Beyond Binaries: Southeast Asia's Maritime Security Cooperation with China and India.

AuthorJoshi, Yogesh

Beijing's strategy in Southeast Asia is to keep China in, ASEAN engaged and extra-regional powers out. New Delhi, meanwhile, seeks to keep China "balanced" by supporting Southeast Asian governments and encouraging greater involvement of other external actors in the region. Beijing's primary impulse is to dominate the region economically and politically, and to deter the involvement of extra-regional powers. Yet, it also aims to influence Southeast Asian countries through its soft power, keep diplomatic dialogue open and be able to sway ASEAN's regional security agenda. To an extent, China's engagement strategy explains the prominence of its non-traditional security cooperation, especially non-traditional maritime security cooperation (NTMS), with Southeast Asian states. (1) However, its territorial and maritime jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea, and its growing military power, have contributed to a sense of anxiety in the region, leading some Southeast Asian states, such as Vietnam and Philippines, to search for external security partners. This does not mean they are going to disengage from China on maritime security cooperation or that ASEAN will disengage from China on NTMS issues. Instead, as this article argues, Southeast Asian states should engage more with China, particularly in finalizing a comprehensive Code of Conduct (CoC) on the South China Sea and operationalizing certain Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). Yet, at the same time, they should also confront China on the grey zone operations--piecemeal operations that are below the threshold of armed offensive or of a military response--that it conducts in their maritime jurisdictions.

Southeast Asian states show a fair amount of autonomy in their foreign policy as well as diversity in their security partnerships, including for maritime security. (2) However, comparisons between China and India, as security partners for Southeast Asian states, are loaded in Beijing's favour. China's geography and its economic and military might mean the region will remain far more invested in China than India. Capacity-wise, too, New Delhi trails behind the likes of the United States, Japan and some European countries (as well as behind China). To paraphrase Sheryn Lee, China and India are not only "unequal rivals" in the region, they are also "unequal partners" in fulfilling Southeast Asia's quest for maritime security. (3) Nonetheless, India's maritime security cooperation agenda is still quite dynamic, while growing polarization within the region--between Southeast Asian states and China, and between the United States and China--provides India with a greater opportunity to engage with at least a few Southeast Asian countries. Promising avenues include naval arms transfers to Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea and the training of their navies for sea denial missions, as well as cooperation in maritime domain awareness (MDA) against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

The structure of this article is as follows. It begins by exploring the nature of Southeast Asia's complex maritime security environment and outlining the region's maritime requirements and its sensitivities. The second section investigates the nature and pattern of maritime security cooperation of Southeast Asian states with China and India. Finally, it lays out some paths that Southeast Asian states could follow to engage China and India in their maritime security agenda.

Southeast Asia's Maritime Security Needs and Sensitivities

Southeast Asia's maritime environment has always been complex. (4) The threats emanating from the sea consist of non-traditional issues such as piracy, terrorism and environment protection, as well as natural disasters. There are also traditional security threats, including military aggression, safeguarding sovereignty and sovereign rights, and the safety of sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Maritime security is fundamental to the region's economic development and national security. (5) Southeast Asia's waters, after all, sit astride some of the world's busiest waterways and chokepoints--the Malacca, Sunda and Lombok Straits--through which almost one-third of international shipping traverses daily. (6)

Most of the region's economies are also export-oriented and depend upon the safety and security of SLOCs. Yet, their maritime geographies--interspersed with choke points connecting semi-enclosed seas--make them prone to disruptions by both state and non-state actors. Piracy and terrorism, for instance, have long afflicted the region's maritime domain. Differences between and among states over disputed territories and maritime boundaries have created serious interstate tensions. Maritime security has therefore emerged as one of the most vital security concerns. (7) Yet, the landscape suffers from several contradictions.

First, there is ambiguity over a mutual understanding of maritime security even though the region is often seen as an example of a "regional security community". (8) According to John Bradford, "There is no commonly accepted definition for maritime security" in Southeast Asia. (9) One of the reasons for this is the diversity of maritime threats the region faces. According to Adriana Elisabeth, maritime cooperation in Southeast Asia is "influenced by each member country's national interest which is far from monotonous". (10) Rather than a "single basket of problems", Evan Laksmana has noted, the region views maritime security as a series of "smaller individual problems". (11) The evolution of the maritime security agenda attests to evolving threat perceptions and how countries prioritize them. (12)

In the mid-1990s, local extremist groups such as Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines, and the spilling over of sectarian violence in Indonesia into the maritime domain, forced Southeast Asian nations to attend to maritime security needs against kidnap-for-ransom, arms trafficking, piracy and coastal raids. (13) Post-9/11, terrorism became the central focus of maritime security, particularly in the Malacca Straits, and the safety of ships and the global seafaring community became an immediate priority. (14) Even though NTMS threats, such as piracy and terrorism, have dramatically reduced in the last decade, human trafficking, armed robbery and illegal trade continue to afflict Southeast Asian waters. (15) Regional governments are now also concerned about new non-traditional security problems relating to cybersecurity, climate change and its impact on maritime resources and IUU fishing. (16) Naturally, such an extensive list of NTMS threats has historically crowded the maritime security agenda in Southeast Asia. Historically, too, Southeast Asian governments have looked to downplay traditional maritime security (TMS) issues concerning disputes over maritime boundaries, contested sovereignty over island territories and marine resources in overlapping territorial seas and exclusive economic zone (EEZs), as well as the widening asymmetry in the naval balance of power in the region. (17)

Traditional security threats such as maritime disputes are not the "core focus" of many Southeast Asian states. (18) Given how intractable these disputes are, for instance, regional decision-makers have prioritized "operational cooperation" over long-running dispute settlement negotiations. (19) Not all Southeast Asian states have maritime territorial and jurisdictional disputes with China, so priorities on military security vary across the region. (20) Some have made a "deliberate choice" to avoid conflict both within and without. (21) Focusing on maritime disputes also complicates intraASEAN cooperation, since some member states have "unresolved maritime delimitation claims" with their neighbours. According to Laksmana, it can also unsettle relations with China, as the "domestic legitimacy" of many Southeast Asian governments are "tied deeply to public goods and private benefits" accruing from their economic interdependence with Beijing. (22) Taking uncompromising positions on maritime disputes with China would also undercut economic interests since the economies of Southeast Asian countries are highly interdependent on China's and can be subjected to coercion, as was the case when Beijing banned the imports of bananas from the Philippines. (23) Ideally, disputes should be settled between the parties involved, but small states sometimes seek external help and influence to find better deals vis-A-vis bigger powers. To find better terms of settlement with China, Southeast Asian states use their relationships with other powers--the United States and its allies, Japan and Australia, as well as strategic partners such as India--as a form of leverage against China, further exacerbating the region's great power dilemma. For the most part, however, by using ASEAN as a medium, Southeast Asia states have invested in "performative tension management" tools such as the CoC on the South China Sea rather than direct and bilateral mechanisms to resolve their maritime disputes. (24)

However, there appears to be a growing divide among Southeast Asian states on the prioritization of TMS and NTMS threats because of China's rise to great power status and its expansionist maritime claims in the South China Sea, as well as due to escalating Sino-US competition. According to Geoffrey Till, "In an age of increased great and medium/minor power competition, the balance of allocation of resources and the focus of attention will shift towards the defence aspects of maritime security at the expense of efforts to maintain safety and good order at sea." (25) Southeast Asian states with major maritime security disputes with China, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, are increasingly focused on TMS threats. They are also inclined to pursue greater security alignments with extra-regional powers, especially the United States and its partners.


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