In the era of Great Power rivalry between China and the U.S., and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, one may conclude that the South China Sea (SCS) disputes constitute the single most important maritime security concern in Southeast Asia. Interested and concerned parties might be understood for having come to such conclusions. Yet the reality in Southeast Asia is that the SCS disputes are not necessarily perceived in the same light or accorded the same level of importance amongst the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
On that note, it is therefore important to note that ASEAN is never a monolithic bloc, instead made up of such a diverse set of 10 different countries in Southeast Asia, each with its own unique national context, threat perceptions and priorities (see Table 1). Beyond the ever-growing collection of joint declarations that usually outline nothing more than fundamental bloc principles, there has never been any common defense and security plan akin to the Common Security and Defense Policy of the European Union for example. Essentially, each ASEAN member state goes about ensuring its maritime security interests based on its own threat assessments, national priorities and capacity.
Table 1: Maritime Security Concerns in Southeast Asia
Source: By author, based on official and open-source reports. Note that this table evolves over time as threat priorities change.
Geographical and Historical Context in Brief
The SCS disputes, seen from this broad context of ASEAN, can therefore be better understood as simply constituting part of the diverse and complex multitude of maritime security concerns confronting the region. Geography and history conspire in shaping such concerns. At the most basic, maritime Southeast Asia is characterized by tight littoral confines made up of semi-enclosed water bodies and key waterways that serve as strategic chokepoints. Such geographical setup becomes fertile ground for overlapping national sovereignty and jurisdictional claims, resulting in interstate disputes. At the same time, the porous land-maritime boundaries provide opportunities for transborder maritime threat actors.
From an even wider, macroscopic perspective, Southeast Asia is right smacked in the middle of the confluence of two key world oceans – the Indian Ocean and Pacific Ocean. Some of the critical international sea lines of communications, carrying much of the world’s vital commodity and energy trade, pass through Southeast Asia in either directions. At the same time, besides SLOCs constituting what one may call “flow resource”, Southeast Asia is also a marine “stock resource” repository, especially undersea hydrocarbons, huge potential in sea-based renewable energy, and of course, fisheries. Seaborne trade and commerce as well as resource potential thus present both a boon and a bane for Southeast Asia. On the one hand, these provide the wherewithal for national socioeconomic development; on the other, however, these make the region attractive to extra-regional actors seeking to claim their stakes and influence.
Southeast Asia is no stranger to extra-regional presence. Colonial and post-colonial Southeast Asia has since seen the long course of the last world war through to the Cold War conflicts and right till this very day, continued Great Power dynamics – especially one that is largely dominated by the China-U.S. rivalry. Hence, there has always been a pervading concern amongst Southeast Asian political elites towards such dynamics. Media commentaries tend to paint Southeast Asia as essentially a cluster of weak and at times powerless polities that find themselves swept under the carpet – or rolled over – by the “big boys”. This is certainly far from the truth: in various contexts Southeast Asian countries have sought to assert strategic autonomy and agency, at times through ASEAN as a collective institution.1 In the maritime security sphere, Southeast Asian governments jealously guard their national sovereignty and jurisdictional rights, preferring to police their waters and keep out extra-regional intervention.
Challenges to Policing Sovereign and Jurisdictional Waters
In order to police sovereign and jurisdictional waters, Southeast Asian nations have traditionally preferred self-help in order to preserve their national sovereignty and strategic autonomy. The ability to police waters is not merely about warding off threats in the maritime domain, but it also serves as much as a basis for political legitimacy for the ruling elites especially in the current era of internet penetration amongst the younger constituents. In 2021, revelations by civil society actors on Chinese maritime activities in the Indonesian exclusive economic zone off the Natuna Islands placed Jakarta on the backfoot – given the penchant of the authorities to downplay the issue as a way of managing bilateral ties with Beijing.2 The politics aside, Indonesia’s predicament also well reflects the challenges faced by its other Southeast Asian counterparts.
Malaysia and the Philippines for example have for some time attended to maritime capacity shortfalls. Against Chinese coercion in the SCS, these countries have tapped their limited forces to put up counter-presence operations as best as they could. Given these constraints, persistent presence is often far from assured in areas of contention, thus leaving policing gaps that could be exploited by threat actors. China is indeed a major concern for these Southeast Asian parties in the SCS, but far from being the only problem. On a day to day basis, these governments grapple with a host of maritime security challenges that demand persistent presence of their forces, for instance such transnational threats as piracy and armed robbery against ships, seaborne trafficking of drugs, firearms and persons, as well as contraband smuggling.
