Between Scylla and Charybdis: ASEAN and the U.S.-China Contest for the South China Sea

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Mark Valencia

ASEAN and its members are in an increasingly dangerous dilemma. They are under mounting pressure to choose between the U.S. and China in their competition for political and military preeminence in the region. In response, ASEAN member states are maneuvering to maintain their ‘neutrality’ and pursue ASEAN ‘centrality’ in international affairs affecting the region. Their perspectives and roles in this great power competition merit closer examination, as well as how they are adapting to it, and what—if anything—ASEAN can do.

Over the past year, China has taken actions that have alarmed rival South China Sea claimants and stoked the U.S. narrative that China is a threat to the region. Because these small and medium states — alone or in combination — are no military match for China, their response has been to maneuver diplomatically, both openly and behind the scenes. However, the U.S. sees this situation as an opportunity to further its own agenda vis a vis China and co-opt these states in the process.

On July 13 U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo heightened tensions by announcing a ‘new’ policy on the South China Sea. The statement’s political core was that “America stands with our Southeast Asian allies and partners in protecting their sovereign rights to offshore resources­. ­The world will not allow Beijing to treat the South China Sea as its maritime empire.” Pompeo vowed that “We will support countries…who recognize that China has violated their legal territorial claims and maritime claims as well . . . We will provide them the assistance we can, whether that’s in multilateral bodies, whether that’s in ASEAN, whether that’s through legal responses. We will use all the tools we can . . .” (emphasis added). This could include military means.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has outlined an across-the-board reorientation of the Department of Defense with the goal of countering China’s influence in Asia. He has said that strengthening partnerships with Southeast Asian nations will provide the U.S. with an “asymmetric advantage” over China.

The U.S. followed these statements up with a diplomatic full court press on Southeast Asian countries to join it in its campaign against China’s policies and actions in the South China Sea. Pompeo called several key ASEAN foreign ministers seeking their support for the ramped up U.S. initiative. But he apparently did not receive the hoped-for response. Indeed, regional reactions ranged from cautious to negative. 

The principle target of the U.S. policy clarification was ASEAN and in particular China’s rival claimants within it: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. But the response of ASEAN was underwhelming. The ASEAN Foreign Ministers collectively issued an unremarkable statement on ASEAN’s 53rd anniversary reaffirming their intent to maintain Southeast Asia as “a region of peace, security, neutrality and stability” amid “growing uncertainties resulting from the changing geopolitical dynamics in the regional and global landscape.” 

As William Choong of the Singapore based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute put it, “Challenging China on values and democracy was ‘not going to take off’ in Southeast Asia. We are not going to see the same kind of pushback that the U.S. expects to see in ASEAN. This whole confronting China and kicking down the front door, I don’t think that’s an ASEAN way.” Some states are also concerned that like during the Cold War they could become the pawns or surrogates of great powers and suffer consequences.

Moreover, if the U.S. implements the policy, it will be a double-edged sword. As Shahriman Lockman of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia argued, the U.S presence “has the effect of both deterring but also potentially escalating matters with China…The worst-case scenario is for things to escalate, and then the U.S. gets distracted by something in the Middle East, and we get saddled with more Chinese ships in our waters.” 

Some are also concerned that even if they cooperate, the U.S. commitment may not continue. Indeed, some suspect that this offensive may just be a last-minute, superficial ploy to help Trump in his re-election campaign.

As Joseph Liow of Singapore’s National Technical University says, “While U.S. patrols are instrumental to regional security, no ASEAN state would ever declare that because they do not want to be seen siding with Washington against Beijing.”

Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi attending the virtual Asean Informal Action Ministerial Meeting in Jakarta in June 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry)

Indonesia and Singapore have remained neutral regarding this new American aggressiveness. Indonesia said that any country’s support for Indonesian rights in the Natuna Sea is “normal.” Its Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi, added, “ASEAN must always cooperate to maintain our regional peace and stability and not be dragged into the storm of geopolitical tension or be forced to choose sides.” Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein struck a similar note, saying Malaysia must ensure it is not “dragged and trapped” in a political tug of war between great powers. Hishamuddin is particularly concerned that the China-U.S. struggle could split ASEAN.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines publicly stated that he will form policies regarding China that are in its best interests—not necessarily those of others, including the U.S. Even Vietnam, China’s leading regional critic, did not call out China by name in response to Pompeo’s statement but only “welcomed countries’ positions on the South China Sea that are in line with international laws.”

There are good reasons why these countries have difficulty choosing between the two. While they may be more ideologically aligned with the U.S., many have economic and longer-term geopolitical reasons like relative proximity to China that make them reluctant to openly confront it militarily or diplomatically – even with U.S. backing. Beijing will likely use the economic needs of these nations as leverage to prevent their unity against China. As such, Pompeo’s policy clarification overestimated Southeast Asian countries’ overt supportiveness. 

It was never realistic to think ASEAN and its South China Sea claimants would automatically support the United States and its increasing emphasis on great power competition with China. Other than perhaps Vietnam – and its support for military intervention is questionable  it is doubtful that backing up the specifics with threats of force will be welcomed in Southeast Asia. These states are already particularly concerned with the military buildup in the region by both superpowers.

