Category Archives: South Pacific/Oceania

Analysis related to USPACOM. Along with Asia-Pacific analysis.

The Case for U.S. Coast Guard Cutters in American Samoa

By Ridge Alkonis

Regardless of prognostications of future conflict it is clear that the history of the 21st century will be written in the Indo-Pacific. Accordingly, as the United States steams into in an increasingly turbulent maritime security environment, it should not discount harvesting “easy wins” in the region. Compared to the marquee U.S. military installations at Diego Garcia, Yokosuka, or Guam, American Samoa is a U.S. territory that evokes images of idyllic island life rather than strategic competition. However, by considering American Samoa through the lens of strategic competition, a military installation manned by the U.S. Coast Guard is an easy step to demonstrate commitment in the region that makes imminent sense for several reasons. Due to the sheer distances involved in the Pacific — the closest Coast Guard installations are from Hawaii (2,260 nautical miles) and Guam (3,120 nautical miles) — current sustained operations in region are necessarily expeditionary.

Establishing a Coast Guard installation in American Samoa would lengthen the reach of the Coast Guard’s highly capable Sentinel class cutters, galvanizing partnerships throughout the Southern Pacific. With increasing concerns surrounding illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing (IUUF), the law enforcement presence and know-how of the U.S. Coast Guard will be a boon to safeguarding erosion of geographic and economic sovereignty of island nations in the Southern Pacific. This approach dovetails with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy, which calls for “Build[ing] Connections Within and Beyond the Region.” Notably, the U.S. Coast Guard is one of the few government agencies called out by name in the strategy. One of the  great contributions and strengths of the Coast Guard are the multitude of unique service and agency relationships and bi-lateral agreements it shares with international partners. . Expanding Coast Guard presence in the Southern Pacific has the potential to enhance dozens of bilateral and multi-lateral relationships for the United States while bolstering maritime security in the region.

Regional Consequences

The state of play in the region which necessitates U.S. Coast Guard presence in the South Pacific is best viewed through the prism of climate change and IUU fishing. U.S. stakeholders and defense watchers may express significant and well-founded concern with Chinese expansion in the region, as evidenced by the recent Solomon Islands security agreement, while regional leaders find themselves more concerned with immediate threats like climate change and IUU fishing.

IUU fishing is among the greatest threats to ocean health and is a significant cause of global overfishing. This contributes to the collapse or decline of fisheries that are critical to the economic growth, food systems, and ecosystems of numerous countries around the world. The deleterious effects of IUU fishing manifest around the world due to the reach of largely Chinese owned and operated, distance water fishing fleets (DWF). They engage in industrial scale commercial fishing operations, many times illegally, in the waters of other states. Wholesale, it is not an exaggeration to say that IUU fishing is a singular threat to both the economic and geographic sovereignty of nations around the world. Relatedly, the downstream effects of IUU fishing exacerbate the environmental and socioeconomic effects of climate change. These specific problems are aggravated in a remote region such as the South Pacific where maritime domain awareness — broadly defined as the knowledge and awareness of the maritime activities within a given states’ jurisdiction — is generally lower and enforcement mechanisms are weaker.

President Biden is considering expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Monument (PRIMNM). A major concern of the initiative (besides that it harshly impedes indigenous fishers), is it may allow foreign illegal fishing to take stronger hold inside U.S. Exclusive Economic Zones. Western Pacific Fishery Management Council member McGrew Rice warns, “We need to consider that the Pacific Remote Islands monument is surrounded by more than 3,000 foreign vessels that fish in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean.”* If President Biden expands the PRIMNM, the region would require a significant increase in maritime security forces to ensure illegal fishing does not imperil U.S. resources and render the PRIMNM impotent.