The obvious solution to maritime policing challenges would be to beef up maritime capacity. But that is easier said than done. Throughout the course of contemporary Southeast Asia’s history economic imperatives are frequently accorded greater priority over defense and security programmes. The Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 and global economic recession in 2008 have had negative impact on the countries’ arms acquisition programmes. In the current post-COVID context and inflationary pressures emanating from the war in Ukraine, “big ticket” arms acquisition programmes, especially naval ships, could become the sacrificial lambs in government financial austerity measures – forcing maritime forces to prioritize their needs. Thailand for example found its submarine programme not only beset by technical issues surrounding engine installation with the Chinese shipbuilder but domestic opposition that calls for more funds injected into socioeconomic priorities instead.3 The Philippines has to be contented for now with modernizing its surface forces, while putting its submarine acquisition plans on the backburner.4
Harping on funding constraints, however, could over-simplify the complexity of maritime security governance in Southeast Asia. Suboptimal management of maritime forces capacity-building programmes also stand in the way. Malaysia’s navy Littoral Combat Ship and coastguard offshore patrol vessel programmes have been afflicted with delivery overruns and mismanagement of project funds, for example.5 And even putting aside new acquisitions, the proper maintenance of existing, ageing assets also poses a challenge. Compounding this problem is the multiplicity of national maritime actors which, for some Southeast Asian countries, resulted in duplicative and overlapping mandates and responsibilities, bureaucratic stovepipes, as well as inter-service rivalries over limited resources.
“Right-sizing” Maritime Security Governance
Going forward, it is possible to envisage an overriding focus amongst Southeast Asian countries on prioritizing economic recovery and growth, while at the same time implementing maritime forces capacity-building programmes conceived before the pandemic outbreak. Only a handful of regional countries are able to start new acquisition programmes, and even for that, funding is not necessarily guaranteed. For the vast majority, funding largely goes to the upkeep of existing capacities. At the same time, there has been growing interest and effort in promoting better inter-agency coordination and cooperation between those national maritime security actors. As best as possible, Southeast Asian littoral countries seek to preserve their ability, albeit limited in terms of capacity, to police their sovereign and jurisdictional waters.
There will also be growing interest in fostering practical cooperation amongst regional actors in the maritime sphere. ASEAN institutions and frameworks, such as the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (and the ADMM+), as well as ASEAN Maritime Forum (and Enhanced AMF) for example serve chiefly as dialogue mechanisms. Southeast Asian countries have found “minilateral” initiatives such as the Malacca Straits Patrols and Sulu Sea Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement more useful as bridge between bilateral cooperation and the need for wider, pan-regional maritime security cooperation. MSP and TCA, notwithstanding their birthing pains and inherent weaknesses concerning primarily capacity constraints, are deemed successful models that Southeast Asian countries are likely to find useful as the future model for wider collaboration.
At the same time, there will continue to be currency for extra-regional stakeholdership in Southeast Asia’s maritime security governance despite the regional governments’ wariness towards external intervention in maritime policing efforts. This stakeholdership does not and will not take the form of unilateral intervention in the region’s maritime security governance given such extant sensitivities, whereas “softer” involvement looks set to remain positively received by Southeast Asian political elites. This takes the form of general military and coastguard presence that also serves both “flag-showing” signaling as well as practical joint training purposes. The recent flurry of high-profile, multilateral military exercises such as Exercise Garuda Shield hosted by Indonesia is symptomatic of desire amongst Southeast Asian governments to keep extra-regional powers engaged and invested in regional peace and stability. Financial, materiel and other forms of technical assistance such as intelligence exchange and information sharing – which altogether contributes towards the building of Southeast Asia’s maritime capacity to deal with those maritime security threats.
In the foreseeable future, therefore, Southeast Asia’s maritime security is characterized by an interwoven complex of bilateral, minilateral and multilateral cooperative frameworks and mechanisms that revolve around the ASEAN-centric institutions as well as traditional U.S.-led hub-and-spoke alliances and partnerships. Certain Southeast Asian countries would look for opportunities to play a bigger role in regional maritime security governance, either at the intra-ASEAN level or in concert with extra-regional players. Recent efforts by Southeast Asian countries to address intramural maritime disputes also bode well for future enhanced cooperation. That said, however, while cooperation is essential it should not take Southeast Asian governments away from the necessity of getting their house in order – managing their national maritime security governance through better policymaking and strategizing in priorities and resource allocation, as well as promoting interagency coordination and collaboration.