When the issue of maritime security in Southeast Asia is raised, the natural inclination is to recall China's maritime disputes with ASEAN claimant states in the South China Sea.
After all, it is perceived to be the single largest threat to ASEAN unity and solidarity, with much brouhaha about how Beijing has divided member states and utilized ASEAN's consensual decision-making mechanism to veto statements against its interests.
But a larger maritime security threat lurks beneath the surface one that ASEAN member states can and should address expediently.
In 2016, Asian waters saw a global high of 129 piracy incidents, eclipsing that of West Africa (95 incidents) to hold the dubious honour of possessing the world's most dangerous seaways. Besides piracy, non-traditional maritime security threats including maritime terrorism, trafficking of humans, drugs and arms, and illegal fishing, are gradually taking centre-stage over traditional threats of coercive force by state actors.
The fact that about two-thirds of global maritime trade passes through these waters should give ASEAN states cause for worry. A continued escalation of these maritime threats could severely disrupt global shipping and by extension, threaten the economic development of ASEAN states that depend heavily on secure sea lanes of communication.
Three Thrusts of ASEAN's Common Maritime Security Policy
The European Union has a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) among its 28 member states. ASEAN states should develop a Common Maritime Security Policy (CMSP) to address evolving maritime security threats, secure maritime trade lanes and project the image of a confident, cohesive and united ASEAN. This CMSP should comprise three core thrusts.
First, ASEAN should create a region-wide ASEAN Maritime Security Task-Force (AMSTF).
This AMSTF may be a standing force comprising elements of every member state's armed forces, with the exclusive mandate to patrol ASEAN's waters to deter and detect maritime security threats. While the AMSTF's area of operations must be clearly defined and agreed among member states, it should cover the Straits of Malacca, Straits of Singapore and the Sulu Sea. This is parallel to the European Union Naval Force that pools naval assets across member states for counter-piracy missions in the Western Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.
One possible implementation method to achieve the AMSTF could be by expanding existing mini-lateral' joint patrol initiatives. Currently, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore participate in coordinated Malacca Straits Patrols, while Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have Trilateral Sea Patrols in the Sulu Sea. Leveraging existing initiatives, the AMSTF affords wider collective action, signals ASEAN's resolve to secure its maritime commons, and enhances interoperability among ASEAN's armed forces.
Second, ASEAN should develop a Common Legislative Framework (CLF) to address maritime security threats. In concrete terms, this involves the ratification of international maritime law agreements, harmonization of prosecution frameworks across member states, and the implementation of ASEAN-wide mutual legal assistance.
Among other things, a CLF eradicates safe havens for criminals exploiting legal loopholes across ASEAN states, and permits stronger ASEAN-wide cooperation to weed out illegal activities relating to maritime security. Legislative framework harmonization also legally empowers the AMSTF when they go about their duties patrolling ASEAN's waters.
Third, ASEAN should streamline its various platforms discussing maritime security issues, to allow effective decision-making on regional maritime security policies. Currently, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) discusses military matters regarding maritime security, while the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF) coordinates civilian' aspects of maritime issues.
However, AMF merely coordinates across the various fora such as the ASEAN Law Ministers Meeting, ASEAN Transport Ministers Meeting and ASEAN Ministerial Meeting on Transnational Crime with no actual decision-making authority. These meetings should instead report to the AMF, with AMF representation raised to the Ministerial level.
Therefore, all maritime security affairs should be decided by ADMM for military issues and AMF for all remaining civilian matters. This provides a clear reporting structure for accountability and permits swift and decisive crisis management should major maritime incidents occur. The creation of the AMSTF and CLF proposed earlier, and their related policy issues, should also fall under the ADMM and AMF's purview respectively.
How Practical is the CMSP?
Detractors are likely to dismiss the practicality of implementing these proposals, since they require ASEAN states to surrender some sovereignty in creating an AMSTF and adopting a Common Legislative Framework. China could also view the development of an ASEAN Common Maritime Security Policy as a strategic, long-term threat to its regional maritime interests.
These concerns are certainly valid. Nonetheless, to address ASEAN's long-standing reluctance to cede sovereignty, these recommendations should be given sufficient time for sensitization and gestation among ASEAN states. Member states must understand that the benefits of the CMSP considerably outweigh its costs and contributes toward a more prosperous and secure region.
To mitigate Beijing's concerns, ASEAN should clarify that the CMSP is not targeted toward any state and is meant to address non-traditional maritime security threats requiring a collective regional response. A robust maritime security regime in ASEAN is also beneficial toward securing China's Belt and Road Initiative interests in Southeast Asia.
As it stands, ASEAN's existing efforts against non-traditional maritime security threats are only low-hanging fruits aimed at information-sharing, capacity-building and confidence-building.
Looking into the future, it is high time for ASEAN states to collectively adopt a bold and ambitious strategy like the one outlined here that comprehensively and effectively tackles the challenges faced. The maritime economic and security future of ASEAN counts on it.
Jansen Tham, Erik Hagen and Jessica Wau are Masters candidates at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. The authors would like to thank Visiting EU Fellow Konstantinos Glinos for his guidance in crafting this piece.