Added pressure from illegal foreign fishing fleets would have devastating consequences to the local American Samoa economy. A capable patrol force to oversee the surrounding fisheries is necessary to protect against (largely Chinese) distance water fishing fleets, whose blue water fishing fleet numbers some 12,490 vessels, a number that dwarfs the number of fishing vessels flagged or charted by South Pacific nations. The South Pacific’s tuna fishery is already under significant pressure from unregulated fishing, with 1 in 5 fish being caught illegally. Chinese fishing vessels also provide auxiliary support to People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM) forces in the South China Sea. An increase in Chinese distance water fleets and influence in the South Pacific creates the opportunity for similar tactics in and around the islands of the South Pacific. The specter of an Indo-Pacific conflict could see a proliferation of Chinese distance water fishing fleets throughout the South Pacific pose an asymmetric threat to U.S. forces.

Climate change poses a serious threat the South Pacific, with several countries in the region ranking in the most vulnerable in the world. In fact, the leaders of many Pacific nations cite climate change as their number one existential threat, vice a host of security-related, Sino-centric concerns Western audiences often project onto the region. In conjunction with rising sea levels, an increased number of extreme weather events threaten critical infrastructure and highlight the need for a quick response humanitarian and disaster relief capability in the region. For example, recent calamities caused significant damage to Vanuatu, Tonga and Samoa, with estimates of the damage amounting to over 60 percent of GDP in some cases. A dedicated “quick reaction” disaster relief force would act as a safety net for the region, able to respond to both large scale calamities and smaller scale but critically urgent situations. For example, recently Kiribati’s Kiritimati atoll ran out of freshwater. The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Oliver Berry was the first on scene, using its reverse osmosis machine to create fresh water and pump it into tanks waiting on shore for the 5500 residents of Kiritimati atoll.

Given this state of play, it is clear that the U.S. Coast Guard is an ideal fit to address U.S. specific security and economic concerns that align with those of the region more broadly. Critically, permanently stationing Coast Guard cutters in American Samoa would skirt well-founded concerns of militarizing the Indo-Pacific. Compared to a U.S. Naval installation, a Coast Guard outpost would be perceived as more genuine and less bellicose given the unique contributions the service can make to the region.

Location of American Somoa in the Pacific (Graphic via Wikimedia Commons)

The Sentinel Class Cutter

A significant body of work exists that extols the virtues of the Coast Guard’s Sentinel class cutters, praising the cutter’s multi-mission utility. The Sentinel class is a highly capable platform already operating in OCONUS locations like U.S. 5th fleet in Manama, Bahrain, Honolulu, HI, and the newly minted Coast Guard Patrol Forces Micronesia in Guam. Despite the acclaim for the platform, feedback from recent expeditionary patrols has been measured, with one operational commander noting, “We’ve been lucky because we’ve done really good operational planning, and we put a lot of attention on the success of this mission. But we’re exceeding the design and operational intent of what this asset was created to do.”

Sentinel-class cutter characteristics. Click to expand. (USCG graphic)

Operating in a surface action group (SAG) with larger seagoing buoy tenders, the Sentinel class cutter Joseph Gerczak recently completed “proof of concept” transits from Hawaii to Tahiti and American Samoa respectively, operating well outside its five-day, 2,500 nautical mile endurance limits. Ever “Semper Paratus,” the cutter reported utilizing after-market freezers and coolers on the ship’s weather decks to house enough provisions for the voyage. The cutter also had to meticulously monitor their fuel load to have enough fuel to complete missions in Tahitian and Samoan waters — made complicated by the fact that the turbo-charged marine diesel engines are meant to be run at high speeds which are not conducive to fuel conservation. This plucky resourcefulness underscores the risks that would be eliminated by placing cutters in American Samoa. Operating out of a central location would intensify the positive impact of having several capable assets able to saturate a given area.


Despite their lack of a flight deck, Sentinel class cutters are the top-choice for an expeditionary squadron, due to their shallow draft. Despite the range of larger Coast Guard cutters, their deeper draft makes some remote South Pacific locations inaccessible. Accessibility raises important questions about the practicality and logistics associated with several Sentinel class cutters operating out of Pago Pago Harbor. If the state of American Samoan critical infrastructure is any indication, then plans for a Coast Guard presence will require significant funds and creative planning. In 2019 the Army Corps of Engineers found the Lyndon B. Johnson tropical medical center to be in a state of failure, “due to age, environmental exposure, and lack of preventative maintenance. Extensive repair and/or replacement of facility sections is required to ensure compliance with hospital accreditation standards and to ensure the life, health, and safety of staff, patients, and visitors.”