A more aggressive U.S. diplomatic and military posture could force regional nations to choose between it and China, and the U.S. may not like the outcome. Indeed, the U.S. is discovering the hard way (e.g. the Philippines) that its soft power relationships in Southeast Asia are neither as deep nor as enduring as it thought. The only way to rebuild the integrity and robustness of its relationships with Southeast Asian nations is for it to demonstrate respect and awareness of their self-defined national interests to a degree equal to its own.

ASEAN countries could contribute to conflict avoidance by individually or preferably multilaterally expressing opposition to the U.S. and Chinese military presence. There has already been some movement in this direction. After one incident in October 2018, Ng Eng Hen, Defense Minister of Singapore, a U.S. strategic partner, said that “Some of the [US-China] incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognize that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.” 

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has said that the threat of confrontation and trouble in the waterway comes from outside the region. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad then argued that “if the strategy does not include sending the Seventh Fleet into the area, we are welcome to that…big warships [in the South China Sea] may cause incidents and that will lead to tension.” In response to the new U.S. statement, Malaysia’s new Foreign Minister Hishamuddin Hussein called for the big powers “to avoid military posturing.”

Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi has said that it is “important for ASEAN to keep sending out messages to great powers involved in the dispute to maintain regional peace and stability in the South China Sea.” Considering previous relevant statements by high-level Indonesian government officials, this appears to be a plea to both China and the U.S. to cool tensions and exercise more restraint in their military operations in the region.

However, ASEAN is far from united on this issue—in part because it primarily concerns China’s rival claimants: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. So far the voicing of these concerns has not had the desired effect. An escalating and strengthening chorus of concern could help reduce the potential for conflict and confrontation. As ASEAN states run out of diplomatic maneuvering space, this may become their only option other than openly casting their lot with either the U.S. or China.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

Featured Image: Participants of the ASEAN Regional Forum Retreat pose for a photo in Singapore, Singapore, August 4, 2018. (State Department Photo)

India’s Strategy for the Indian Ocean in Light of COVID-19 and Confrontation with China

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By David Scott 

Setting the Scene for 2020

Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean revolves around retaining preeminence across the body of water, tacitly seen as India’s Ocean; a term implying if not hegemony, then at least a sort of regional leadership and regional preeminence. The External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar was explicit at the Indian Ocean Conference held in the Maldives in September 2019 that India’s “core interests are in Indian Ocean,” that “the fact remains that where India can really make a difference is in the Indian Ocean itself,” and that the Indian Ocean is for India “a natural arena for its influence and of overriding security consequence.” Jaishankar went on in March 2020 to argue in a speech titled “Emerging Geopolitical Landscapes” that “where maritime security is concerned, India has emerged as a key player, especially in the Indian Ocean.”

Indian strategy in and for the Indian Ocean during the 2010s has been threefold: building up its naval-maritime infrastructure (bases and support facilities), building up power projection assets, and strengthening relations with increasingly China-concerned powers.

Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean during the 2010s has involved building up its naval infrastructure out from the Indian subcontinent. This has involved development of military facilities on the Lakshadweep archipelago off the western coast, but even more so on the larger Andaman and Nicobar archipelago on the other eastern side of the Bay of Bengal at the head of the Malacca Strait.

This has also involved support facilities with sympathetic partners like Oman (Duqm), Iran (Chabahar), Madagascar, Mauritius, and Singapore. A common sub-theme is India trying to avert Chinese penetration of Indian Ocean micro-island states and littorals, where China’s Maritime Silk Road (MSR) is considered by Delhi as detrimental to Indian interests. In that vein, the Indian Navy has established Joint Exclusive Economic Zone surveillance exercises with the navies of the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius; and Coordinated Patrols (CORPATs) with the navies of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean during the 2010s also involved building up its naval assets, headed by aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. The Indian Navy currently operates one aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya (a refurbished Soviet carrier), while the second, INS Vikrant, is under construction in Cochin, ready to commence her basin trials in September 2020, due for delivery in 2021, and active commissioning expected in 2022. Both vessels have a displacement of around 45,000 tons each. A third aircraft carrier, INS Vishal, a 65,000-ton giant with 54 aircraft, is envisaged for the longer term. India’s Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh reiterated in December 2019 that the force’s long-term capability planning envisaged the induction of three aircraft carriers so that two are continuously available for deployment in the Indian Ocean Region, one by the Western Command, and one by the Eastern Command. The Indian Navy is expected to push for a grant of Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) clearance for the third carrier, the IAC- 2, soon.

This building up of India’s naval assets represents internal balancing. Yet the navy’s share in the defense budget declined from an 18 percent high in 2012 to a lower 13 percent by 2019-2020. Due to recent budget constraints, the requirement of 200 ships has been brought down to 175. Moreover, in February 2020 Chief of Defence Staff General Bain Rabat indicated that in competitions for resources the acquisition of new submarines might take priority over aircraft carriers.

