America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia

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America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia

A look at the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative as it gets underway.

America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia
Credit: U.S. Navy Photo

On March 18, Amy Searight, the deputy secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, told reporters at the opening session of the U.S-Philippine Bilateral Security Dialogue that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) had submitted a notification to Congress as it prepares to roll out a new maritime capacity-building initiative for Southeast Asian states near the South China Sea (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”). With that notification, the United States will soon begin implementing the so-called Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) which was initially announced last June.

While U.S. defense officials have remained tight-lipped on the exact details of MSI with a congressional notification pending, its goal is to build regional capacity to address a range of maritime challenges – including China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea – through various means such as improving regional maritime domain awareness, expanding exercises, and leveraging senior-level engagements. Even though MSI is significant both for the five main Southeast Asian states involved – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – and the Obama administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific more generally, it is also facing a number of challenges as it gets underway.


The essence of MSI – building ally and partner maritime capabilities – is not new. Even before the advent of this initiative, the Obama administration had accelerated U.S. maritime security assistance to Southeast Asian states as Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea became clear, with efforts such as helping the Philippines build its National Coast Watch Center; assisting Vietnam in constructing a coast guard training center; and bolstering the maritime surveillance and radar capabilities of Indonesia and Malaysia.

MSI is also just one of various sources of funding for U.S. maritime capacity-building efforts, from the general foreign military financing (FMF) program to pools of money under specific departments or bureaus. In December 2013, for example, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry announced expanded U.S. assistance for maritime capacity building of $32.5 million in FMF for Southeast Asian states. Also in December that year, the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs designated $25 million to develop the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Law Enforcement Initiative (MLE). MSI, by contrast, is funded with DoD money.

The most distinguishing component of MSI relative to other capacity-building initiatives of its ilk, those familiar with the initiative say, is its focus on enhancing regional maritime domain awareness (MDA) and moving towards establishing a common operating picture (COP). Put simply, Washington is working with Southeast Asian states to improve their ability to detect, understand, react to, and share information about air and maritime activity in the South China Sea, eventually leading to a common and regularly updated picture so that the nations concerned are on the same page.

Specifics about how MSI aims to do this or what kind of investments will be made this year have yet to be revealed publicly because DoD’s congressional notification is still being reviewed, defense department spokesman William R. Urban said in response to a detailed inquiry. But one source with intimate knowledge of the initiative, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Diplomat in an interview that, broadly, U.S. officials are thinking about how investments can increase the ability of allies and partners to “sense, share and contribute” in the maritime domain.

Speaking generally due to the sensitivity of the issue, the source said that more advanced intelligence, surveillance and radar (ISR) capabilities might enhance ‘sensing’ of allies and partners in the South China Sea; technical “supporting infrastructure” would facilitate ‘sharing’ maritime information across the region to build a COP; and expanded exercises, training and other engagements would lead to more ‘contributing’ from allies and partners. MSI is more about equipment, supplies, training and small-scale construction that fit within this broad approach, rather than hardware.

“What you hear is improving the ability of allies and partners to sense, share and contribute,” the source said.

How exactly this might work is still unclear. The “big picture,” the source said, would be to work towards a COP in the South China Sea starting with the Philippines’ National Coast Watch Center and out onto the rest of the region, with willing countries as initial connective nodes eventually leading to a network that actors can “plug into.” (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat“).

“This is more about building a system, a network where countries can plug in if they want to,” the source said, stressing that MSI was still very much in its early stages.

Enhancing regional MDA and building a COP in the South China Sea is an idea that has been floating around for years and had already been discussed at previous U.S. interactions with Southeast Asian states, including at the first ever meeting of ASEAN defense ministers in Hawaii in April 2014. There have also been ongoing engagements exploring various aspects of this since, including several workshops held by U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) with ASEAN countries. But MSI is the clearest and most concrete manifestation of this U.S. objective yet.

MSI itself originated initially not from DoD, but the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) led by John McCain who has long been a key voice on Asia security policy. It has since been adopted by DoD, and was first publicly unveiled by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter at the Shangri-La Dialogue – Asia’s premier security summit – in Singapore in June 2015 (See: “US Launches New Maritime Security Initiative at Shangri-La Dialogue 2015“).