 Given this state of affairs and the limited budget of the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is unlikely to spearhead the service’s expansion into the region. The Coast Guard presence in Guam enjoys use of U.S. Navy built and owned facilities. Despite protestations about militarizing the region, a practical way forward could be utilizing U.S. Navy funds to stand up a small naval installation for primary use by the Coast Guard. Naval personnel, like a detachment of Seabees, as the Secretary of the Navy has suggested to assist with climate resilient infrastructure in the region, could use facilities on American Samoa as a central operating location.

The permutations of such a base are large, but in principle should include pier, maintenance, and shoreside facilities. Such a facility could pave the way for a long-heralded U.S. Coast Guard Forces Indo-Pacific, with cutters synchronizing operations out of Guam and American Samoa. Further, if the Navy adopts the Sentinel class cutter as a small surface combatant, an installation in American Samoa would increase interoperability between the sea services while carrying out missions on the low end of the competition spectrum. This model is attractive because it frees up larger capital U.S. Navy and Coast Guard assets for equally critical, but more technically demanding missions, such as freedom of navigation exercises, counter-narcotics, or responding to emergent crises such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Critically, following the results of a Trump administration era feasibility study, local government leaders support the stationing of U.S. Coast Guard assets in American Samoa given the need to both strengthen and diversify the economy while combating Chinese influence in the region. The U.S. Congresswoman from Samoa, Uifa’atali Amata affirmed, “We in American Samoa welcome talk in Washington of home porting a squadron of U.S. Coast Guard cutters in Pago Pago Harbor.”

The American Samoa economy relies heavily on tuna fishing. Fourteen percent of the American Samoa workforce comes from the tuna canning industry, an amount large enough to affect many facets of life on the island. Affordable energy, transportation, and retail all benefit from the presence of the lone tuna processing plant on American Samoa. A U.S. military presence of any form would not only transform maritime governance in the region, but galvanize and diversify economic growth on American Samoa.


It is clear there are manifold benefits of a U.S. Coast Guard presence in American Samoa, and the Sentinel class cutter is well suited for the role. The Coast Guard’s contributions to maritime governance, through both training and enforcement, should help stabilize a region lacking maritime domain awareness and enforcement mechanisms. The soft power of the U.S. Coast Guard presence in American Samoa will assuage fears about over-militarizing the Indo-Pacific region, yet, if a large-scale conflict were to materialize, ready-made infrastructure in American Samoa could prove crucial for maintaining U.S. and allied sea lines of communication. One thing is for certain, with the eyes of the world on the Indo-Pacific, solutions for keeping strategic competition within reasonable parameters should not be overlooked.

Sentinel class cutters operating out of Pago Pago harbor represent a powerful, permanent deterrent to IUU fishing in the vast stretches of the Southern Pacific Ocean and would be optimally postured for acting as a timely humanitarian and disaster relief force. Despite some practical details surrounding the base itself, such a presence would represent a transformational shift in maritime governance in the region, expanded bilateral relations with Pacific nations, and an economic boon for American Samoa.

LT Ridge H. Alkonis is a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer currently serving as the Weapons Officer in USS Benfold (DDG 65) stationed in Yokosuka, Japan. Originally from Claremont, California, he is a 2012 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, with a B.S. in Oceanography and the Naval Postgraduate School where he earned a M.S. in Acoustics Engineering.

*This quote has been updated following a clarification from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council.



Featured Image: The Coast Guard Cutter Forrest Rednour arrives in San Pedro, California, Aug. 11, 2018. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class DaVonte’ Marrow.)

India: International Fleet Review 2016

This article was originally published by the South Asia Analysis Group.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read the article in its original form here.

By Commodore RS Vasan IN (Ret)

“An Opportunity for India to showcase the Capacity, Capability, and Intent of a strong, vibrant, emerging Maritime Nation in the 21st Century.”