An Indian Navy flotilla of the Western Fleet escorts carriers INS Vikramaditya (R33) and INS Viraat (R22) in the Arabian Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

Thirdly, Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean in the 2010s involved strengthening cooperation in the Indian Ocean with other significant external (U.S. and Japan) and internal (France, Australia, and Indonesia) actors. Diplomatic milestones for this line of effort include:

All three elements of India’s maritime strategy are implicit levers to constrain and manage the otherwise growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. This implicit leverage was demonstrated at the start of 2020 at the Raisina Dialogue, held January 14-16, which included a panel titled “Fluid Fleets: Navigating Tides of Revision in the Indo-Pacific.” On the panel, India’s Chief of Naval Staff Karambir Singh sat alongside Australia’s Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Vice Admiral David Johnston, Japan’s Chief of Staff, General Koji Yamazaki, France’s Deputy Director of Strategy at the French Ministry of the Armed Forces, Luc de Rancourt, and the U.K.’s Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin. At that discussion, Admiral Singh noted of China that “they have seven to eight warships in the Indian Ocean at any given time [.…] We are watching. If anything impinges on us, we will act”; to which he gave the then-recent example of the Indian Navy escorting Chinese ships out of their sensitive Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in December 2019.

During 2020, two unexpected events signally affected India’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean. In retrospect it was no surprise that the biannual Naval Commanders’ Conference held in August 2020 particularly focused on the entry and operations of “extra-regional” forces (read: China) in the Indian Ocean Region, and operational procurements. The Ministry of Defence said that the Commanders Conference “assumes greater significance in the backdrop of recent events on our northern borders [Galwan] and the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19.” Both of these issues are affecting India’s maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean. 

COVID-19 and Its Impact

COVID-19 first hit India in January 2020, with national lockdowns introduced in March, but cases were still spreading rapidly. Current figures recorded in late September listed India as having 5,487,580 confirmed cases, second only to the U.S.’ 6,883,931. India’s confirmed COVID-19 deaths number at 87,882 (third behind U.S.’ 200,710 and Brazil’s 136,895). The resulting impact of COVID-19 on Indian maritime strategy for the Indian Ocean has been fivefold.

Firstly, it disrupted basin trials of India’s second aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, due in September 2020, with commissioning now delayed until September 2021. Secondly, Indian regional naval diplomacy was disrupted as the biannual MILAN itineration, due to be held in March 2020, was cancelled. In one sense this was a setback for Indian naval diplomacy, yet after a record number of invites (41, but not including Pakistan or China) and acceptances (over 30), it still showed India’s increased status in the Indian Ocean in 2020.

COVID-19 also meant that the INDRA exercises with Russia in September 2020 were restricted to at-sea only. Nevertheless, India’s readiness (matched by Russia) to deploy two warships and a supply tanker in the Bay of Bengal indicated India’s natural focus and locational advantage in these waters. They also were subtle message for China that its close links were not exclusive, and that China could not necessarily rely on Russia in any China-India conflict.

The pandemic enabled India to extend COVID-related assistance to various Indian Ocean states. This was on show in June 2020 with Mission Sagar, which India claimed was “a major milestone in India’s engagement with Indian Ocean region countries.” There, the landing ship INS Kesari was sent to the Maldives, Mauritius, Comoros, Seychelles, and Madagascar, complete with teams of healthcare professionals, medicines, and food onboard to help with pandemic response. Meanwhile, India’s naval might was on show in Operation Samudra Setu (Sea Bridge), in May 2020. There, INS Jalaswa and INS Magar, dispatched from India’s Southern Command at Kochi and escorted by other warships of the Western Fleet, brought back over 600 COVID-threatened Indian citizens from the Maldives.

Structurally, India slid into marked economic downturn as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated during summer 2020. Its economy shrank 23.9 percent year-on-year in the second quarter of 2020. A 4.2 percent GDP growth for 2019-2020 (in slow decline since January 2018) is already set to be replaced by a negative 3.2 percent figure in 2020-2021. The result is that India’s capitalization program is under threat, and the drive to initiate a three-aircraft carrier program is threatened with delay at best and cancellation at worst.

Galwan and its Impact

The second major challenge facing India in 2020 was deadly confrontation with China. This was sharpest at the Galwan Valley, where China objected to Indian moves up the valley. Confrontation between forces escalated in mid-June 2020, with 20 Indian soldiers reported as killed in direct fighting with Chinese troops.

Eventual pullbacks of forces were halting and uneasily carried out in late July, but with further warnings coming from India on August 30. The Foreign Ministers’ joint press statement released by Jaishankar and Wang Yi may have had a five-point plan of action, but hardly represents something new, and left vague calls for “new confidence building measures” without any substance. Yet clearly India’s focus firmly remains on its land frontier, and the swathe of confrontation points that have opened up. The Indian Parliament was updated by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on September 15:

“As of now, the Chinese side has mobilized a large number of troops and armaments along the LAC as well as in the depth areas. There are several friction areas in Eastern Ladakh including Gogra, Kongka La and North and South Banks of the Pangong Lake. In response to China’s actions, our armed forces have also made appropriate counter deployments in these areas to ensure that India’s security interests are fully protected.”

