Maritime Security Cooperation and CBM in Southeast Asia 

Report on the ASEAN-China Dialogue Meeting of March 11-15, 2008

Global Geopolitics Net
May 8, 2008

© Copyright 2008 Carlos L Agustin. All rights reserved.

By Commodore Carlos L Agustin AFP (Ret)

I recently attended together with our Defense and Armed Forces Attaché in Beijing, Col Arthur Ang PA (GSC), the ASEAN-China Dialogue by Senior Defense Scholars (CADSDS) held on 11-15 March 2008 at Beijing, China on invitation of one of NDCP’s counterpart institutions, the Academy of Military Science, Ministry of Defense of China. The theme of the conference centered on Military Modernization and Confidence Building Measures (CBM). Twenty six “defense scholars” of all 10 ASEAN countries and China attended the well-organized meeting, intended to provide ASEAN countries with a feeling of security in the light of criticism of China’s massive military buildup, particularly of its Navy.

This was particularly stressed by PLA’s Sr Col Zhao Xiao Zhuo’s concluding remarks during the closing on 15 March:

After 3 days discussion, I think we have made some consensus. The first one is, Respect each other’s right to modernize their armed forces, but at the same time try to make each nation’s strategic intention transparent. Now the technology is developing very fast and the nature of war is changing rapidly. If a military wants to fulfill the obligations of safeguarding its motherland, it has to push forward the modernization drive. So military modernization effort of both ASEAN countries and China is quite understandable and fully justified. However, the key is not the military capabilities, but the strategic intention, namely how to use the armed forces. So each country has to make its defense policy transparent, to make sure that its defense policy is defensive and its armed forces are only used for safeguarding national independence, security, sovereign integrity and unification.

One of the papers presented delved on Maritime Cooperation. Sr Col Zhang Junshe of the PLA Navy discussed “Cooperation between Regional Navies to Enhance Maritime Security”. He emphasized the need to “encourage building of a fair and effective collective security mechanism and military confidence building mechanism in order to prevent conflicts and wars.”

Practically all of the Chinese papers insisted that China’s military modernization has nothing to do with aggressive intentions, while stressing that “Taiwan independence is not negotiable”, clearly hinting that while they would exhaust all peaceful means to solve the matter, they would not hesitate to use force, if necessary to retain Taiwan as part of China. This is the unification aspect in Sr Col Zhao’s carefully worded remarks.

A few other Chinese speakers mentioned the Taiwan issue, emphasizing the same thrust and somewhat attacking US “intransigence” on Taiwan. Noting the relative youth of my counterparts from both the ASEAN and the China side in comparison to me, I hastened to comment on this matter, and taking advantage of my having been considered by acclamation, on suggestion of the Chinese head of delegation as the “learned head and spokesman of the ASEAN delegations”. I commented thus:

On the Taiwan issue and the United States’ position on the ”one China policy”, may I bring you back in history and take you to the tumultuous early part of the 20th century. You will note that the United States was your ally before and during World War II against Japan and the Axis powers. All the allied documents signed by China and the United States were through the KMT, including among others the Potsdam declaration, the Japanese surrender in 1945, and the creation of the United Nations in 1945, and its support of “one China” obviously followed from that, including treaty obligations, which was terminated in 1979 but the US continues to provide a security umbrella that militates against hostile takeover by China. It is for this reason that since 1949, the U.S. military has frustrated China from forcibly uniting Taiwan with the mainland. In the summer of 1959, I had occasion to be attached on midshipman training on board a US destroyer, the USS Boyd (DD544) under DESRON 15 whose mission, among others was to patrol the Taiwan Strait. It was called the “Formosa Patrol” designed to prevent PRC from invading Taiwan and ROC from retaking the mainland. Let me tell you what else the US is committed to, and that is self-determination. If China and Taiwan agree among themselves to unite, you can count on the United States to be among the first, if not the first country to recognize the union.

Surprisingly my comments were taken by the Chinese in a very positive sense and many later during the break and during dinner commented on their lack of previous appreciation of what I stated, hinting that such was not emphasized in their history education.

For Southeast Asia, the Taiwan issue and Spratlys are the two major issues that could be considered as major threats to maritime security that could really spark armed aggression and confrontation. The Spratlys issue has been partially resolved, at least for the meantime, because of China’s acquiescence to the ASEAN Declaration and the ASEAN Regional Forum’s CBM approaches. While expressing great parochial interest on Taiwan, the Chinese however totally ignored the Spratlys issue in their presentations and discussions.

