THE Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is distinctly maritime. Even the less maritime-based Myanmar and Cambodia and landlocked Laos depend on the sea for national revenue.
Aside from economic community, ASEAN aims at developing a regional security community too. In fact, some degree of cooperation and coordination have been in place across the region in terms of naval interoperability to achieve maritime security as well as effective regional ocean governance.
Actually, ASEAN’s thrust towards improvement of its navies’ regional inter-operability is drawn more to offset threats at sea such as kidnapping, piracy, smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing and even illegal fuel transfers in ports and harbors. A recent incident which rekindled the debate about maritime security in ASEAN waters, i.e. the Sulu Sea and the Sulawesi-Mindanao tri-border maritime zone, was the beheading of a kidnapped Canadian citizen in Sulu a year ago despite a search-and-rescue operation mounted by the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. As a consequence, the three countries agreed to establish a coordinated maritime patrol regime to stem the increasing number of kidnappings in the region modeled after the Malacca Strait Patrols coordinated by Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. The patrols being conducted by the navies of these three countries are done within their respective national maritime boundaries with no country taking command of another’s maritime assets or personnel.
Overlapping maritime boundaries and territorial disputes, however, constrain effective naval cooperation in the region. Malaysia and the Philippines have overlapping claims in a number of areas in the South China Sea while Indonesia and Malaysia are in dispute over parts of the Celebes Sea and an area off the Kalimantan coast. The situation also hampers dealing with transnational crimes and militant groups.
Be that as it may, ASEAN countries have committed to bilateral and multilateral defense and diplomacy forums to enhance cooperative activities and capabilities. One such is the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting – Plus (the 8 Plus countries are Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States). The forum is about peacekeeping operations, military medicine, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-terrorism, mine countermeasures and maritime security.
Hosted by the Royal Brunei Armed Forces and the Singapore Armed Forces, the forum conducted a maritime security and counter-terrorism exercise involving all 18 forum members in May 2016. Exercise serials included counter-piracy drills, search-and-rescue scenarios and coordinated ship “storming” operation on a simulated hijacked vessel sailing in international waters in the South China Sea.
Aside from different levels of military capabilities, ASEAN countries have a mosaic of cultures, legal systems and military operational procedures. Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Singapore maintain a level of naval sophistication, including maritime surveillance and modern war-fighting capability, while others are still in conventional capabilities and the rest barely capable of conducting operations beyond their coastlines. Thus, to compensate for the capability gap, some countries have resorted to developing greater levels of naval cooperation. Vietnam, for instance, has coordinated patrol initiatives with Malaysia and Cambodia. Recently, a two-way communication link was set up with Brunei and the same is planned with Indonesia.
Bridging some of the challenges result in improvement of naval interoperability even if the approach in use leans more toward cooperation between Asean member states or between members of extra-regional navies as discussed above (Asean Defense Ministers Meeting – Plus).
Apart from combined military exercises, in existence are: i) The Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia. It is about maritime information sharing and naval dialogues to enable maritime law enforcement agencies to respond individually or collectively to maritime security challenges. Eight ASEAN countries are signatories, with Indonesia and Malaysia not participating. ii) The Information Fusion Center at Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. It brings together naval liaison officers from around 20 countries, including ASEAN countries, with the task of serving as direct link back to national headquarters and serves as the focal point for maritime crisis response. (iii) The ASEAN Information Sharing Portal which facilitates information exchange between various operational centers within ASEAN navies. The portal can be accessed even via smart phones of individual officers. (iv) The ASEAN Navy Chiefs Meeting which serves as a platform for discussion among ASEAN naval chiefs to advance naval and maritime security cooperation.
Strides in interoperability extends to a limited form of capacity-pooling in submarine search-and-rescue arising out of concerns over the safety of submarine operations. While Singapore has the region’s only submarine rescue capability, the pooling scheme will greatly improve the other ASEAN navies operating submarines in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Could an enhanced regional security community emerge out of the expanding opportunities at ASEAN naval interoperability?
Ambassador Amado Tolentino incorporates ASEAN environmental law in his current lectures at the San Beda Alabang School of Law.