However, the extended confrontation and continuing standoff at Galwan has had an ambiguous two-fold impact on Indian strategy for the Indian Ocean. On the one hand this has contributed to a further deterioration in India-China relations, both at the government level, and in terms of wider public opinion. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean is all the more perceived in India as a threat to Indian interests, and part of a disadvantageous encirclement policy by China and an increasingly encircled position for India. On the other hand, the extended land confrontation and growing friction along the Himalayas reinforces a landward imperative and encourages reinforcement of India’s army and air force presence along its northern flank, which could come at the expense of naval acquisitions.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, center, visits Ladakh in July 2020 after deadly clashes between Chinese and Indian troops (Indian Press Information Bureau)

In the wake of Galwan, India has accelerated weapons purchases. India’s Ministry of Defence announced on July 2 that “in the current situation and the need to strengthen the Armed Forces for the defence of our borders” arms procurement projects worth U.S.$5.55 billion were approved. These included long-range land-attack missile systems with a range of 1,000 kilometres and Astra missiles featuring beyond visual range capability. Both “will bolster the attack capabilities of the Navy,” and “will serve as a force multiplier and immensely add to the strike capability of the Navy.”

The Indian Navy argument is that Chinese aggression in the Himalayas generates the need for a stronger Indian position in the Indian Ocean, in the face of related Chinese expansion there. Even as India reinforced its troop levels on its northern flank, simultaneously in the wake of Galwan, India’s navy was deploying more actively and dispatched in greater strength around the Malacca Strait. The navy thereby demonstrating India’s potential to threaten China’s sea lines of communication, the so-called Malacca Dilemma facing Beijing. The Indian Navy has also been pushing a sense of urgency for “Acceptance of Necessity” (AoN) for a third aircraft carrier, which has been pending since 2015.

Certainly, India has immediately sought to strengthen its own position in the Indian Ocean, through an extra focus on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The geopolitical and military value of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands remain tangible. In conjunction with the Indian littoral and the Eastern Command at Vishvakapman, India’s possession of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands provides a firm enclosure of the Bay of Bengal, and a chokepoint onto the Malacca Strait.

Location of the Andaman islands, found east of India and northwest of the Malacca Strait (Wikimedia Commons)

Consequently, exercises in which several destroyers and frigates were joined by maritime patrol aircraft were conducted around the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in July 2020. Headed by the Eastern Command naval chief Rear Admiral Sanjay Vatsayan, units came from the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), the Eastern Naval Command, and with some warships deployed near the Malacca Strait also taking part. Submarine hunting Poseidon-8I aircraft, complete with Harpoon Block-II missiles, torpedoes, rockets, and depth charges were dispatched from their base at INS Rajali naval air station in Arakkonam (Tamil Nadu). They were seen as sending “a signal to China” according to the Times of India on July 18.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a point of visiting the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in August 2020. This marked a explicit focus on the strategic importance of these islands by Modi:

“The Indian Ocean has been the centre of India’s trade and strategic prowess for thousands of years. Now that India is following the new policy and practice of trade and cooperation in Indo-Pacific, the importance of our islands including Andaman and Nicobar has increased further.”

Extending Strategic Cooperation in the Indian Ocean with France, Japan, Australia, and the U.S.

A tacit development since Galwan has been a push by India to strengthen its partnerships with other powers operating in the Indian Ocean that also have concerns about China’s assertiveness.

India’s support from the U.S. in the Indian Ocean continued to strengthen in 2020. India was more than happy with U.S. endorsement in February 2020 in their Strategic Convergence in the Indo-Pacific (part of their “Vision and Principles” Joint Statement) that “the United States appreciates India’s role as a net provider of security, as well as developmental and humanitarian assistance in the Indian Ocean Region.” The term “net provider of security” describes India as taking a leading regional role and providing security for others beyond India’s own immediate needs. Delivery of advanced American-made Sikorsky anti-submarine helicopters, with China in mind, was accelerated in May 2020. July 2020 also witnessed naval drills with the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group in the Andaman Sea.

India’s relationship with France has also deepened. The two navies conducted joint patrols around Reunion in March 2020. These joint activities with France represent an operationalization of the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA) that India signed with France in 2018. The LSA has expanded the presence and the type of naval operations that the Indian Navy is able to undertake in the Southwestern Indian Ocean, given that France has military facilities on the islands of La Réunion, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Atlantic Lands – all of which could now be used by India. India can also now tap into France’s base at Djibouti. This in effect further extends India’s strategic footprint and effective area of operation in the Indian Ocean further southward and westward.

June 2020 saw Indian Navy ships INS Rana and INS Kulish exercising with the Japanese Navy ships, JS Kashima and JS Shimayuki. A significant logistics development was the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) signed in September 2020 between India and Japan. This will enable closer cooperation with Japan in the Indian Ocean, with Japanese access to the Andaman and Nicobar islands being likely, reciprocated with Indian access to Japan’s base at Djibouti.

Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force sailors look upon INS Rana during a joint exercise in June 2020 (Photo via JMSDF Twitter)

Relations with Australia moved forward noticeably in 2020. Their summit in June 2020 witnessed their joint Shared Vision for Maritime Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. It also witnessed their Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA). From India’s point of view this enables Indian use of military facilities on Australian territory in the Eastern Indian Ocean, notably Christmas Island and Cocos Island. This in effect further extends India’s strategic footprint and effective area of operation in the Indian Ocean further eastward. INS Sahyadri and INS Karmuk also carried out anti-air bilateral exercises with the Australian Navy in the eastern Indian Ocean in September.

India has also further strengthened its strategic position in the Indian Ocean with two new trilaterals.

