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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 47, November 7, 2009

South-East Asia: A Beacon of Maritime Collaboration?

Lessons for India from Experiences of the Littoral States

Saturday 7 November 2009, by Harnit Kang

According to a May 2009 interview with Rear Admiral Chew Men Leong, the Chief of the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN), in the journal Military Technology,

Maritime Security threats are constantly evolving and cannot be dealt with by one agency or a single country. We need to continue to tighten inter-agency cooperation and expand transnational cooperation.

Until very recently, International Maritime Law was tailored mostly to prevent naval clashes between countries. Keeping the high seas serene meant keeping the maritime powers apart. Much like the international nuclear arms regime’s priorities today, the maritime regime two decades ago put greater emphasis on controlling the types and number of warships and their weapons systems. Today the actors, operational dynamics and concerns of maritime security have the unique signature of globalisation on them. Conflict has moved from clashes between naval powers to that between state and non-state actors. Apart from the age-old malady of piracy, it is maritime terrorism that is of grave concern at present. India’s tragic experience of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks has brought to the fore deficiencies in its line of defence across its vast maritime frontiers. If there is one region that faces a similar magnitude of threats it is India’s neighbours in South-East Asia. Being home to the notorious Malacca and Singapore Straits that up till 2002 suffered nearly 200 pirate attacks annually, South-East Asia today is a role model for collaboration on maritime security.

However, this does not imply that there are no hiccups along the way. For countries around the world and since time immemorial, maritime security has entailed mitigating a comfort level with either the major superpowers in their region and the world or other transnational organisations that are considered as the authority to reckon with. Given the size of the South-East Asian countries relative to their neighbours and other major stakeholders in the South China Sea, it makes concerns over sovereignty and territories all the more delicate. Therefore even the well intentioned collaborative programmes for maritime security may take time, for they have to contend with the autonomous sentiments of the coastal states. It is no coincidence then that the major international maritime agreements give due regard in their laws and regulations to national sovereignty.

What makes the ASEAN an ideal role model for maritime collaboration is that: A) Nearly all of them are coastal states who understandably put a priority on maritime security for they derive much of their sustenance from international maritime trade. B) They are familiar with multilateralism, and have in fact overcome the disadvantage of their small size and today exercise much clout in the global arena through the ASEAN platform. C) Unlike the Gulf of Aden off Somalia, the South-East Asian struggle against the rising tide of piracy has been a success story especially in the light of the quantity of maritime traffic that passes through their waters and the persistent opportunism of pirates on the high seas.

A crucial area where the report card has not been up to the mark is maritime terrorism. Unlike piracy, the networks for terrorism span the globe. This warrants counter-terrorism efforts that are also global in scope. However, there are a few concerns that add complexity to this obvious menace. One is the ASEAN way of doing things that refrains from addressing the problems of terrorism directly, careful not to demonise Islam or any one country or political interest group. The ASEAN’s principle of not interfering in the member countries’ domestic affairs has resulted in a global transnational problem like terrorism becoming an internal matter. This is further confused by the recent affiliations between the pirates who have no qualms in committing violence for money and terrorists who now seek the maritime arena to damage targets not only regional but from around the globe. While earlier one could have made the argument that terrorist outfits such as the Jemmah Islamiya would not carry out attacks in any South-East Asian port due to the high volume of local populations, the recent terrorist attack in Jakarta at the Marriot hotels indicate that violence against the West and those who work for or with them is permissible.

The other issue that adds complexity in tackling maritime terrorism is that of technology. On the plus side most of the South-East Asian countries and the international maritime regime have been prompt on the upgrading equipment that monitors vessels and facilitates sharing of information. Commander James Kraska, JAGC, of the US Navy writes in his report titled ‘Grasping Influence of Law on Sea Power’,

There are two major systems for collecting and sharing information that are attached to the 1974 SOLAS Convention. One is the Automatic Identification System (AIS) and the emerging satellite based Long Range Identification and Tracking (LRIT) system. When fully operational in 2009, LRIT will make information on vessel location and identity available worldwide.

However, the downside to this wonderful technology, which shall essentially leapfrog the surveillance capabilities of countries around the world, is that the very same means can be utilised by the unscrupulous elements for their ends. To be more specific, international terrorist groups could also employ such sophisticated technology to disrupt shipping, and thereby world commerce, to carry out attacks on vessels.

Apart from this risk, there is also the potential problem of coastal states utilising the information to curtail the freedom of navigation of shipping vessels from other countries either out of genuine concerns of sovereignty or simply because the opportunity to throw one’s weight around has presented itself. Clearly, there are unnecessary ripples that could be created in the international sphere if there is an overdependence on callous use or distribution of the technological resources. Nevertheless it is apparent that if those in the corridors of authority are willing to see eye to eye and collaborate then much can be achieved. As mentioned earlier, collaboration has been the forte of the South-East Asian countries. The drastic drop in pirate attacks since 2002 has been due to partnerships between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore to lead intensive campaigns against pirates mostly through the medium of joint military patrols. Given the acquired habit of heavy and defensive military patrolling in the South-East Asian waters, it appears that the littoral states would be better prepared to deal with a potential maritime terrorist threat. In fact the comparative absence of pirate attacks along Indian maritime borders makes terrorist incursions through the maritime channels deadlier because security threats are not commonplace in Indian waters.

