The United States has started implementing the Pentagon’s new maritime capacity-building initiative for Southeast Asian states near the South China Sea, initially announced last June following congressional approval, U.S. officials have confirmed.
After a customary a two-week congressional notification period, U.S. officials have released the first year of funds for the five-year, $425 million dollar Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), which involves five main ASEAN states – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – along with Singapore, Brunei and Taiwan, and aims to improve the ability of these countries to address a range of maritime challenges, including China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).
Asked about the significance of the initiative, which originated from the Senate Armed Services Committee headed by Senator John McCain, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told The Diplomat that MSI “seizes on a new opportunity” for the United States to work together with its regional partners and allies on maritime security amid a host of challenges.
“It’s specifically [geared] towards maritime security which is important, which is timely because of everything from typhoons to tensions in East China Sea, South China Sea, Indian Ocean, everywhere,” he said on board a Boeing 737-700 flight from New York back to Washington, D.C., before departing on a trip that will take him to the Philippines and India.
“It really signifies, first of all, the American determination to continue to play a constructive, pivotal role there, and the way we do it which is working with others and encouraging them to work among themselves.”
A senior U.S. defense official told The Diplomat that MSI is also geared towards creating “strong, independent partners” in the region, presumably ones capable of resisting a wide range of threats, including Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
“[W]e want strong, independent partners throughout the region. And the best way to help them become strong and independent is to help them build their capacity in maritime security. So that’s the idea of the Maritime Security Initiative, stated simply,” he said.
The total funding that was submitted in the congressional notification and approved for 2016 for MSI is $49.72 million. Though specifics have yet to be released, The Diplomat understands from sources familiar with the congressional notification that much of the funding goes to support for a maritime and joint operations center; improvements in maritime intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR); maritime security and patrol vessel support and sustainment; search and rescue operations support; and participation in multilateral engagements and training.
Country-wise, more than $41 million – or almost 85 percent of the $49.72 million total amount this year – is going to the Philippines, consistent with what U.S. officials have said previously about the “lion’s share” of MSI funding for 2016 going to Manila (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”).
As I have noted previously, the Philippines, one of the more forward-leaning among the four ASEAN claimants in the South China Sea disputes, has one of Asia’s weakest militaries and has been bearing the brunt of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, with Beijing seizing Scarborough Shoal back in 2012 and harassing Philippine vessels, aircraft, and fishermen (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat”). Manila also has a South China Sea case pending against Beijing with a verdict expected in May or June (See: “Does the Philippines’ South China Sea Case Against China Really Matter?”).
Carter said that the MSI funding would help strengthen Manila’s capabilities in the area of maritime security.
“[O]ur having the initiative and the funding that goes with it that makes it possible, particularly for a country like the Philippines… it’s a very positive thing,” Carter told The Diplomat.
The Diplomat understands that the congressional notification details a list of specific investments for the Philippines, including strengthening command and control relationships between the Philippine military, coast guard, and the National Coast Watch Center; providing maritime intelligence, surveillance, and radar (ISR) sensors; training for unmanned aerial systems and ground radar; and support and sustainment systems for Philippine patrol vessels.
A senior U.S. defense official told The Diplomat that these efforts would help bolster Philippine maritime domain awareness, enhancing the country’s ability to communicate internally as well as with the United States.
“We expect that our efforts will result in stronger Philippine ability to link up their Coast Watch Center with other facilities involved in maritime domain awareness to better communicate among themselves and better communicate and better operate with us,” the official said.
Vietnam, the other forward-leaning ASEAN claimant in the South China Sea disputes, receives just over $2 million.
The congressional notification, The Diplomat understands, details a list of specific investments for Vietnam, including assistance for maritime patrol aircraft and vessel modernization; support for the provision of search and rescue command, control, and communications systems as well as training.
Vietnam, The Diplomat understands, is expected to get a larger share of MSI funding next year.
“I expect that relationship to continue to deepen,” a U.S. official told The Diplomat.
Malaysia, a quieter South China Sea claimant relative to the Philippines and Vietnam, receives nearly $3 million, while Indonesia, which is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes but is an interested party, receives almost $2 million (See: “Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy: A Delicate Equilibrium”).
Both of these maritime Southeast Asian states have witnessed rising Chinese incursions into their waters. Malaysia has been gradually moving towards taking a tougher approach towards Beijing (See: “A Malaysia ‘Pushback’ Against China in the South China Sea?”). And a March 20 incident where a Chinese coast guard ship attempted to intercept an Indonesian crackdown on a Chinese boat for illegal fishing sparked unprecedented rage from Jakarta (See: “Will Indonesia’s South China Sea Policy Change Amid China’s Assertiveness”).
Most of the funding for these two countries, The Diplomat understands, is directed at improving command and control relationships between and capabilities among maritime security forces as well as other efforts such as technical advisory support in advance of U.S. exercises and subject matter expert exchanges to support maritime ISR modernization efforts.
Other than the aforementioned countries, Thailand also gets some assistance (under $1 million) to strengthen command and control relationships between the Thai military and subordinate commands (See: “Managing the Strained US-Thailand Alliance”). Most countries also receive assistance for participation in multilateral engagements.
The congressional notification also specifies a few hundred thousand dollars for a “human rights element” portion of MSI for all countries. That money, a source told The Diplomat, funds the Defense Institute for International Legal Studies to put together engagements including seminars at the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii. This is in line with the respect for human rights stipulated in Section 1263 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 as well as regard for civilian control, including concurrence with the State Department on activities.
As I indicated in my previous piece on MSI, the figures for 2016 will likely shift over the next few years in terms of how they are distributed, assuming of course that it is continued under the following U.S. administration.
“Those figures will shift in the course of the five-year program,” a senior U.S. defense official told The Diplomat.