The first India-France-Australia trilateral dialogue was held in September 2020. Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary of India, met French and Australian counterparts, held virtually due to the pandemic. Their stated focus was “economic and geostrategic challenges and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” explicitly with regard to the pandemic, but also implicitly with regard to China. Their mutual support for the Indian Ocean Regional Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Commission (IOC) was stated, as was their common focus on “synergizing their respective strengths to ensure a peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific region.” The advantage for India in this new minilateral is that it reduces naval dependence on just cooperation channeled via the United States.

Another new minilateral in the offing. In early September it was announced that External Affairs Minister Jaishankar would be meeting for an upcoming meeting with his Indonesian and Australian Foreign Minister counterparts, with agreement set on maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

A final impending effect of India’s confrontation with China at Galwan is a sense of India now withdrawing its previous hesitations over allowing Australia to participate in the trilateral MALABAR naval exercises currently held between India, the U.S., and Japan. The expected invite to Australia for the next MALABAR exercise in the Bay of Bengal, in Fall 2020, represents Indian acceptance of the so-called “Quad” taking on some military dimensions.


Paradoxically, though COVID-19 has weakened India’s economic ability to fund its naval infrastructure and assets program for the Indian Ocean, it has enabled India to strengthen its links with Indian Ocean micro-states through the humanitarian assistance delivered by the navy. Meanwhile, land confrontation with China at Galwan has encouraged India to deepen its military links with other maritime powers operating in the Indian Ocean. In an unstated but evident balancing fashion, this is enabling India to improve its maritime position in the Indian Ocean vis-à-vis China.

David Scott is an associate member of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies. A prolific writer on maritime geopolitics, he can be contacted at

Featured Image: Indian Navy destroyer INS Kochi enters Port Victoria, Seychelles. (Photo via Indian Navy spokesperson Twitter)

The Pathway Toward Containment: Fleet Actions for the United States and ASEAN Plus 5

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Captain Gregory W. Snyder, USMC

The ongoing territorial disputes playing out in the South and East China Seas offer useful case studies for determining what nations in the western Pacific can do differently to counter malign Chinese actions. Additionally, the United States has a variety of options to employ all of its sea services to help support its allies and partners in the region.

An analysis of the collaborative measures against piracy in and around the Gulf of Aden indicates that multinational efforts can yield tangible results. NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield, the European Union’s Operation Atalanta, and the United States’ Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151) are all models that steadily drove down piracy in and around the Horn of Africa over the last decade. A sustained presence by vessels and aircraft from various nations did much to deter piracy in those waters. Where there were attempts of piracy, those coalition forces were in a position to take measures to protect commercial shipping, ensuring the safety of those merchant crews and preventing the disruption of global commerce.

A major problem that presents itself currently in the South China Sea is that China has failed to observe the 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration. This ruling stated that China has no right to the territory as depicted by the “nine-dash line.” Unsurprisingly since then, China has continued to harass vessels in international waters and violate the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) of its Southeast Asian neighbors, including in the conduct of commercial fishing and energy resource exploration. Further inflaming regional tensions, China has built artificial islands hosting military outposts, seemingly demonstrating China’s ambition to claim this territory as its own. Compounding the issues are the predatory economic and political means in which China is enticing other nations into enabling its Belt and Road Initiative. Offering overinflated credit to less developed countries in order to fund infrastructure projects, China bets on the debtor country to default on the loan. Then based upon the negotiated terms, China is entitled to additional compensation or rights to specific infrastructure such as a port or railway. Many of the countries China is investing in include Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states.

A way to combat this grey zone competition is to engage ASEAN member nations with a few additional countries, including more powerful partners. ASEAN plus 6 features the ASEAN member nations with the addition of China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand. As China continues to ostracize other nations, the United States should focus on an ASEAN plus 5 model for developing a coalition enabling training and operations within the Western Pacific. In a recent Proceedings article, retired Rear Admiral Sudarshan Shrikhande of the Indian Navy calls for a similar approach in which containing China should be focused on growing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or the “Quad.” With this, he goes on to emphasize the need for the participating members of Australia, Japan, India, and the United States to coordinate more with one another as well as with other Asian democracies in order to counter China in the region.

In order to counter Chinese influence, smaller powers like Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines should expect security assistance and assured backing from the medium powers as well as the United States. The U.S. and medium powers must support the smaller powers in addressing violations of international treaties and laws on the high seas both with forces present, ashore, and afloat, in the region as well as with leveraging intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations. In doing so, the U.S. and medium powers gain access and clout in the region that mutually benefits them and the smaller countries. Coalition efforts may deter Chinese actions better than unilateral efforts and will provide strategic forward deployment, advanced warning, and increased intelligence in the case of conflict. In fact, just recently the western Pacific nation of Palau is requesting that the U.S. Department of Defense build installations on its territory to counter Chinese influence in the region. The smaller powers currently face aggressive and coercive actions by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and require support to effectively counter such actions. These nations cannot compete with or deter a rapidly modernizing and expanding Chinese military.

As the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) currently conducts generally unconstrained operations in the South China Sea, local forces are qualitatively and quantitatively inferior, leaving few options for retaliation or countermeasures. Submitting grievances to international bodies has shown to have no effect on Chinese actions, especially after China dismissed the Permanent Court of Arbitration findings in 2016. In addition, smaller powers involved in the Belt and Road Initiative may find it harder to raise such grievances due to China’s economic influence and direct holdings. For example, although the Philippines has contested the legality of China’s claims over the Scarborough Shoal, any action to assert their sovereignty must consider the fact that Chinese firms own a significant portion of the power grid that supports the Philippine capital city of Manila. This is an excellent opportunity for those member nations of ASEAN plus 5 to support one another. The defensive forces of the region can work together to help the smaller nations maintain their sovereign borders while the medium powers and the U.S. can step in economically to offer non-predatory infrastructure agreements.