While it is imperative to ensure that the international trade route via the South China Sea is free of hurdles, it is just as important to ensure that any collaborative efforts on maritime security also span beyond South-East Asia. While a spill over into the vicinity of South Asia would be preferred, countries such as India need to grasp that that is not on the agenda for the Asian security architecture. While the Asian security architecture is to be achieved through the collective responsibility of all countries that have a stake in South-East Asia, it is nevertheless meant expressly for that region only. Therefore it would be prudent to refrain from fostering an overdependence on the South-East Asian security initiatives or substitute them for our own maritime security schemes.

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As far as India’s maritime boundaries are concerned, there has not been much collaboration or engagement with our neighbours on this front. A lesson that can be learned from the functioning of the ASEAN is that it is open to engaging the international community, organisations and extra-regional powers on the question of maritime security. India has recently invested a good amount of capital towards enhancing its maritime surveillance capabilities that were nearly minimal when the 26/11 attacks happened. According to a January 2009 report in the Aviation Week and Space Technology,

India will purchase Boeing P-8 Poseidon long range maritime reconnaissance and eight P-81 antisubmarine warfare aircrafts from the US. The full order is set to be completed by 2015.

The extent of India’s defence diplomacy should not only be in acquiring expensive military equipment or holding joint military exercises, although both these measures are essential. Following the example of the ASEAN, India should also engage the extra-regional stakeholders that all pass along its maritime vicinity, be it in the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal or the Indian Ocean. The fact is that India’s maritime borders are just as important as its internal land borders; this has been driven home after the Mumbai terror attacks. The time is ripe to garner international support, expertise and naval alliances for fortifying India’s maritime borders.

Despite their nervousness on the question of sovereignty, the Asian Security Track gives due consideration to international law. Promoting constructive norms of international behaviour was one of three points touched upon by Rear Admiral Teo Chee Hean, the Singaporean Minister for Defence, at the Munich Conference in 2009. As far as the international community goes, perhaps India may be inclined towards bilateral, trilateral and even multilateral involvement in its regional security architecture. However, the involvement of international organisations such as the UN Security Council or the International Criminal Court in India’s security matters is unlikely and has already been established by India’s preference for bilateral engagement with its neighbour, Pakistan.

The security concerns that both India and the ASEAN have to contend with are of an immediate nature; however, there are differences of priorities. The overall Asian Security Architecture prioritises not only piracy and terrorism, both maritime and otherwise, but also other concerns such as climate change and pandemics. The RECAAP or Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia is an accord to which the ASEAN nations, India and all Asian countries, except Australia and New Zealand, are signatories. A great platform for collaboration on matters of piracy, this conglomeration of countries nevertheless is oriented towards the South China Sea and this organisation is not a substitute for the spadework that India needs to do on securing its maritime borders.

As far as maritime matters are concerned, one advantage that India has is that unlike South-East Asia there are no ‘maritime’ territorial disputes and there is greater openness to prospects for joint military patrolling due to a comparatively relaxed attitude to coastal and maritime sovereignty issues. In fact due to its peninsular topography, India does not have to contend with issues of jurisdiction while engaging in ‘hot pursuit’ of pirates on the high seas. This is a problem that is still problematic in South-East Asia due to the shape, size and the proximity of countries to one another. Article 111 of UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Laws of Sea), stipulates that the right to hot pursuit ends when the offending vessel enters another state’s territorial waters. This has allowed pirates to escape persecution after they cross one maritime territorial boundary, into another. While the stakes may be high when in hot pursuit of pirates, but when it comes to chasing terrorists, the costs and ramifications are astronomical. The release of terrorists by India after the Indian Airlines plane was hijacked on Christmas-eve 1999 has had tragic consequences for not only India but also the West. Nearly all terrorist attacks on Indian soil could be linked to the terrorists that were released in return for the hostages. Whether or not the ASEAN would address it head-on, maritime terrorism is a concern for both India and the South-East Asian region. Hot pursuit is a major clause of UNCLOS that either merits amendment or needs to be compensated for thorough, frequent and precise information sharing.

South-East Asia needs to carry on full throttle in its initiatives to crack down on piracy for if it does not, it could have serious consequences for seafarers, maritime trade and regional economies. India must upgrade and intensify its maritime surveillance so that it can deal with illegal traffic, piracy and maritime terrorism. India can draw many lessons from South-East Asia on this score. These would be anywhere from the sheer importance that maritime security is granted in South-East Asia to the plethora of joint initiatives with willing neighbours to a persistence that has gotten results. In drawing these lessons, however, India needs to avoid either developing overdependence or mimicking the ASEAN approach. Improving maritime security has to be a vision beyond spending copious amounts of capital on military arsenal, although that too is needed. Indeed a degree of entrepreneurship is necessary, that is, one which not only entails upgrading the current maritime defence infrastructure but also fostering naval alliances and finding alternative channels for making the maritime territories of India well protected from unscrupulous elements.

Harnit Kang is a Research Officer with the South-East Asian Research Programme (SEARP) at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi. Her areas of interest include maritime security, India’s ‘Look East’ policy, regional geopolitics and extra-regional stakeholders.

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