“Today, I am pleased to announce the DoD will be launching a new Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative. And thanks to the leadership of the senators here today and others, Congress has taken steps to authorize up to $425 million for these maritime capacity-building efforts,” Carter said in his remarks.

MSI has since been officially incorporated into DoD’s Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy which was released last August. Within the DoD’s overall U.S. regional maritime security strategy, MSI falls into the broader category of maritime capacity-building – one of the four so-called “lines of effort” – with the other three being strengthening U.S. military capacity; leveraging military diplomacy; and strengthening regional security institutions.

Following this, MSI was incorporated as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2016. Under section 1263, MSI, which actually appears as “South China Sea Initiative,” authorizes funds for assistance and training for the purpose of increasing maritime security and maritime domain awareness of countries along the South China Sea – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Specifically authorized elements of assistance for these countries include equipment, supplies, training and small-scale military construction. The authorization also includes additional “covered countries” – Brunei, Taiwan and Singapore – which may participate in training and other activities.

Section 1263 also specifies a 15-day congressional notification period for MSI, where the Secretary of Defense would submit a notification to congressional defense committees containing details for the year such as the recipient foreign country, a detailed justification of the program and its relationship to U.S. security interests, the budget and a timetable of expenditures, and program objectives. On March 18, Searight, the deputy secretary of defense, told reporters at the opening session of the sixth U.S.-Philippine Bilateral Security Dialogue in Washington, D.C. that DoD had notified Congress a day earlier and was now awaiting for the congressional notification period to expire before moving forward with the initiative.


Though MSI will gradually be rolled out over the next few months and – assuming the next administration chooses to continue it – take shape in subsequent years, its potential significance is clear. By devoting funding to maritime security capacity-building in Southeast Asia over several years, MSI is at once a tangible demonstration of the U.S. rebalance at work, a sustainable American resource commitment during a challenging budgetary environment, and a big step towards a broader strategic objective of creating a common maritime operational picture in the region.

First, optics-wise, the allocation of $425 million in DoD funding is tangible proof that the United States is willing to devote resources to making the rebalance a reality. With funds already allocated for the next five years – as of now, The Diplomat understands from a source familiar with the initiative, $50 million for fiscal year 2016; $75 million for fiscal year 2017; and $100 million each of fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020 – it sends a strong message that Washington is committed to sustaining its efforts to aid maritime capacity-building efforts in the region.

“It says we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is, and that’s a powerful signal,” the source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told The Diplomat in an interview.

Though the amount itself is admittedly a modest start, it is by no means insignificant. For perspective, for 2016, $50 million is being set aside just for MSI alone, while the Obama administration announced last November ahead of the president’s trip to the Philippines for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that the total amount of assistance it would provide for this year would be $140 million, a slight increase from the $119 million committed in 2015 (See: “US Announces Maritime Security Boost for Southeast Asia“).

Second, bureaucratically, MSI creates a pool of pre-allocated DoD funding that is both insulated from the fierce battles over foreign assistance as well as geared towards a specific goal. That itself is a notable feat given the difficulty of resourcing the rebalance at a time of budgetary difficulties.

The $425 million for the initiative comes from existing DoD money, which means that these defense funds will not need to be administered through the Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program which is run by the State Department, with implications for authorization as well as allocation. Pulling money out of other accounts like FMF – where a paltry 1 percent of total global funding went to the Asia-Pacific in 2015 – is a challenge that officials know well. In addition, congressional authorization also enabled Carter to then make an even stronger case for the reallocation of funds within DoD to resource MSI.

“It’s significant in that we’ve found a way to secure funding despite the challenges that come with how the United States does foreign assistance,” Brian Harding, a former defense official in the Obama administration who worked on Southeast Asia, told The Diplomat.

“This creates a very focused, regional pot of money, and it makes it easier to get support for it,” Harding, who is now director for East and Southeast Asia at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said.