The U.S. must apply the same coalition model that successfully eliminated piracy in the Gulf of Aden to the current challenge in the South China Sea. A coalition of the ASEAN plus 5 nations could employ all manners of naval forces and coast guard assets to perform myriad of tasks across the spectrum of operations. One example of a potential symbiotic relationship between a small and large power could be Malaysia and the United States. Consider that U.S. naval power, at large, encompasses all of the sea services (Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard). In the conduct of ongoing grey zone operations, this is a perfect environment where the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) can add true value. The benefit to the USCG operating in the area is directly tied to their missions, specifically, maritime law enforcement (to include international law and treaties as well as fisheries law enforcement), maritime safety, and search and rescue.

A program could be developed to partner USCG detachments or units with local Malaysian Navy, Coast Guard, or maritime police units. This construct would be similar to the terms Advise and Assist (A2) or Advise, Assist, and Accompany (A3) used in the special operations community, or the short-lived Naval Civil Affairs units. From a messaging perspective, the use of law enforcement units would likely be less inflammatory than engagement by traditional military units. While these maritime A2 and A3 operations are ongoing, Malaysia would receive training to improve maritime domain awareness, secure their Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as have additional resources and support to aid in counter smuggling and search and rescue operations. Additionally, the USCG can help provide assessments of port infrastructure and recommend improvements.

Should the CCP and the PLA actions continue to persist and escalate, the next step involves the other two sea services and beginning to ramp up actions in the region. In this scenario, the U.S. Navy could deploy vessels with embarked USCG Law Enforcement Detachments to bolster the USCG partnering efforts in the region and perform some of the same duties already being executed. This would blunt harassment by the Chinese Coast Guard and paramilitary militia against ASEAN country-flagged vessels operating within their own EEZ or international waters. Additionally, the U.S. Marine Corps could begin recurring training evolutions on the northern portion of Borneo. International military exchanges and exercises bringing ASEAN countries together to interoperate along with the regional powers and the U.S. would signal to China that it is facing a united front against aggression in the region. This also would enable the Department of State and Department of Defense to further foreign military sales of equipment and materiel to potentially underdeveloped units from the smaller powers. Additionally, training exercises in this region are excellent opportunities for the U.S. to test, experiment, and further develop new and emerging concepts, capabilities, and technologies. This would be the best opportunity for field testing shy of actual warfare that forces, combat developers, and experimenters can achieve.

This strategy will also benefit the U.S. if current competition with China escalates into conflict. By that point, forces have come to understand each other’s capabilities and shortfalls. Liaisons have hypothetically been established, but most importantly strong relationships and likeminded attitudes have been formed and a coalition has some idea of how it should operate together after conducting multiple joint and international exercises. Additionally, the U.S. and regional powers have forward forces, bases, and proven access to various locations within the borders of those smaller powers bordering and within the contested space. Those experiences, current intelligence of the geography of those littoral environments, and established relationships are invaluable at the beginning stages of conflict. As this plays into the current U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps concepts of Distributed Maritime Operations and Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, this advanced familiarization of the physical and human geography of the area may better aid operational planners in determining where to implement sea denial or expeditionary advanced base operations. Plus, the prospect of the USCG falling under the Navy during wartime means that if kinetic operations begin, some part of the Coast Guard is already on site and awaiting tasking. It becomes less of a large-scale mobilization effort and more of a paper drill. This forward presence buys additional time for commanders in theater to make decisions because they are not waiting for additional forces and capabilities to come from CONUS to support.

The other benefit of coalition organizations and interoperability is that it makes things easier in terms of being able to exploit the strengths, ties, and relationships each individual country has with one another. The U.S. may find that it is easier to have New Zealand or Australia partner with Malaysia or Brunei due to the fact that they are both Commonwealth countries and thus already share that additional diplomatic bond. Additionally, this strategy can also occur across the ASEAN member nations simultaneously. While the U.S. is conducting training, A2 and A3 operations and foreign military sales with Malaysia, India could be doing the same with Vietnam and Japan could be engaging the Philippines. The sheer number of countries requiring engagement and partner capacity-building means that the U.S. simply cannot do it alone, nor should it.


The coalition model in the Gulf of Aden helped offset the investment the U.S. had to make in terms of military capability and national treasure. As global commerce routes travel through the Gulf of Aden, it rightfully took a globally-sourced solution to solve the situation. Now as the rules-based system is being challenged in the region of Southeast Asia, it should take a Southeast Asian solution, with outside partners offering help. Only with partners and allies can nations begin to push back the tide of revisionist China and uphold the international rule of law. 

Captain Gregory Snyder is a Logistics Officer currently serving at the Capabilities Development Directorate, Combat Development & Integration, Headquarters Marine Corps. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the United States Marine Corps or Department of Defense.

Featured Image: Delegates meet for the 32nd U.S.-ASEAN Dialogue in Washington, D.C., in March 2019. (Photo via U.S. Mission to ASEAN)

Italy Resurgent: Defending National Interests in the Mediterranean

Regional Strategies Topic Week

By Capt. (N) Renato Scarfi (ret.)


