Southeast Asia’s economic progress largely depends on a network of sea lines of communication (SLOCs) protected by an international legal system, largely codified in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other maritime conventions, as well as customary international law. For this reason, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) repeatedly underscores that freedom of navigation is a key common interest. However, the security of this SLOC network is exposed to varied potential threats in certain key nodes, both localized and regional.
Experience suggests that the differences in the characteristics of the threats to SLOC security demand different approaches. Managing and addressing threats to SLOC security requires customized solutions involving nations directly adjacent to and affected by them. Guardrails must therefore be thought of as relatively specialized, addressed to specific participants, and not necessarily requiring the involvement of all members of the entire region.
The Philippines’ Assessment on Threats to SLOC Security
The Philippines views two threats to SLOC security: localized and regional.
Some threats are highly localized but immediate and continuing. Piracy and armed robbery at sea usually occur in confined sea areas with undefined maritime boundaries, such as in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore (SOMS) region and the Sulu-Celebes Sea tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Pending boundary disputes hinder the delimitation of firm jurisdictional zones, creating gaps that are exploited by malign actors preying on maritime traffic or using the areas for illegal transnational movement of goods and people. In addition to this, coastal human settlements are the sources of many kinds of land-based pollution that affect the health of the waterways and their resources.
Other localized threats are contingent and occasional, like natural and man-made disasters, particularly in populated coastal and nearshore areas. The region’s complex geography, active geology, and volatile weather and oceanographic patterns combine with climate change to create enormous natural hazards and disaster risks. Accidents can occur among numerous vessels, ports, and coastal infrastructure, causing damage and disruption of marine traffic, hazards to the safety of persons, property, and marine environment, and adverse socio-economic impacts.
More widely distributed regional threats pose greater challenges. These include illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime believes is also often integrally linked with other forms of transnational organized crime. Cybersecurity threats are thought to be on the horizon, with cyber-attacks on the maritime industry (e.g., hacking of ports, navigational, or cargo systems) possibly disrupting ship operations and risking the safety of crew and passengers.
The most generalized and perhaps unpredictable threat to SLOC security arise from territorial and jurisdictional disputes, particularly in the South China Sea (SCS) which lies at the heart of Southeast Asia. While bilateral and trilateral maritime disputes between ASEAN members have been more or less effectively managed, in contrast, the disputes between some of them and China have recently become more intense.
China’s economic, political, and military demands as a major power fuel the need to expand its security footprint, which unfortunately means dominating and controlling maritime activities within the so-called First and Second Island Chains, which essentially encompass Southeast Asia. Its excessive claims to sovereignty and jurisdiction in the SCS are integral to its broader anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) security strategy that envisions the SCS, East China Sea, Philippine Sea, and the fragmented insular and peninsular territories within them as security buffer zones to protect the Chinese coastline and keep potential adversaries from approaching by sea. Artificial island bases in the SCS act as forward operating bases for its maritime forces, including the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), China Coast Guard, and Peoples’ Armed Forces Maritime Militia, as well as housing surveillance arrays and missile batteries. These guard the southwestern approaches to China’s coast through Southeast Asia. To the east, PLAN and the PLA Air Force are developing operational assets and capabilities to cover the northeastern approaches. On top of this, PLA rocket forces envelop much of the region within the range of short, intermediate, and long-range missiles.
Implicit in these developments is China’s increasing control and dominance of all maritime activities, and the potential for disruption and re-ordering of the maritime trade networks supported by the SLOCs in case of any conflict, whether limited or widespread. Despite China’s occasional insistence that there is no problem with freedom of navigation in the SCS, it has demonstrated both the capability and willingness to set aside international norms when it is in China’s interests to do so.
Vietnam and the Philippines have borne the brunt of numerous maritime coercion activities as a result of China’s maritime expansion. Strategic uncertainties largely arise in connection with these disputes, because China’s excessive claims not only endanger Southeast Asia’s free and equal access to the sea and resources, but also that of external powers such as the U.S., Japan, and Australia, which China sees and considers as the potential adversaries against whom its security buffer must be established.