The 26 member countries of the ARF are: Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, China, European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea, Republic of Korea, Laos PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Russian Federation, Singapore, Thailand, Timor Leste, United States and Vietnam. It is the only formal security forum in the larger Asia-Pacific region. Despite its diverse membership, it provides a unique and valuable platform to foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest between member countries. ARF member countries have built up a high level of comfort between them through the conduct of Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), such as seminars, visits and information exchanges. This has allowed the ARF to gradually move into the second phase of its development in the area of Preventive Diplomacy.

At the ARF Maritime Security Shore Exercise, an ARF Confidence Building Measures (CBM) project on "Regional Cooperation in Maritime Security", co-hosted by Singapore and the US on 2-4 Mar 05, several topics of maritime security cooperation significance were discussed during the professional exchange part, such as, among others, “Coordinating Mechanisms of Offshore Search and Rescue Operations” by China; “Information Sharing between National Maritime Agencies“ by India; “Japan Coast Guard's (JCG) Cooperation with Asian Countries” by Japan; “Maritime Surveillance and Patrol” by New Zealand; and “US Coast Guard Organization and Lessons Learned from Search and Rescue and Disaster Relief Operations” by the United States. The Meeting was attended by representatives from Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Canada, the People's Republic of China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Mongolia, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam, the ASEAN Secretariat, and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

In addition, the recently established Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP) Information Sharing Centre (ISC) also made presentations on the role and functions of the ReCAAP ISC, its links with various focal points, and how it contributes to regional maritime security.

The IMO Secretary-General RADM Efthimious Mitropoulos HCG (Retd) delivered the keynote address on "Multilateral Cooperation in Maritime Security". The Meeting noted that “the maritime security agenda had moved beyond its traditional concern of maritime piracy and armed robbery to include the threat of maritime terrorism and other transnational maritime crimes” The conferees also noted the transnational nature of maritime threats, bearing in mind the strategic importance of key shipping lanes, and agreed that these both necessitated cooperation on the part of the littoral states and the user states..

The Meeting noted the positive role of IMO in catalyzing multilateral cooperation in maritime security, primarily because of its experience in balancing the interests of the littoral vis-à-vis user states and in upholding the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation. It welcomed the recent initiative of IMO to secure vital sea lanes, and it expressed strong support for IMO’s continuing series of meetings on the security of regional waters that brought together both littoral states and the user states. The Meeting also agreed that the IMO could help in building regional cooperation through “the promotion of situational awareness, information sharing, personnel training, capacity building, and technical cooperation”, and underscored the importance of ARF members ratifying the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against Safety of Maritime Navigation and its Protocol, as committed to in the 2003 ARF Statement on Cooperation against Piracy and Other Threats to Maritime Security.

Several Navy chiefs or senior delegates (Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, India, US and China) shared their perspectives and experiences in dealing with security threats and shared best practices.

Among others, the following measures have been undertaken by ARF member countries over the past several years:

  • Malaysia has established the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA);

  • Indonesia has set up additional navy control command centers;

  • China has strengthening its legal system and structure to safeguard the security of its waters, ports and ships;

  • The US has identified a “performance model” that would provide a framework for collaboration on all the critical elements of Maritime Security.

  • The Navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore initiated their Trilateral Coordinated Patrols of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore;

  • The Philippines has initiated its “Coast Watch South” project, with possible multilateral cooperative arrangements with neighboring countries;

  • Annual or periodic ASEAN Chiefs of navies, and ARF Chiefs of Coast Guards meetings;

  • Annual ARF Heads of Defense Universities, Colleges and Institutions(HDUCI) meetings;

  • Annual ASEAN intelligence chiefs information exchange seminars;

  • Possible establishment of joint patrol arrangements, following the RP-RI models;

  • Strengthening of the Port State Control process under the Tokyo Memorandum of Agreement for implementing IMO Conventions.

  • Conduct of maritime security exercises starting 2006 as proposed by Singapore;

  • Conduct of bilateral naval exercises such as between Indonesia and the Philippines and Malaysia and the Philippines;

  • Conduct of bilateral and multilateral maritime agencies/Coast Guards exercises such as between Indonesia and the Philippines;

  • India’s hosting of Training in Maritime Security as a form of CBM;

  • Japan’s hosting an ARF Workshop on Capacity Building in Maritime Security held in Tokyo in the fall of 2005;

  • The Philippines’ creation of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs under the Office of the President in 2007;

  • Conduct of the First ARF Maritime Security Drill in Singapore in January 2007 attended by 102 security experts from 21 ARF member countries;

  • The conduct of the China-ASEAN Forum on Military Modernization and CBM in January 2008. 

With all these measures and show of cooperation, it is likely that confrontation and conflict can be avoided in favor of peace and regional stability and development. Or at least we hope.

Chuck Agustin

About the author:

Commodore Carlos L Agustin AFP (Ret) is President of the National Defense College of the Philippines.

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