History teaches us that maritime routes are essential to economies and, since the 19th century, are absolutely necessary to support the industrial capacity of nations. However, by their very nature, maritime lines of communication are exposed to aggression by those who wish to illicitly profit from such actions or by elements wishing to hinder normal international trade. In this context, military and commercial fleets are vital to the security and prosperity of nations, particularly when, due to a country’s scarcity of resources, industrial production capacity depends on maritime imports.

As much as Italy is concerned, the vital need of imports from the sea is evident, in particular because of the choice to base the national economy on strong industrialization. Although it is geographically defined as a peninsula, Italy can be likened to an island when it comes to its strong dependence on the availability of maritime lines of communication. The seas and the oceans therefore play a central role for the Italian economy because the scarcity of raw materials forces Italy to trade with foreign countries for supply. In order to ensure that the raw materials necessary for industrial processes arrive in Italy and that resulting products can be sold, it is therefore essential to guarantee freedom of navigation along the sea routes, which are still the most affordable routes for transporting goods. 80 percent of international trade still travels on water.

But the seas and oceans around the world are full of chokepoints where boardings can be made for ransom purposes or that offer the possibility of negatively affecting maritime transit, even from land or by relatively limited naval means. Some that are the most pertinent to Italian and European interests include the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, Hormuz, and Malacca. Piracy and international tensions are active in these areas and where a possible international crisis could create the conditions for a blockade of maritime transit. In order to combat piracy, patrolling and escorting operations have been successfully launched in waters far from Italy, mainly conducted by Italian naval units embedded in multinational forces. Thanks to these interventions, pirate boardings have drastically decreased in number and effectiveness. However, the international community must continue to pay attention to those areas in order to avoid any resumption of piracy.

Still, it should be emphasized that the Mediterranean has always represented Italy’s main political preoccupation. The Mediterranean basin is, in fact, a complex system of geography, climate, culture, geopolitics, and history. The sea is large enough to accommodate many different peoples with different interests, but still small enough for events to quickly influence one another and produce universal consequences. The Mediterranean therefore plays an irreplaceable role because it is home to a network of relationships and strategic, economic, and political interests which go far beyond its geographical boundaries.

Moreover, this area of Italy’s direct interest remains a region where latent conflicts, hotspots, and tensions are widespread. These issues have their roots in unsettled political challenges, and where international terrorism and organized crime have only added more instability. These tensions grow with rising economic competition, especially now that new technology can allow nations to reach previously inaccessible and hidden resources, such as the extraction of hydrocarbons. The search for resources in the Mediterranean is making some states eager to create an ever-widening living space, often with actions that exhibit an overbearing and muscular interpretation of international norms.

Turkish Aggression

The particularly aggressive actions of Turkey, which is already politically and military very active, introduce serious risks to the balance in the basin. The Turkish military intervention across the Syrian border seems to have allowed the release of numerous jihadists previously captured by the Kurds, which triggered an influx of foreign fighters returning to Europe and adding instability to many European countries. In the conflict in Libya, Turkey resolutely took sides with Fayez al-Sarraj, employing troops and armaments on Libyan territory in support of the Government of National Agreement (GNA). The supply of armaments to GNA, despite the embargo ordered in 2011 by the United Nations, and the continuous provocative attitude recently manifested by Turkish warships, risks causing dangerous friction with the western naval ships assigned to Operation EUNAVFOR Med “Irini “(in Greek it means “peace”). Other active maritime surveillance operations in the Mediterranean added friction, such as the dangerous event recorded on June 10 during the NATO Sea Guardian maritime surveillance operation. A Turkish military ship’s radar targeted a French military unit, a NATO ally. This provocative and extremely aggressive action triggered formal French protests and a temporary withdrawal from the operation starting on July 1, and it could have triggered much more serious reactions and consequences. The event was also examined during the last NATO defense ministerial meeting, at the end of which the Secretary General communicated that the allied military authorities were instructed to provide further investigation.

Furthermore, al-Sarraj’s support allowed Ankara to sign two bilateral agreements with Tripoli on November 27, 2019, one formalizing military cooperation and one concerning the delimitation of the borders of the respective maritime Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs). In particular, the Turkish EEZ affects a large portion of Greek territorial waters, confirming the aggressive Turkish expansion plan in the eastern Mediterranean. This EEZ agreement has enormous economic implications, with the Levant Sea being dense with gas fields (among others, the Leviathan field of 450 billion m3, Zohr of 850 billion m3, and Noor estimated to triple Zohr) and the area claimed by Ankara would be an obligatory passage for any future gas pipelines going to Italy or Europe. This agreement is considered illegal by both the European Union and the United States and has raised many international legal and economic doubts. Based on this agreement, Ankara in mid-July 2020 started oil and natural gas research operations off the coast of Kastellorizo, a Greek island. The initiative, in which 17 military ships escorted a hydrographic research ship, raised Athens’ formal protests, followed by a dispatch of Greek warships to the southern and southeastern Aegean Sea.