Third, strategically, as mentioned earlier, MSI represents a big step towards a broader U.S. objective of enhancing MDA to create a regional COP. DoD’s 2015 Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy technically specifies several lines of effort for MSI of which this is only one – others include providing supporting infrastructure for maritime response operations; expanding maritime exercises and engagements; strengthening maritime institutions, governance and personnel training; and identifying modernization or new systems requirements for critical maritime security capabilities.

There is also predictably no direct mention of it being directed at a particular threat – the goal is framed as building regional capacity to address “a range of maritime challenges.”

Yet to those familiar with MSI, it is nonetheless clear that a major thrust of it is to build maritime domain awareness and a common operating picture to help Southeast Asian states deal with or even counter China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea. While greater individual and regional awareness would also be useful for other objectives as well including countering illegal fishing, cracking down on transnational crime, and responding to natural disasters, it would both reduce the vast asymmetry that exists between these countries’ capabilities and China’s as well as enable them to better deter gray zone coercion by Beijing both individually and collectively.

“There’s no doubt a big part [of this] is about helping countries deter and deal with China, because capacity is an issue still,” a source told The Diplomat.


But if the significance of MSI is already apparent, so too are its challenges. Indeed, policymakers will have to navigate past a range of issues that exist at home, in the region, and in their specific consultations with U.S. allies and partners.

At home, beyond the perennial question of the sustainability of such new initiatives beyond this administration, the concerns chiefly relate to resourcing and bureaucratic politics. On funding, $425 million for five years – the initial authorization runs up to September 30, 2020 – is not a lot of money, especially if Washington wants to realize its goal of building a COP in the South China Sea anytime soon. MSI will likely need to be supplemented with additional funding either from DoD or other sources.

“The problem with MSI is that it’s ‘budget dust’ in Pentagon speak; you can’t do much with $425 million,” Van Jackson, a former Pentagon official who served in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2014 and a regular contributor to The Diplomat, said.

Overcoming that financial hurdle is possible, says Jackson, now an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu as well as an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. With additional resources as well as partnerships with the private sector in Silicon Valley, Jackson says, Washington could create a good-enough common operating picture – as opposed to a military-grade COP requiring significant ISR capabilities which would cost billions of dollars. At present, though, that kind of partnership does not yet exist.

“It’s been difficult for government to bridge the divide with the tech sector though. Silicon Valley is completely aloof of the Pentagon’s strategic problems like the South China Sea,” said Jackson, the lead author in a report on constructing a common operational picture in the South China Sea released by CNAS in March.

The other domestic concern among some relates to whether MSI could inadvertently be contributing to the creeping militarization of U.S. foreign assistance. Since MSI is being financed with existing DoD money, rather than administered through the FMF program run by the State Department, there are those who worry whether this undermines State’s lead role in doling out foreign assistance, thereby leading to the approval of security funds that might contradict broader U.S. foreign policy interests such as preserving human rights. Indeed, some voices within Congress have even reportedly called for MSI to be moved over to the State Department.

To those familiar with MSI, this is rather overblown. As one source put it, claiming that less than half a billion dollars spread over the next five years (in a nearly $600 billion DoD annual budget) across an entire subregion is going to reshape U.S. foreign assistance policy seems like quite an exaggeration. Furthermore, as was mentioned earlier, the money will be spent on things like facility construction and training rather than weapons or hardware.

“We’re talking about peanuts in a budgetary sense, and despite the bureaucratic contentiousness of it all, there is a basic consensus about what the money should be spent on,” the source, who preferred to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the issue, told The Diplomat.

Publicly, both DoD and State say they are on the same page when it comes to MSI. Though the initiative is housed under DoD, David McKeeby, a spokesperson for the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told The Diplomat that the concurrence of the State Department is required on all MSI proposals, a requirement that Congress wrote into law to ensure foreign policy coordination.

“[D]oD and State have committed to work closely together to determine what assistance will be offered through its MSI to our allies and partners,” McKeeby said.

“The coordination of security assistance within a foreign policy framework remains a vital aspect of its delivery – no less in a politically sensitive region like this one.”

