OPINION | Order at sea: Southeast Asia’s maritime security

Personnel of the US and Philippine Coast Guards conduct a joint maritime rescue exercise in the South China Sea, May 15, 2019. (Photo: US Embassy in the Philippines)

However you define good order at sea, it’s hard not to feel rather pessimistic about its future. A host of accounts and reports from popular writers including Ian Urbina or environmental organisations such as Greenpeace and UNESCO suggest plenty of reasons to support the notion that the seas are in a state of crisis and that humanity is running very short of time in which to rectify it.

The problem is a global one, as the renowned geo-strategist Halford Mackinder reminded us before the First World War when he wrote, “the unity of the ocean is the simple physical fact underlying the dominant value of sea-power in the modern globe-wide world”. The phrase the Russians use – the world ocean – has much to commend it. The sea is all joined up, so what happens on it, and to it, in one area will affect sooner or later all the rest. None of the world’s regions can be isolated from the others.

Operationally, the number and effectiveness of the assets available to police the seas and oceans of the world are clearly insufficient. In Southeast Asia, archipelagic countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia face particular challenges in this regard, but it’s common throughout the region. There also exists insufficient domestic legislation to deal with the various types of maritime crime that complicate the task of apprehending and successfully prosecuting offenders of “blue crimes”.

“There is much higher awareness of the problem with a corresponding desire to do something constructive about it.”

As the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow reminded us, attempts to sustain and build good order at sea only seem able to operate in the space left for it by the traditional concerns of power politics, nationally, regionally and globally. Even in the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen the extent to which collective action is constrained by considerations of national interest. The fashion we had several decades ago of predicting a diminished role for the nation state in an increasingly globalised world has been shown to be wrong. Sensitivities about national sovereignty are particularly evident in sea areas of disputed jurisdiction, most obviously but not exclusively in the South China Sea. As a result, the maintenance of good order at sea, even though ultimately it is in everyone’s interest, is likely to be bedevilled by conceptions of national interest.

Good order at sea off Southeast Asia is framed by this rather gloomy set of observations. So against this background, what is the state of play in the region? How successful is the campaign to avert “bad order at sea”? There are undoubtedly some hopeful signs. In the first place, there is much higher awareness of the problem with a corresponding desire to do something constructive about it.

For evidence I would point to things such as the establishment in Singapore of the Information Fusion Centre, its operational success in facilitating the identification and interception of suspect shipping, and its international growth in terms of liaison officers and links with other such centres around the word. Across the region, we see the establishment of coastguards and maritime law enforcement agencies (MLEAs) such as the relatively recent version in Malaysia, and BAKAMLA (Indonesian Maritime Security Agency) in Indonesia. There’s also growing recognition of the need for collective action in response to collective problems, as manifested by the family of arrangements centred on the Malacca Straits Patrol and the coordinated tripartite system operating in the Sulu Sea.

Everywhere you look for insights into how maritime security problems are being handled collectively, the issue of competing priorities appears. The mere business of getting together to discuss such issues is of value in its own right, and especially if it helps identify the way ahead. In this case, the journey might be more important than the destination. There is surely something to be said for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) attempting something of this sort.

“These external contributions to the local maintenance of good order at sea should be conducted even if only for showing recognition of the fact that we are all in the same boat.”

External states can assist in capacity-building efforts. Southeast Asian coastguards and MLEAs appear to welcome the provision of assets, platforms, sensors and the modest weaponry that the task of ensuring good order at sea requires. Such assets need to be up to the demands of the task and, most importantly, realistically maintainable. The economic consequences of Covid-19 and the temptation to switch resources to war-fighting capability because of international tensions might well worsen any resource problems.

External states can also contribute to maritime domain awareness. It’s hard to exaggerate its importance: knowing what is going on is essential for assessing and managing maritime activities. Getting the necessary information in an age of “dark fleets” and turning it into actionable intelligence is difficult and demands global cooperation.

All of this becomes a lot more credible if there is some persistence in the presence of constructive external naval personnel and assets. Thus the permanent stationing of two Royal Navy patrol boats, HMS Tamar and HMS Spey, and an enhanced US and Japan Coast Guard role in the area are steps in the right direction. The same goes for Australian and New Zealand efforts in the South Pacific, especially their regional patrol boat program. This does, though, raise the issue of the extent to which the external players should coordinate their capacity-building offers of help. On the one hand, close coordination should limit the prospects of gaps and wasteful duplication; on the other, it might reduce the prospects of choice and agency for the locals.

Taken together, these external contributions to the local maintenance of good order at sea should certainly help, should be conducted even if only for showing recognition of the fact that we are all in the same boat, and confirm that it would be dangerous for all of us just to assume that it won’t sink.

This story originally appeared on The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute for International Policy.