The geography of Asean as a regional grouping of nations is noticeably maritime. For archipelagos i.e., Indonesia and the Philippines, the sea is an integral component of their respective national profile. Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam depend to a great extent on the sea for their trade interests. Even the less maritime-based Myanmar and Cambodia and landlocked Lao PDR rely on the sea for national income.
Naturally, many issues confronting the Asean have a maritime dimension. Among these are piracy, smuggling, human trafficking, illegal fishing and territorial security. These issues brought to fore the unequal levels of naval capabilities in the region. Singapore has the most sophisticated navy especially at maritime surveillance and modern war-fighting capability. The other countries are only capable of operating within their own coastlines.
Naval cooperation, however, is present under bilateral and sub-regional arrangements. It consists of coordinated patrols and combined exercises like the Malacca Strait Patrols among Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to counter piracy and armed robbery at sea. There are also combined multi-national exercises to improve professionalism, develop exchange experiences and draw lessons from fellow navies. Examples are the Indonesia-Singapore, Malaysia-Singapore and Malaysia-Thailand bilateral naval exercises. In addition, some Asean countries maintain defence engagement activities/exercises with the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. The on-going annual joint Philippines-US military maneuvers called Balikatan 2014 is not only about maritime security but humanitarian assistance and disaster response as well possibly on account of the experience last year of Asean member countries coming to the rescue and relief of Typhoon Yolanda victims in the Philippines later than expected.
Be that as it may, IHS Jane’s Defence International, a leading provider of defence and security insight and information, mentioned in one of its reports the Asean resolve to take greater responsibility for their own maritime security. This is evidenced by, among others, the Philippine Navy’s modernization plan which includes acquisition of two new anti-submarine helicopters, two frigates and four patrol frigates along with a number of patrol craft and fast transport and support vessels. Also included are multi-purpose attack crafts with missile launch capabilities to patrol its territorial waters. Myanmar has acquired eight Chinese frigates under its development of naval industrial capabilities program in conjunction with China . Vietnam is acquiring submarines from Russia. The first boat Hanoi was already handed to the People’s Army of Vietnam Navy and a second one Ho Chi Minh City is on track for delivery.
Singapore has much significantly improved capabilities through deliveries of Swedish and German-made submarines and patrol vessels. It also announced a 2014 defense budget of $9.93 billion, a 3.2 percent increase over spending in 2013. (It should also be mentioned that Singapore has the region’s only submarine rescue capacity).
In Brunei Darussalam, the arrival of German-made off-shore patrol vessels considerably enhanced the navy’s operational capabilities. To improve training, the navy is building a centre of excellence, due to become operational in 2015, for seamanship warfare, weapons handling, firefighting and damage control, communications and engineering training. Indonesia, on the other hand, is constructing a submarine base in Sulawesi Island and plans to procure up to 12 boats to augment its submarine force. It also announced it would purchase submarines from South Korea. Submarines, after all, are the most cost effective way of denying maritime territory to a hostile armada. In fact, not every navy requires an ocean-going submarine. Asean waters are mostly archipelagic and shallow. Littoral patrol submarines will do to conduct intelligence gathering, act as a deterrent against maritime incursions and bolster confidence.
However, a lot still has to be done. Among these are a review of each state’s responsiveness to defend itself against any and all threats to national security; effective capability pooling; development of an Asean defence industrial complex; and collaborative defence research and development. In all this, there is a strong imperative for more efficiency, more coordination and more cooperation among the Asean navies to create the assurance about the region’s self-defence readiness.
FROM THE PHILIPPINE AMBASSADORS’ FOUNDATION INC. (PAFI)
Mr. Tolentino is a professor and diplomat who also does freelance journalism. His special interests are climate justice and environmental diplomacy.