The IFR 2016 will indeed be a grand spectacle as more than one hundred ships from the navies of over fifty countries will participate in this exercise that is carried out every five years. The event, which in the  initial years  was mostly limited to the participation of ships from the Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard and the merchant navy, has transformed in to an international event with a major maritime event conducted in 2001 under the initiative of then Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Susheel Kumar. The marching of the naval officers and sailors from ships around the world along the marine drive in Mumbai and the presence of ships from around the world signaled a new era in maritime diplomacy. The intentions of a maritime India to occupy center stage in both regional and global missions by using the Indian Navy as an instrument of national policy were explicit.

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Indian Navy carrier. Indian Navy photo.

As the participants of the IFR witnessed scores of indigenous ships of the Indian Navy, it was evident that the Indian Navy was in the process of transforming from a buyer’s navy to a builder’s navy. The process was a prerequisite to assuming greater regional leadership role and responsibilities. This did not escape the attention of the participant nations and motivated them to engage with India at many levels.  It is not to be forgotten that this initiative was taken under the leadership of Admiral Susheel Kumar, who succeeded Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. Admiral Bhagwat was relieved of his duties as CNS on 30 December 1998 by the NDA Government under certain debatable circumstances. The Navy’s morale, which was dented, had to be built up brick by brick and the IFR of 2001 from that point of view provided a launching pad for the force that was fast becoming a blue water Navy. The theme ‘Bridges of Friendship’ was very well received and created an environment that facilitated the process of integration of a regional navy in to a global matrix.

While both the Indian Navy and the Indian Coast Guard have conducted the Fleet Reviews on the east coast (The very first Indian Coast Guard Fleet Review by the Raksha Mantri was conducted off the east coast when the author was the Regional Commander of the Indian Coast Guard, Region East), this is the first time that an international fleet review of this scale is being conducted in the Bay of Bengal. By design, this also complements the ‘Look East’ policy of the Government of India. It also adds value to other maritime initiatives, such as the biannual Milan (established as an initiative for meeting of the naval minds in Port Blair) and the Indian Ocean Symposium (IONS), now a well-established forum among Navies of not just the Indian Ocean but also the rest of the world.

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Indian Navy maritime patrol craft. Indian Navy photo.

By all expectations, China will be a first-time participant in the Indian Fleet Review. From the point of view of PLA-Navy, participation  signals its intention to be a part of global initiatives in the Indian Ocean. The anti-piracy patrols by PLAN units, which are still underway off the coast of Somalia, provided ample opportunity for the Chinese Navy to assert its intention to be part of the international mechanisms to combat piracy. Both the Indian Navy and the Chinese Navy worked shoulder to shoulder in warding off this threat, though India was concerned about the presence of another extra regional player in its traditional back yard. The visit of the Chinese submarines both conventional and nuclear last year again caused ripples in Delhi. There are no doubts that India and China will jostle for power and influence in the Indian Ocean Region. While India does have geography on its side, the  surplus funds that can be channeled for initiatives such as the Maritime Silk Road and the One Belt One Road will change the strategic landscape of Indian Ocean Region. The IFR also comes at a time when there are great initiatives being taken by China in Asia, Africa and Europe in terms of connectivity. The fact that the PRC plans to build a naval base in Djibouti  and has huge investments in the maritime sector in Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are of concern to India, which appears to have conceded strategic space to China in its areas of influence. The presence of the INS Vikramaditya and India’s nuclear submarines  would send a message to observers about the might of the Indian Navy that can be brought to bear as and when required in areas of interest. The presence of a P-8i surveillance aircraft could also generate interest in the capability of this newly acquired platform, capable of locating and tracking submarines and  surface assets of extra-regional powers in the Indian Ocean. The message that the Indian Navy is net-centric warfare capable as a result of plenty of indigenous efforts would be very clear.