This is the latest chapter in a tough and ongoing dispute that has lasted more than ten years on the rights to exploit the natural resources within Aegean waters. Ankara believes it has rights to the area south of Kastellorizo as part of its continental shelf, while Athens has always strongly denied it, denouncing a violation of its territorial waters. The Turkish activity, therefore, was seen as a serious threat to Greek national sovereignty over that stretch of sea. However, the joint Greek-U.S. naval exercise conducted at the end of July suggested that Ankara should withdraw from the area, but the provocation has marked a new limit where Turkey can push action next time. Less than two weeks later, as predicted, Turkey was back at sea in the same area in order to conduct naval exercises, as a military response after the formal denial of the recent agreement between Greece and Egypt related to their EEZ, which heavily influences the self-claimed Turkish EEZ.

The 2018 disputes between Turkey and ENI (Italian energy company Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi) over mining rights off the southeast coast of Cyprus mark another incident. Ankara, in an intimidating move and without legal basis, prevented drilling by the ship Saipem 12000, which had been regularly authorized by Nicosia. In this case, Turkish political will was expressed by navigating its military ships in the waters assigned to ENI, preventing it from carrying out its operations and forcing it to give up the search for hydrocarbons in that area.

Algeria and Egypt

In 2018 Algeria claimed an EEZ of 400 miles which, in a sea as small and congested as the Mediterranean, claimed the right to use marine resources to the limit of Spanish (Ibiza) and Italian (Sardinia) territorial waters, infringing on Article 74 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which states “…The delimitation of the exclusive economic zone between States with opposite or adjacent coasts shall be effected by agreement on the basis of international law, as referred to in Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice, in order to achieve an equitable solution…” The Algerian authorities, after diplomatic reactions from Spain and Italy, have declared their willingness to discuss it again with the two concerned states. But the fact remains that it would have been better to start the consultations before the unilateral act.

Broadening the horizons, another area of strategic interest is represented by northeast Africa, with instability around its chokepoints of the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Suez Canal. Ethiopia’s controversial Grand Renaissance Dam, once completed on the Nile River, will operate the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, guaranteeing Ethiopian’s energy independence and further gain through the sale of the surplus. The water coming from the Ethiopian highlands along the course of the Nile ensures about 80 percent of the average flow of the Nile which, during summer, becomes almost all the water that flows to the estuary. Over 100 million inhabitants depend more or less directly from the water of the Nile.

The filling of the reservoir means that the water will be subtracted from the normal flow of the river, causing a significant decrease in the usability of water for African countries downstream of the dam, especially Sudan and Egypt. This decrease will exacerbate the water depletion already being experienced, potentially causing serious resource, economic, and social emergencies for the populations. The issue has important national security implications for Egypt, owner of the Suez Canal, and an essential country for the maintenance of regional balances in the Mediterranean, North Africa, and the Middle East. The dispute could trigger a water war in the region that would have inevitable political and economic repercussions on Mediterranean countries.


For more than 2,000 years the Mediterranean has served as an arena for competing national interests. Any crisis or conflict in this strategically critical area risks serious repercussions on the freedom of navigation and maritime safety, with important implications on the economies of the coastal countries and to all of Europe. Being at the center of this turbulent sea, it is essential for Italy to stand ready to assert its legitimate national interests, mainly with diplomacy and with strong support for international law, but also with force if necessary.

Indeed, the alliances around the broader Mediterranean are changing with unprecedented rapidity in recent history and it is quite difficult to imagine that lasting stability will be achieved soon. The failed military coup in Turkey in July 2016 brought Ankara closer to Tehran and Moscow, accelerated the breakdown of Kemalism, and delivered absolute supremacy in internal leadership to an Erdoğan who initiated the most assertive Turkish foreign policy in the nation’s recent history. At the same time, in North Africa, Turkey and Egypt face each other’s interests in the Libyan desert while engaged in a conflict that could grow to include other actors.

In a time of global disorder and emergency it seems essential to identify the national interest and provide the navy with the appropriate tools to pursue those interests, such as the indispensable STO/VL aircraft to be embarked (F-35B), so that Italy’s aircraft carriers can reach full operational capability in order to be able to, along with the other vessels of the fleet, pursue the assigned objectives.

In a context of a worrying deterioration of the international situation in the Mediterranean basin, it seems indispensable for Italy to adopt a more active posture for the promotion of its national interests. The road to achieving a credible balance in the Mediterranean basin cannot disregard the involvement of the United States, allies, and friends whose support is indispensable, but whose attention is currently focused mainly on the Indo-Pacific, China, and Russia. Italy must stand ready, as one of the most advanced countries on the basin, to guarantee freedom of navigation and the protection of its national interests in order to guarantee respect for international law.

Captain Renato Scarfi entered the Italian Naval Academy in 1977. As a junior grade lieutenant he attended the U.S. Navy Pilot Training Program in Pensacola, FL, and Corpus Christi, TX, where he gained the Navy Wings for multi-engine fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. After the Staff Officer Course in Leghorn, Italy, he served on the Defence General Staff, the Navy General Staff (Plans and Policy), the Joint Operation Headquarters (JOHQ) as Head of Crisis management section, and in the cabinet of the Ministry of Defense as Senior Military Assistant of the Diplomatic Advisor of the Minister. He has degrees in international relations, maritime strategies, and international anti-terrorism. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defence or the Italian government.

Featured Image: Italian Navy aircraft carrier Cavour (Wikimedia Commons)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.