Guardrails for SLOC Security
Localized threats such as piracy and armed robbery, maritime terrorism, and illegal maritime traffic have been effectively addressed by the affected ASEAN member states through practical bilateral and trilateral cooperation arrangements for coordinated patrols and information exchange. The Straits of Malacca and Singapore Cooperation Mechanism and the Trilateral Cooperation Arrangement in the Sulu-Celebes are among the best two examples of international maritime security cooperation in Southeast Asia. These are supplemented by broader trans-regional cooperation mechanisms such as the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery Against Ships, and support for capacity and capability building from external partners.
These experiences suggest that highly focused, problem-based, and practical trilateral arrangements revolving around maritime surveillance, transparency, and law enforcement are the most feasible and attractive means of addressing SLOC security threats because they enable ASEAN members to better manage their own respective areas and exercise their responsibilities under international law. International law provides ASEAN with the tools and mechanisms with which to secure SLOCs within their maritime jurisdictional spaces; this remains the most feasible and sensible approach for both regional and extra-regional powers. Similar kinds of arrangements may be explored for less politically-charged challenges such as marine pollution (e.g., plastics and oil spills) and disaster risk reduction and management in particularly vulnerable areas hosting major nodes of maritime traffic.
Potentially, such approaches could also address broader threats such as maritime cybersecurity, IUU fishing, and transnational organized crime by sea, although national sensitivities are likely to be more challenging. Southeast Asian countries zealously guard their sovereignty and exclusive authority over their own citizens and communities, so arrangements which are perceived to undermine their sovereign prerogatives are often difficult to advance. But solutions enable them to enhance self-governance and have a better chance of acceptance and success; this may be particularly applicable to problems such as disaster risk reduction and management.
Maritime cybersecurity threats against shipping could probably be best dealt with through national implementation of international standards and practices, since shipping is governed by agreed rules set by international maritime conventions and the International Maritime Organization. Reinforcement of regional infrastructure to provide cyber-services, development of maritime cyber-capabilities, the establishment of information exchange and data management protocols, and regional maritime cybersecurity cooperation should be explored. The draft ASEAN Cybersecurity Cooperation Strategy 2021-2025 provides a good basis for this effort, but lacks a particular maritime focus.
Dealing with China
Insulating SLOCs from the territorial and maritime disputes between ASEAN claimants and China remains the most difficult challenge. In the past decade, China has demonstrated an unmitigated and unrelenting intent to establish mare clausum over the SCS with or without the consent of her smaller neighbors, and to the exclusion of those it perceives to be rival powers or potential threats. China’s increasingly overt and coercive interactions at sea against Southeast Asian littoral States contrast sharply with diplomatic engagements in the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct (COC) negotiations, creating an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion among Southeast Asian claimants, which fear being trapped by China’s overwhelming and overbearing power.
The inability of ASEAN to effectively address this principal regional political-security issue point to the need to bring efforts to address problems back to only those directly involved: the SCS disputes should be discussed between China and ASEAN claimant countries only, not all 11 ASEAN members. This would be logical and historically consistent, since the original COC concept was introduced into the ASEAN agenda in the 1990s when it was predominantly an association of claimants (minus Thailand). Having only the parties directly interested in participating in the talks would probably stand a better chance of progress and also enable a more consistent and unified response to China’s incessant expansion. ASEAN has never posed an obstacle to bilateral, trilateral, or subregional groupings and solutions to distinct problems involving less than the full ASEAN membership.
If ASEAN claimants all find that the ASEAN institutional mechanisms for dialogue no longer serve to protect their respective interests, they should consider addressing the SCS disputes outside of the association’s restrictive framework. Progress on the resolution of the SCS disputes is urgent and important not only for Southeast Asia and its common maritime interests; it is also of great significance to external powers that have an interest in stable and open Southeast Asian seas governed by international rules of the road. For ASEAN and the international community at large, the system of navigational rights and freedoms in accordance with UNCLOS remains the best way of responding to China’s expanding might and increasing assertiveness.
This article is based on the author’s presentation at the Southeast Asia Regional Geopolitical Update at the Australian National University, Canberra, on May 1, 2023.