The Debate

Maritime Security Cooperation in the South China Sea: Sailing In Different Directions

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The Debate

Maritime Security Cooperation in the South China Sea: Sailing In Different Directions

“The diplomatic graveyard is full of failed proposals and efforts that did not take regional realities into account.”

Maritime Security Cooperation in the South China Sea: Sailing In Different Directions
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Nathan Burke/Released

At China’s eighth Xiangshan Forum in October, a major topic of discussion will be visions and the reality of multilateral maritime security cooperation. The Xiangshan Forum is China’s answer to the British International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Shangri-la Dialogue (SLD), held each summer in Singapore. Beijing views the SLD and its organizers as preferentially providing platforms for outside countries’ perspectives and criticism of China’s policies. Presumably, many of the speakers at the Forum will provide an Asian and Chinese perspective on regional maritime security cooperation and the obstacles to achieving it. Hopefully they will directly or indirectly address critical questions like: whose security; security of or from what; and realistically how to proceed?

The Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam), China, and outside powers like the United States have very different answers to these questions. Indeed, they are sailing in the same waters but heading in different directions with different missions.

Regarding whose security, security concerns of the South China Sea littoral countries – including China – are not the same as the concerns of the United States and outside powers. Moreover security concerns — and their prioritization — also differ between individual South China Sea countries, especially including China.

For most South China Sea littoral countries, the prime security issue is defending their territorial and maritime claims. The South China Sea countries obtained independence (or, in China’s case, a new system of government) in the wake of World War II and suffered through bitter internal and international struggles in doing so. They jealously guard their sovereignty and any perceived undermining thereof.  In the short history of their modern nation-states, it is only relatively recently that they have extended their maritime jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles or more.  Leadership and their populaces tend to view the areas and resources gained — and especially the land features, which are legally speaking no more than rocks — as part of their “sacred” national heritage. Indeed, their maritime claims have become symbols of national pride and governmental legitimacy that must be defended against other claimants and outside powers. This nationalist perspective overwhelms proposals for “shared security.” Ironically this is both the main commonality and the main obstacle to the claimants’ maritime security cooperation.

Beyond this fundamental obstacle, the topic of security of, or from, what could mean common regional security concerns like terrorism, piracy, smuggling, illegal fishing and environmental degradation, or the more traditional security concerns of the big powers — like conforming to the “international order,” the use or threat of force, freedom of navigation for warships and warplanes, trade in weapons of mass destruction, and enhancing maritime domain awareness. These latter issues and their derivatives are mostly contentious issues between China and the outside powers, not between China and other South China Sea countries. The United States and other outside powers would presumably view multilateral Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) against China’s claims as a priority for maritime security cooperation, while joint anti-piracy and anti-terrorism patrols have more support from within the region.

In addition to the issue of what to focus on, there is also the all-important question of how to proceed: that is, who should take the initiative and provide the leadership and centrality for the effort? ASEAN member countries would probably prefer a focus on nontraditional issues with leadership and centrality provided by ASEAN.  The United States and China would of course prefer a focus on more traditional security concerns, with each wanting to provide the initiative and leadership in a coalition tacitly aimed at the other.

Practical Issues

There are other conceptual and practical obstacles to maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea.

Lack of trust — Many Asian nations harbor deep-seated, historically based suspicions of each other, making security cooperation all the more difficult. As Lord Palmerstone and Henry Kissinger believed and practiced “there are no permanent friends or enemies – only permanent interests.” Most countries’ decisions are influenced to some degree by the thinking behind this dictum, particularly in Asia. Some view maritime security cooperation as advantaging the more powerful, who can display the superiority of their technology, assets, and weapons and thus tacitly intimidate their potential opponents while observing and detecting the their weaknesses. The same reticence applies to information sharing. This mind-set makes maritime security cooperation all the more difficult.

Differences in scale — The scales of territory, population, military capacity, and economy among South China Sea countries are quite asymmetric. Many have limited resources and capabilities, and do not want to commit scarce resources to cooperation to meet threats that are low priority to them. These might include trade in WMDs, noncommercial freedom of navigation concerns, and maritime domain awareness, all of which are in the greater interest of outside maritime powers.

Competition between China and the U.S. — Both China and the United States (and its allies Japan, Australia, and the U.K.) are offering cooperative maritime security exercises and assistance to the Southeast Asian claimants. Maritime security cooperation with one side is often seen as taking a stand against the other.  This pressure to “choose sides” is reinforced by China and the United States themselves — sometimes publicly but more often behind the scenes. Most Southeast Asian coastal nations welcome assistance in capacity building. But they may well be more reticent to sign on to any regional scheme that could be taken as “siding” with one side against the other — or as endorsing a security role for external military forces.

Practical obstacles — Practical obstacles to maritime security cooperation by Southeast Asian littoral countries include tight operating budgets; lack of common doctrine, language, and interoperability of equipment; and widely varying stages of technological development. Intelligence information sharing is particularly sensitive because it involves potentially indirectly revealing sources and methods as well.

First Steps

Some analysts hope that cooperation and regime-building in nontraditional security sectors will build trust and confidence and spill over into cooperation on “hard” security issues. This may eventually happen, but it would involve quite a leap of faith that most are not yet ready to take.

It now seems obvious that multilateral maritime security cooperation in the South China Sea can be successful only if the South China Sea countries collectively perceive a high priority threat and both China and the United States are willing and able to cooperate against this threat. Perhaps combating transnational piracy and terrorism and/or insurgencies are prime candidates.

Indeed, the cooperation between the Malacca/Singapore Straits countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand — in reducing piracy in the Straits shows that this is possible. However due to nationalist concerns, they insist on doing it themselves, without outside power assistance — and are careful not to overstep each other’s “red lines.”

An even better example is the cooperation against piracy and terrorism in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines with the assistance of the U.S., Australia, and perhaps even China. But even in these positive examples, cooperation is somewhat restricted by differences in capacity and capability, and reticence regarding transparency, sharing of information, and operations in sensitive areas. To move beyond these beginnings to a region-wide effort will take considerable time, and diplomatic effort. The diplomatic graveyard is full of failed proposals and efforts that did not take regional realities into account.

Mark J. Valencia is Adjunct Senior Scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Haikou, China.