The Indian Navy has inherited many of the traditions and practices from the Royal Indian Navy while adding its own local flavor. The President of India, by virtue of being the Supreme Commander of the Armed forces, reviews the fleet invariably before he or she demits office during the tenure of five years as the President. It is a mega-event by any standards, and even the state Government has committed more than 83 crores in beautifying the city of Vizag, which houses the Eastern Naval Command and important maintenance facilities of the Navy. It is also the base for the nuclear submarines of the Indian Navy, including strategic assets. All the arrangements have been reviewed at the level of the Raksha Mantri and the Navy and nation are geared up for this event in the first week of February that will showcase the prowess of the Indian Navy. A successful conclusion of the IFR will reinforce the position of the Indian Navy as a professional arm that can be used as a powerful instrument of national policy both in war and peace.

Historically, the role of the Indian Navy after the spectacular missile attacks on ships and oil tank farms Karachi in 1971, with the then-only Asian carrier Vikrant enforcing a blockade off then East Pakistan indicates how it is important to possess and use a strong navy for furthering national objectives. The fact that the Indian Navy was not used at all during the war in 1965 therefore comes as a surprise. The role of the Indian Navy during the tsunami of 2004, its evacuation of Indian nationals from war torn areas, and its ability to relief and succor to the flood and cyclone affected victims on many occasions highlights strength of the Indian Navy that has proved its mettle.

The Mumbai terror attack in November 2008 changed the way maritime threats were perceived and brought about a paradigm shift in the maritime security architecture (MSA). The Indian Navy was placed at the apex of the MSA and made responsible for both coastal and oceanic security. Without going into the details, suffice it to say that the entire gamut of maritime threats and response mechanisms have undergone a sea change.

It is not out of place to recollect that it was the Indian Navy that first brought out a National Maritime Doctrine in 2004 revised it in 2007, 2009, and 2015. Even in terms of indigenization, the Indian Navy is way ahead of its sister services, having embarked on indigenization in the late 60s. The first indigenous frigate Nilgiri and its follow-ons have provided the nation with options for ship building in both PSUs and private yards. The fact that the Indian Navy was able to even design a carrier and orchestrate its construction in the Cochin Shipyard Limited is a tribute to the leadership, the naval designers, and in-house capability to produce warships of different size. The design of stealth ships such as the Shivalik, large destroyers such as the INS Kochi, construction of corvettes, and the completion of the naval off-shore vessels are all praiseworthy. The most notable feature of the Indian Navy’s indigenization process is the addition of INS Arihant which provides that strategic deterrence capability that eluded India for many decades. The construction of improved versions of Arihant and also the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) are logical

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Indian Navy photo.

conclusions to the aspirations of a blue water navy that has both regional and global roles. However, the dwindling strength of conventional submarines has been a source of great concern to the planners in Delhi. There are some recent efforts to ensure that this serious deficiency is overcome both by accelerating the Scorpene production and also embarking on the indigenous production of project 75A submarines for which more than 60,000 crores  has been earmarked.

The shape and size of the Indian Navy is formidable as India moves in to the next century. With geography and a growing economy on its side, India’s Navy will continue to complement the ambitions of a maritime India. A powerful Navy will promote maritime safety and security in the Indian Ocean. As a guarantor of net security at sea, safeguarding the global commons, maritime interests, and the sea lines of communications that represent the life lines and arteries of global trade and commerce will be a top priority for the Indian Navy.

India is conscious of the fact that there are rich dividends in forging strategic alliance with other like-minded nations on a case by case basis while retaining its strategic autonomy. The trilateral treaty with Sri Lanka and Maldives and Exercise Malabar or other such exercises are all measures to ensure that the maritime domain remains manageable and the Indian Navy is in a position to control the happenings in areas of interest. Maritime engagement with Mauritius, Seychelles, Mombasa, Oman, and other maritime nations are all significant in ensuring that there is seamless integration of the maritime domain, and that all the maritime nations in the region are under one umbrella and can work in unison to serve the interests of the century of the seas. The IFR will be a keenly watched event around the world and the navies who are part of this Indian initiative will carry back cherished memories from this mega-event. From the point of view of the Indian Navy, it will again provide an opportunity to take the initiative from “Building Bridges of Friendship” in 2001  to  an architecture that is “United  through Oceans” in 2016 and beyond.

