For very good reasons, maritime security concerns, particularly those centred on the South China Sea, have featured prominently in ASEAN member states’ individual and collective agendas over the last decade.
The 10 ASEAN nations face a complex array of maritime threats. Issues such as China’s aggressive maritime strategy, piracy, terrorism, transnational organised crime and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are consistently challenging their sovereignty, the rule of law and regional stability.
Over the past five years, there’s been an increase in coastguard and maritime border response capabilities across much of ASEAN. Admittedly, the growth has been uneven. Although in many cases the number of surface vessels has increased, there are serious ongoing concerns about most states’ capacities to deploy and maintain those vessels, and to use intelligence and surveillance effectively in coordinating them. There are opportunities to do more.
ASEAN states have focused their new capabilities mainly on enhancing physical presence patrols and response in their exclusive economic zones. In a general sense, they have an improving capability base from which to draw for near-shore maritime patrolling and response.
"Fear of the Chinese dragon’s wrath"
The emergence of greater regional cooperation, especially for hotspots, through mechanisms such as the trilateral air patrol between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, has strong potential to further enhance air and maritime security surveillance in the region.
It’s reasonable for external observers to ask whether the ASEAN trend of transferring maritime security from military to civilian jurisdiction in the form of coastguards strengthens or weakens sovereignty claims. Of the 45 major incidents in the South China Sea between 2010 and 2016, 71 per cent involved at least one China Coast Guard ship or other Chinese maritime law enforcement vessel.
Southeast Asian leaders may well be torn by the lessons learned so far from the Chinese government’s actions in the South China Sea. On the one hand, the focus of exercises in maintaining sovereignty are efforts to constrain Chinese military construction on numerous islets and reefs in parts of the South China Sea. On the other hand, the assertion of sovereign authority will be tempered by a fear of the Chinese dragon’s wrath and a preference for not antagonising their neighbours.
In this context, the transfer of jurisdictional responsibility away from the military may allow ASEAN states to maintain sovereignty through a law-and-order focus while signalling an intent not to escalate to conflict. The risk is that it might indicate to an aggressor the very low likelihood that maritime security incursions will result in a military response, encouraging even more aggressive behaviour.
Coastguards have become important strategic cushions between navies in ASEAN. Coastguard vessels are less threatening, in terms of their potential use of force, to the captains and crews of other nations’ vessels during unplanned encounters at sea.
In practice, a coastguard ship escorting a vessel from its sovereign waters is seen as proportionate: it has less potential to inflame the situation than a naval warfare vessel performing that role. It isn’t all plain sailing for this model. Emboldening fishing fleets, coastguards or militias operating in contested jurisdictions may well be a negative for the maritime security of ASEAN nations. An increasing number of encounters are created by ever more crowded maritime border zones, and the associated law of the sea is complex.
There is an opportunity for Australia to cooperate and collaborate with partners across the region on joint surveillance, maritime domain awareness, and maritime patrols. However, those efforts should be synchronised with the capacity-development programs already being undertaken by India, Japan and the US.
Countering transnational organised crime (including piracy; illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing; and other crimes at sea) remains an area open for continued inter-coastguard cooperation. Canberra’s strategic relationship with Washington ensures that Chinese leaders pay close attention to Australia’s diplomatic and military activities in ASEAN.
The promotion of greater regional coastguard cooperation won’t deeply offend Chinese government sensitivities. It will attract Chinese government attention because it is against the Chinese state’s preferred bilateral engagement model, and because it may be effective in creating regional cohesion in dealing with maritime security issues. This approach provides an additional policy lever, short of the deployment of naval warfare vessels. These efforts will send a clear message to Beijing that the region is taking measures to protect the sovereignty of its waters.
Australia’s shipbuilding and surveillance industries could well benefit from new markets resulting from regional developments in coastguards and interest in maritime domain awareness. However, ad hoc capacity development will make the nature and scope of those opportunities difficult to predict.
Sheryn Lee’s June 2015 analysis of Asia–Pacific naval competition characterised the region as "crowded waters", which rings especially true for ASEAN. Unsurprisingly, the increased presence of coastguards is going to make the management of Southeast Asian maritime zones more arduous. The rising number of military and non-military actors in this environment will also create complex command and control relationships. This will drive a need for non-military coastguards and naval militias to have very high standards of training and clear command and control links to senior government decision-makers if they’re not to become part of the problem.