MSI could face regional challenges as well as it seeks to build this common operating picture. Some Southeast Asian countries may be hesitant to share information with their neighbors, not just due to sensitivities but other reasons as well including rivalries between them. The clearest example of this is the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) concluded in 2004, which now includes 20 Asian states. Malaysia and Indonesia are still not official members up till today, in part due to disagreement on the location of the headquarters of the information sharing center in Singapore.

There is also the concern that MSI could be perceived as a U.S.-led tool directed against China even if it is not publicly presented as such, thereby complicating both the relationships these individual countries have with Beijing as well as regional MDA efforts. It is worth noting that while MSI has a much more ambitious goal of developing a COP in the South China Sea, the region does already have a few more modest initiatives of its own, from systems like Singapore’s Information Fusion Center (IFC) to multilateral cooperative endeavors such as the Malacca Straits patrols. For Washington, striking a balance between raising the bar to work towards a COP while also not getting too far ahead of regional MDA efforts will be a tricky one.

“It depend[s] on how it [MSI] evolves – it can lead to more security or more instability, but the point is that it is us in the region who have to live with either of those,” one official from a Southeast Asian state involved in MSI told The Diplomat.

The challenge of securing adequate buy-in and being sensitive to regional perceptions is not a new one. The cautionary tale of the Regional Maritime Security Initiative (RMSI) – a proposal launched in 2004 during the George W. Bush administration which was initially meant to be a voluntary partnership between states to promote information-sharing and early warning to counter maritime transnational threats – is a case in point. Media reports that the-then PACOM commander Admiral Thomas Fargo had said that U.S. special forces and marines would patrol the Malacca Strait led to angry responses by both Malaysia and Indonesia, undermining the initiative and eventually leading to its demise soon after. Though there are some significant differences between RMSI and MSI, the point here is simply that the case nonetheless illustrates the importance of optics and messaging which is a useful lesson to remember.

Washington and Southeast Asian states have also encountered challenges in their initial efforts working together on MSI. More than one of the MSI members told The Diplomat that they initially did not have a clear sense of what the initiative was and was not – including specifics about its objectives and kinds of assistance they could seek.

Part of the problem on the U.S. side, a source told The Diplomat, was because DoD only had a few months this time around to finalize a list of projects and send them over for a congressional notification. This may have left less time than would have been preferred for partner countries to have time to think about projects that would fit under the initiative for the year. It was partly because of this that Manila ended up getting the “lion’s share” of the $50 million sought for 2016, as Searight told reporters March 18.

“It was difficult to understand but we also did not have enough time to decide on our side this time,” an official from another one of the five main countries involved in MSI admitted.

To a certain extent, that was to be expected and is not entirely Washington’s fault. For instance, an MSI country like Vietnam is a relatively new U.S. security partner, which means Hanoi does not possess as thorough of an understanding of U.S. bureaucratic processes as do other U.S. partners.

During his remarks commemorating the 20th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. last April, U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius himself acknowledged that it might take some time for Vietnam to become familiar with complex U.S. procurement procedures (See: “What’s Next for U.S.-Vietnam Defense Relations?“). Vietnam also has its own internal considerations beyond MSI, such as what it would specifically like from Washington relative to its more traditional defense partners like Russia. As with other Southeast Asian cases – consider U.S.-Indonesia defense relations, for instance – it will take some time before this process of familiarization to gradually occur.


We will likely hear more details about MSI over the next few months, particularly with U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s upcoming visit to the Philippines in April as Manila lies right at the heart of the initiative. But the significance of MSI is already clear. By committing itself to a multi-year maritime security capacity-building initiative in Southeast Asia with the key objective of creating a common operational picture in the South China Sea, Washington is tangibly demonstrating that the U.S. rebalance has real weight behind it and can serve both U.S. interests as well as those of regional states.

Though it is still early days and challenges remain, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration set to rule on the Philippines’ case against China on the South China Sea in May or June and the Shangri-La Dialogue coming up in early June as well, MSI’s rollout will certainly coincide with some interesting security developments in the region (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?“).

Prashanth Parameswaran is Associate Editor at The Diplomat based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia, Asian security affairs and U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific. He is also a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.