Commodore RS Vasan is an alumnus of Defence Services Staff College, the Naval War College, and the International Visitor Leadership Prgramme. He is presently the Director of Chennai Centre for China Studies and also the Head of Strategy and Security Studies at Center for Asia Studies. Commodore Vasan has been associated with many think tanks since retirement after a distinguished service of 34 years that included a share of command, staff, and instructional tenures both in the Navy and the Coast Guard. He is regular speaker at many international events and writes extensively on maritime issues and International relations. He can be contacted at

History and the Sea: Interview with Sarah Ward, Marine Archaeologist

Interview performed by Alex Calvo

The sea is a vital venue for trade and national security, and also holds the key to understanding much of our past. From the dispute over the South China Sea, to the protection of sea graves such as HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse, maritime archaeology matters. Sarah Ward, a maritime archaeologist, diver, and outreach specialist, who works for ArchaeoMar Australasia (a cultural heritage practice based in Sydney Australia) and has her own blog, has kindly agreed to tell CIMSEC a bit more about her work.

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CIMSEC: When did you decide to become a maritime archaeologist and why?

Ward: As a child I had a fascination with the sea. I grew up on my parent’s boat, diving and exploring the shipwrecks of Tangalooma Island (near Brisbane, Australia). I was obsessed with Jacques Cousteau and when not splashing about in the water, would spend hours poring over his books and films. Then having worked in finance for a number of years, and with an MBA under my belt, I decided that life was too short and it was time that I did what I loved. A water baby with a passion for the past, I eventually abandoned my desk job, took the plunge and proved that it is possible to turn your passion into a challenging and rewarding career.

CIMSEC: What kind of training is needed for this job? What are the main skills required?

Ward: To become a maritime archaeologist, you would generally need to complete an undergraduate degree in archaeology, followed by a masters degree in maritime archaeology. You might also like to complete studies in the time period or geographic region you are interested in e.g. Roman History or Asian studies, and, if you wish to teach at tertiary level, a relevant PhD. If you wish to work underwater (which not all maritime archaeologists do), this will need to be topped off with commercial diving certification (e.g. from the HSE in the UK or ADAS in Australia).

With regard to the core skills of a maritime archaeologist, these fall into three main areas: intellectual, practical, and administrative.

  1. Intellectual skills include (but aren’t limited to):
    • an understanding of the history, languages, and culture of the period and area/site in which you work;
    • an understanding of the theory and concepts of archaeological practice, such as sequence, relation, association, chronology, observation, synthesis, interrogation, and interpretation;
    • a sound understanding of the ethical considerations and applications and an ability to understand and respond to the context in which archaeological work is conducted.
  2. Practical or technical skills include:
    • diving (for those working under water);
    • diving supervision (for those leading work under water);
    • an understanding of geophysical and other prospection methods;
    • data collection and retrieval, such as survey, recording, excavation, and pre-excavation and post-excavation data analysis;
    • historical, archival, and topic-based research;
    • first aid for finds and a basic understanding of preliminary conservation;
    • an understanding of a broader scientific methods.
  3. Administrative/managerial skills are standard across any business or project management, including:
    • remote area logistics (field & diving);
    • financial and information management.

If you would like more details on the skills required, I led a study on benchmarking competency in maritime archaeology for the NAS a number of years ago; the study is online here.

CIMSEC: How does maritime archaeology differ from the more traditional, land-based variety?

Ward: The intellectual requirements are the same, however there are two key differences: the theme of study (human relationship with the sea); and the environment in which we work (intertidal zone or underwater). The environment brings its own challenges as the the tools, techniques, equipment and training required when working underwater, for example, can vary substantially to that employed on land.

CIMSEC: Which project are you currently working on? Could you tell us a bit about it?

Ward: My current research work is focused on the maritime archaeology of China, the maritime silk route and the early Ming Navy, notably the voyages of Zheng He and the resulting connections with Africa. I’m currently investigating evidence suggesting that one of the Zheng He fleet wrecked on the East African coast. This is significant as it could be the first vessel relating to the voyages that has been found. If so, it would give us an incredible insight into the expansionist Ming maritime policy and today’s parallels.

