For those who tracked U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to Asia, the developments have been a mixed bag of steady progress and major agreements notable for their absence. As illustrated by the lack of a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) framework agreement during Obama’s Japan stop, comprehensive multilateral breakthroughs don’t always align with the schedules of diplomatic travels.
But while the TPP’s logjam received its share of publicity, another mooted initiative escaped much attention in the run up to Friday’s U.S.-Japan Joint Statement, except for a tantalizing hint offered by the Yomiuri Shimbun. Citing unnamed sources, the paper said that Japan and the United States had developed a “plan” to help member nations of ASEAN to “strengthen their maritime surveillance capabilities,” in a move “apparently aimed at pressuring China to curb its growing regional ambitions.” The article went on to suggest that this plan would be unveiled during the Joint Statement.
In the event, the statement was short on details, stating in the third-to-last paragraph only that:
The United States and Japan are collaborating to assist Southeast Asian littoral states in building maritime domain awareness and other capacities for maritime safety and security so that they can better enforce law, combat illicit trafficking and weapons proliferation, and protect marine resources.
It appears that the aim is two-fold: “preventing China’s unilateral maritime advance,” as sources in the Yomiuri Shimbun piece suggested, and more generally countering maritime crime, such as piracy and illicit weapons, people, and drug trafficking. At this point we can only speculate as to what the collaboration will entail in concrete terms, but the challenges are no mystery.
To the first of these goals, the challenge of providing assistance is largely political. Many ASEAN countries prefer not to risk antagonizing their large trading partner (and militarily powerful neighbor) by accepting overt “counter-China” aid. Two possible exceptions to this practice are the Philippines and Vietnam, both of whom were not surprisingly singled out in the Yomiuiri Shumbun article as the main recipients of U.S.-Japanese maritime surveillance assistance. Meanwhile, many other nations could receive aid ostensibly to boost their efforts against maritime crime. Much of the items under discussion – such as patrol boats and surveillance assets – could be of dual use, and resource protection efforts in the region’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) frequently take on tones of enforcing claims of territorial sovereignty.
This is not to say there isn’t a real utility for regional cooperation focused on maritime crime. While incidents of piracy and robbery in the Strait of Malacca are down drastically from highs in the early 2000s, other areas near Singapore and Indonesia are generating record-breaking numbers. Yet, as if to warn against complacency in the former, last Tuesday pirates aboard speedboats hijacked a Japanese tanker in the Straits of Malacca and pumped out approximately 3 million liters of its diesel cargo before fleeing.
The details of the incident – three crew members were taken with the cargo – suggest an inside job, illustrating the modus operandi (M.O.) of criminals in the region, who also prefer to target tugs or ships at anchor, in contrast with their headline-grabbing counterparts in East and West Africa. Yet one should not think the M.O.s or geographic hotspots will remain static. As Karsten von Hoesslin emphasizes in his work on Southeast Asian maritime crime, patterns of piracy and seaborne armed robbery are fluid and the crime syndicates are adaptable. In one example of a potential change, Kevin Doherty of Nexus Consulting, a private maritime security company that operates in the region, notes that “when criminals in the region figure [out] how to negotiate with first-world underwriters, the crew will be the prize, not a tug or cargo.” Nor is the need focused merely on Singapore, as last year’s invasion of Borneo by the so-called Sultan of Sulu exposed the porous nature of maritime borders between the Philippines and Malaysia, while illicit resource exploitation afflicts nearly every nation in the region and is exacerbated by the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
So with a continued need for counter-piracy and maritime law enforcement, it’s worth looking at previous efforts to discern the challenges facing Japan and the United States in pursuing this second goal. Here again the barriers to providing substantive assistance are largely political. It bears remembering that several ASEAN members have territorial disputes not only with China but with each other too, and historical sensitivities over “settled” disputes chill the receptiveness towards joint patrols in each other’s territories. Additionally, key nations like Indonesia and Malaysia have been wary of allowing those whom they perceive as “outside” actors to maintain a presence in their waters. When the United States proposed its ill-fated Regional Maritime Security Initiative in 2004, the two nations objected partly on the grounds that it would have brought American “special forces on high-speed boats” participating in joint patrols.
The two have also abstained from the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). Upheld as a model of maritime information sharing, ReCAAP developed as a Japanese-led initiative and involves surveillance and incident-report coordination from 19 countries, including several European shipping states, fed to the purpose-built Information Sharing Centre (ISC) in Singapore. ReCAAP is credited with contributing to the decline in piracy in the Malacca Straits, although some have suggested that incidents may be underreported in order to bolster the ReCAAP’s claims of success.
So what would further assistance from Japan and the United States look like? According to the quoted sources, “joint assistance …would include provision of patrol vessels, help with training their coast guard members and other relevant personnel, and assistance with establishing a framework to share information between the countries regarding pirate boats and other suspicious vessels.”
Some of this is already ongoing. Japan and the United States have been proactive over the past decade in providing counter-piracy training and equipment to the littoral nations of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Additionally, Japan agreed to “donate” 10 patrol boats to the Philippines Coast Guard beginning in 2015, doubling its fleet, with a soft loan from Tokyo. Vietnam has likewise asked to procure patrol boats from Japan, although continues rumors of an impending agreement have so far come to naught.
As for addressing the “framework to share information,” or coordinated maritime domain awareness (MDA), questions revolve around the intelligence-sharing architecture and facilities. With regards to the architecture, who will provide inputs, how will they provide inputs, who will collate inputs, how will the data be disseminated, and who will receive the data? On one end of the spectrum, Japan and the United States could select and combine several of their own inputs and offer a data stream to any ASEAN state willing to receive it. On the other end, this could be augmented by several of the members’ inputs in a two-way process. One approach could see the initiative develop a framework of tiered partners given access to different data sets depending on their sensitivities and own willingness to share.
For the aforementioned political reasons, however, maritime data-sharing is easier said than done, as demonstrated by the United States, Japan, and South Korea’s difficulty in sharing such data among themselves. And this is just at the policy level – intelligence sharing intentions have to be supported by physical links and data protocols, trained personnel, and facilities. The Japan-U.S. initiative could stand up a new intelligence fusion center along the lines of ReCAAP’s ISC, raising questions of staffing, hosting, and of course funding. Or, perhaps in the interests of unity and “breaking down stovepipes,” it would be better to aim to integrate ReCAAP’s existing structure, perhaps with a co-located annex to the ISC, and work to address the concerns of Indonesia and Malaysia so as to bring them on board. In any case, it will be interesting to see what solutions are put forward.
While President Obama’s trip will was not without concrete deals with ASEAN members, notably the 10-year defense deal with the Philippines, his trip’s most long-lasting outcome may be what develops from the vague words in the joint statement with Japan.
Scott Cheney-Peters is the founder and vice president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, and a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. His views are made in the author’s personal capacity and may not reflect the views of the U.S. Navy or Department of Defense. Follow on Twitter: @scheneypeters.