link is even closer between the sea and energy resources, both for their transport and their exploitation.

The great number of risks and threats to their areas and their maritime activities, as well as the necessity of encountering global solutions to them in an inter-ministerial and international context, may justify national maritime strategies and an update of their current maritime governance. Maritime risks are increasing and the extent of their consequences for national security requires an integrated approach, planned over the long-term.


Future governance that can draw on the French model of State Action at Sea (Action de l’État en mer – AEM)

To address all the above-mentioned challenges, some countries make the choice to entrust to a specialized administration the relief and police missions. However, the implementation of these missions may fall into another state organization, which paradoxically does not consist of a specialized administration: it is the choice made, in particular, by France. Its specificity is based on three characteristics: an organization within a single state authority; the absence of any specialized “coast-guard” administration; and the participation of the French navy in all the various missions (such as search and rescue, fight against crimes at sea or the fight against pollution at sea) under the so-called “coast-guard function.” This “function” is implemented by the French navy – including the maritime gendarmerie – along with French customs, French maritime affairs (Ministry of Transport), national gendarmerie, civil protection and the national police.

The French model – or “State Action at Sea” – appeared in the 1970s with the extension of the national maritime domain and the considerable growth of human activities at sea. Occasionally, since the creation of exclusive economic zones in 1976, France had to reconsider its maritime organization in order to be able to enforce its sovereign rights on vast maritime spaces. The studies conducted by the State services had quickly shown that, not only the creation of a specialized coastline administration would have been very expensive and would have suffered from a lack of efficiency.

The concepts of “French State Action at Sea” and “coast-guard function” have become the cornerstone of the French maritime strategy. They have improved governance and legal instruments for France a few decades ago for diplomatic, technological or operational initiatives. Furthermore, they have given to France the opportunity to adapt its own capacity for action in an inter-ministerial context, in partnership with other states and regional or international organizations, as well as with non-state actors. It is based on a permanent process of intelligence analysis with a focus on targeted actions to optimize efforts in budgetary and security areas.

The French State Action at Sea is exercised on the oceans and seas around the world, which are divided into ten maritime zones: three off Metropolitan France (Channel/North Sea, Atlantic, Mediterranean) and five overseas (southern Indian Ocean, Antilles, French Guiana, French Polynesia and New Caledonia maritime zones); two zones cover additional areas of the high seas (Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean). In each zone, the State is represented by a single administrative authority: the maritime prefect in metropolitan France or, overseas, the government delegate for the State action at sea, who is assisted by the commander of the maritime zone. For the exercise of the State’s law enforcement powers at sea, a competent court is designated in each zone, where the head office of the maritime prefecture or, overseas, the “government delegate for the State Action at Sea” are based.

All the departments with maritime assets act in the framework of the “coast-guard function.” Every agency provides a state representative for the sea, pursuant to his powers of coordination, with their resources to allow him to fulfil the missions assigned to him. This organization also relies on the versatility of the various naval and air resources of the agencies, which are part of the coast-guard function. The aim is to achieve the effectiveness, which must guide the operational use of resources and their upstream dimensioning. Generally, state resources are able to fulfil a wide variety of missions, from the shores to high seas, thus to protect our interests at sea.

Given its inter-ministerial character, this organization is based on leading and coordinating by the Secretary General for the Sea in the name of the Prime Minister. This mission is also done in partnership with the secretary general for defence and national security, the secretary general for European affairs and all the services and departments of the ministries taking part in France’s maritime policy.

This organization, based on synergy, responds to the maritime issues, which are challenging the French security. Moreover, due to its flexibility and its pragmatism, it is also a great opportunity to enhance the coordination with partners (surveillance of external borders, cross-border criminality, maritime security, control of fishing activities). The maritime prefect is thus able to coordinate and direct the operations by using the means of all the administrations involved at sea, knowing that all of them have the empowerment to track, see and prove illegal activities. This steering uniqueness makes the French device not only more efficient but also more accessible.

After several decades, France is today the worldwide country where the “coast-guard function” is the most integrated, although it may seem paradoxical since there are not any coast-guard forces. France is also one of the few countries, which can involve its military navy along a spectrum stretching from non-traditional to traditional security.


State Action at Sea is an adaptable concept

In South-East Asia in particular, the absence of a single point of contact and the overlapping responsibilities of the various agencies can lead to major difficulties in the conduct of operations. As a maritime nation (17,504 islands with a total terrestrial area of ??1,811,569 square kilometres, surrounded by 95,200 kilometres of coastline), Indonesia lies on a strategic position at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This location requires the obligation to protect vital maritime communication routes, but also offers the possibility of taking advantage of the abundant marine resources.

A single point of contact and the absence of overlapping responsibilities across the administrative sphere of Indonesia could allow not only a greater efficiency and a better accessibility for maritime actors but also a colossal budget gain. This steering uniqueness would make the Indonesian governance not only more efficient but also more accessible for all regional partners.

And what is valid for Indonesia applies also for many other littoral countries of the South China Sea, considering the multiple issues they will have to face tomorrow, such as climate change. Human activities have already led to sea acidification and lower oxygen levels, generating increasing migration from high seas fish and depriving resource coastal communities from jobs and food. This will result in a probable competition for fisheries resources, an increase in illegal fishing and overfishing activities, as well as bigger migratory movements of coastal communities that will no longer be able to support their needs and those of their families.

Law enforcement agencies will have a growing role and need to be prepared. This may first go through a comprehensive review of their respective governance. The already existing French model seems the most adapted as it facilitates continuity between security and defence missions. It also helps meet all the current and future challenges, like the fight against terrorism, environmental security and hybrid threats.


> Read the article in The Maritime Executive.

naval diplomacy France Southeast Asia