Nanhai1 excavation.
Nanhai1 excavation. Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong and the Peoples Republic of China.

CIMSEC: What is your favorite past project and why?

Ward: Asking me to chose a favourite project would be like asking a mother to chose her favourite child! That said I have been fortunate enough to work on some incredible projects, with some incredible people. Present research excluded, here are a few of my favourites:

  • Excavation of the a settlement on Gask Ridge, Scotland’s Roman Frontier, with Drs Brigitta Hoffman and David Woolliscroft of the Roman Gask Project – the information gained from the dig changed our understanding of the history of Roman Scotland;
  • Excavation of King Henry VIII’s Tudor flagship the Mary Rose, when the sternpost and anchor was lifted;
  • remote sensing survey of the Late Bronze Age, early Iron Age settlement at High Past Cave, on the Isle of Skye;
  • Excavation of Kizilburun Roman Column Wreck on the Aegean Coast of Turkey with the Institute of Nautical Archaeology; and
  • Excavation of the Scottish settlement of the Isthmus of Panama, the failure of which lead to the Union of the Crown in 1707.

CIMSEC: The dispute over the South China Sea has seen some claimants use archaeological evidence to support their claims. Is there a danger of the discipline being politicized? Could this result in restrictions on archaeological work?

Ward: The South China Sea dispute is an interesting situation. China claims sovereignty over almost 90% of the South China Sea, and has done since ancient times. To an extent, this claim is made on the basis that way back in China’s first dynasty, the Xia (c. 2070 – c. 1600 BC), China was apparently the first state to discover, name, explore, and exploit the contested Spratly (Nansha) and Paracel (Xisha) Islands. This claim is based more on historical, rather than legal grounds, and China is looking to the past to create a future – to the Han ceramics found on Taiping Island, Nanhai 1 off Hainan 20 nm off Dongping, the 200 submerged prehistoric sites identified between the Spratly and Paracel Islands, and to early maps and documents which support historic Chinese ownership.

Coins from Nanhai 1.
Coins from Nanhai 1. Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong and the Peoples Republic of China.

For China, this is a nation-building exercise. It’s also not the first time archaeology has been put to overt political use. In 1914, Leonard Woolley and Thomas (TE) Lawrence provided archaeological camouflage for a British military survey of the Turkish-controlled Sinai Peninsula. During World War I, Sylvanus Morley used his investigations of Mayan sites in the Yucatán as a cover to negotiate with rebel Mayan leaders for their support of U.S. interests.

Archaeology often reveals a contested space, a battleground for struggles over economic gain, heritage, and identity, and its practice often carries with it profound political implication. In China’s case, it can and has resulted in restrictions on archaeological work, such as when a French team working on a Chinese shipwreck off the Philippine coast was turned back by the Chinese on the basis of their sovereign claims.

CIMSEC: On the other hand, could international cooperation in maritime archaeology be part of confidence-building measures in disputed sea areas?

Ward: Absolutely. Confidence is the result of a dynamic process, based on past experiences, present perceptions, and future expectations, and affected by a multitude of elements. As confidence is especially sensitive to the behaviour of States, cooperation in maritime archaeology, which is a tenant of the UNESCO 2001 Convention, would be an excellent confidence-building measure.

China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, and Malaysia have a mutual, shared maritime heritage and our appreciation of the past determines how we shape our future. A shared heritage not only reminds us of our collective identity and cultural diversity, it also nurtures social belonging, promotes economies amongst local communities, and it deepens mutual understanding of each other’s values, histories, and traditions.

CIMSEC: Do you use unmanned submarines in your work? Do they offer the potential to radically transform our understanding of the maritime past?

