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To Offset China's Influence in S. Pacific, Invest in Maritime Safety

A low-cost program for ferry safety in island states could increase maritime security - and goodwill

butiraoi ferry sinking survivors
The seven survivors of the sinking of the ferry Butiraoi off Kiribati, 2018. 95 passengers and crewmembers died in the casualty (New Zealand Defence Force)

Published Oct 5, 2022 1:27 PM by The Strategist

[By Anthony Bergin and Neil Baird}

Marine safety and sea transport are major concerns for the Pacific islands region. The island states have a high level of dependence on inter-island transport for the movement of both goods and people. All Pacific peoples benefit from their access to affordable, safe and reliable sea transport.

As Sam Bateman argued many years ago, maritime safety is a neglected aspect of maritime security. Taken as one nation with a total population of about 12 million, the Pacific Islands Forum countries (excluding Australia and New Zealand) have suffered the highest rate of ferry fatalities per capita of any countries globally. In the past 30 years there have been eight known fatal ferry accidents in five island countries, resulting in 613 fatalities. There have been many more involving smaller craft. These tragedies shouldn’t happen.

Many Pacific islands are recognised archipelagic states. They’re largely reliant on ‘sea highways’: many of their outer islands have few roads, no rail and very expensive aviation. Most of the island nations can’t afford safe, modern but expensive ferries.

Most domestic ferries in the Pacific are operated on minimal budgets by sometimes unscrupulous people, not government marine departments. The vessels are usually old, poorly maintained and badly modified. They’re not well equipped with safety and communications equipment. Generally, they’re not very safe.

Australia is a world leader in small ferry building. Our naval architects and shipbuilders lead the world in the design and construction of safe, comfortable, efficient and economical roll-on, roll-off passenger and cargo ferries and dedicated passenger vessels. We’re renowned for our ship repair and maintenance skills and maritime crew training expertise.

The latter is critical. While hardware, in the form of safe ferries, is very important, the vast majority of ferry accidents have human error as their root cause. High-quality training in operations and management is vital. Australia has several companies and educational institutions, such as the Australian Maritime College, capable of offering that training.

Australian-designed FastCat passenger, car and cargo ferries have revolutionised ferry safety, comfort and service in the Philippines. Similar, but slightly smaller and slower, vessels would be ideal for the Pacific. Harwood Marine is completing two very similar boats for ferry company SeaLink to operate around Moreton Bay in Queensland.

Australia has several excellent free-enterprise ferry operators that have safely and profitably managed significant fleets of ferries for many years. One or more of them could be contracted to establish and initially manage Pacific safe ferry services and train personnel to the highest international standards prior to passing established businesses to national government control. They could then be managed in a similar manner to successful Pacific islands airlines, such as Fiji Airways and Air Niugini.

An Australian program of donating safe ferries along with associated logistical support and maritime training would be a logical development of our Pacific Maritime Security Program, under which we’re donating 21 Guardian-class patrol boats to 12 Pacific island states and Timor-Leste.

A few years ago the New Zealand government handed over a new ferry to Tokelau to allow for easier travel between the territory’s atolls and Samoa. Another recent example of gifting a vessel to a Pacific island country was the donation by Japan of $10 million to Tonga in September 2021 for the provision of a new tugboat for the Port of Nuku’alofa.

The costs of a safe ferry program wouldn’t be huge. If we included nine Pacific countries in the program, plus Timor-Leste, a donation of two 40-meter vehicle and passenger catamaran ferries, ideally suited to tropical conditions, to each country would total 20 ferries. The current price of such vessels is around $8 million each. So that’s a total of $150 million for 20 vessels.

Berthing and loading facilities would require simple, cheap concrete structures. Operator, mechanic and marine-ticket training could be provided economically. The total cost for infrastructure and training support for the ferry program would be around $17 million.

The total cost of $170 million for a Pacific safe ferries program could be spread over five years. Our island neighbours would receive a useful sea highway providing them with safe, efficient and reliable transport of people, goods, vehicles and liquids, including drinking water. The ferries would be particularly useful for disaster relief. As recommended in a recent ASPI report examining ANZUS and the Pacific islands region, a ‘program of developing and upgrading a system of ferries, wharves and navigation infrastructure would contribute significantly to meeting national security needs in responding to natural and human disasters across the region’s major archipelagic states’.

Our current aid programs to the Pacific aren’t always given the credit they deserve locally. They’re not always obvious or prominent. For a comparatively small investment in a safe ferries program, Australia would be rewarded with significant kudos and appreciation at a time when the region is increasing geopolitically contested.

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Neil Baird is a ferry safety expert. A version of this article was published in The Australian.

This article appears courtesy of The Strategist and may be found in its original form here.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.