Ward: Yes, quite often. In the past, for example, I’ve worked with the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney to carry out a high-resolution shipwreck survey in deep water using Sirius, an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV). The submersible is equipped with a full suite of oceanographic instruments, including a high-resolution stereo camera pair and strobes, a multibeam sonar, depth and conductivity/temperature sensors, Doppler Velocity Log (DVL) including a compass with integrated roll and pitch sensors, Ultra Short Baseline Acoustic Positioning System (USBL), and forward looking obstacle avoidance sonar. The result is effectively a 3D map of the shipwreck site to millimetric accuracy.

Nanhai-Shipwreck. Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong and the Peoples Republic of China.

This technology allows us to locate, identify and survey submerged sites with greater accuracy than ever before, in smaller timeframes, in deep water and other environments not previously accessible to divers. The result is high quality, often real time data that can be used for interpretation, education, dissemination, and site monitoring in new and exciting ways.

CIMSEC: What is the best approach to protect sea graves? How to combine our thirst for knowledge about our past with the necessary respect for those who fell at sea?

Ward.- War graves at sea is a very sensitive issue, and one on which an international consensus has not been reached – in spite of the Geneva Conventions, their additional protocols, and international humanitarian law. The treatment of human remains in maritime museums was discussed at the ICMM in Hong Kong recently and there were as many opinions on what is appropriate, as there were people in the room.

The same diversity of opinion applies to war graves at sea. In the UK for example, the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 protects human remains associated with the remains of military aircraft and vessels that have crashed, sunk or been stranded, from unauthorised interference. Australia on the other hand, has no such legislation.

Personally, I believe that the best approach is protection via the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage 2001. Underwater cultural heritage means all traces of human existence (including human remains) having a cultural, historical or archaeological character, which have been partially or totally under water, periodically or continuously, for at least 100 years.

The Convention sets out basic principles for the protection of underwater cultural heritage:

  • an obligation to preserve underwater cultural heritage;
  • in situ preservation as first option (note first, not best option; this allows for recovery in certain situations);
  • no commercial exploitation;
  • training and information sharing.

It also provides a detailed State cooperation system; widely recognized practical rules for the treatment and research of underwater cultural heritage; and for public access to sites up to the point where it becomes detrimental to the site.

With regard to war graves, first and foremost, the personal dignity of the deceased must be safeguarded, as must the relatives’ right to know the fate of their next of kin. Mechanisms must also be established for relatives to access the burial place and for their interest in recovering the dead to be registered.

Lifting items from Nanhai 1.
Lifting items from Nanhai 1. Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guangdong and the Peoples Republic of China.

CIMSEC: You have recently attended the International Congress of Maritime Museums (ICMM) in Hong Kong, could you tell us about the work of this organization? What were the highlights of the congress?

Ward.- ICMM was an absolutely fantastic event an one which I thoroughly enjoyed.

To give you some background, ICMM is a biennial congress attended by maritime archaeologists, maritime museum directors, and related maritime professionals from around the world. The aim of the congress is for delegates to network, share expertise and resources, and to learn about the international best practices in the capacity of maritime museum operations and management, and it certainly achieved that.

This was both the first ICMM in Asia and quite possibly the best conference I have ever attended. Our friends at the Hong Kong Maritime Museum really know how to put on a good show!

The two keynotes − Lincoln Paine, author of the acclaimed Sea and Civilization, and Fred Kenny, Director External and Legal Affairs at the IMO − were excellent. As were the presentations by my old friends and mentors, Fred Hocker, Director of Research at the Vasa Museum, and Christopher Dobbs, Head of Maritime Archaeology and Interpretation at the Mary Rose Museum. The excursions to The Peak, Tai O, Jao Tsung-I Academy, Hong Kong Museum of History, and Macau Maritime Museum were all enlightening, but for me the real treat was meeting new friends from China, and to hear about the incredible work being undertaken at both the China Maritime Museum and visiting the Nanhai 1 Song Dynasty shipwreck at the Maritime Silk Road Museum of Guandgong. Fascinating!

Sarah Ward is a maritime archaeologist, diver, and outreach specialist. She works for ArchaeoMar Australasia (a cultural heritage practice based in Sydney Australia) and is a regular blogger and tweeter.

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean. Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here..

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