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)

Bilge Pumps 16 – Blowing Up the Pacific with Dr. Matt Carter

By Alex Clarke

Dr. Matt Carter, our special guest, is a maritime archaeologist and the Research Director for the Major Projects Foundation. He is an International Fellow of the Explorers Club and has worked on and led maritime archaeological projects in 12 different countries. Matt describes himself as passionate about combining his archaeological training and commercial and technical diving qualifications to investigate potentially polluting wrecks throughout the Pacific – a very worthy cause indeed.

So after all that, what is Episode 16 about? Well the #Bilgepumps team is being topical of course, so with all the problems of underwater archeology and potential disaster relief, the real question is will Alex or Drach crack the first bad joke or pun?

#Bilgepumps is a still newish series and new avenue, although it may no longer have the new car smell, in fact more of pineapple/irn bru smell, with the faint whiff of cork– but we’re getting the impression it’s liked, so we’d very much like any comments, topic suggestions or ideas for artwork to be tweeted to us, the #Bilgepump crew (with #Bilgepumps), at Alex (@AC_NavalHistory), Drach (@Drachinifel), and Jamie (@Armouredcarrier). Or you can comment on our Youtube channels (listed down below). 

Bilge Pumps 16 – Blowing Up the Pacific with Dr. Matt Carter


Alex Clarke is the producer of The Bilge Pumps podcast.

Contact the CIMSEC podcast team at

Unraveling China with Soft Balancing: Malaysia, ASEAN, and the South China Sea

Regional Strategies Topic Week 

By Afdal Izal


The South China Sea has always been a sensitive and thorny issue for the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since its establishment on August 8, 1967 with its five founding members, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore, ASEAN has treaded carefully. This includes the conflicts and disputes witnessed during its 53 years of engagement, dialogue, cooperation, and the later inclusion of five other members that has been the bedrock of its members’ foreign policy. In the following years, Brunei, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and finally Vietnam (as well as inviting Timor Leste as an observer) make up what ASEAN is today. The pillars of the ASEAN Community include the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC), ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) that was created in 2015 as a signal for how far  ASEAN members have progressed since the organization’s inception more than 50 years ago.

As dynamic as the international community and regional bloc is today, can ASEAN continue to make its relations work in spite of the great power rivalry near its shores? Will each member nation play by the “ASEAN way” and with “ASEAN centrality” when it comes to navigating the might of the U.S. and China? Malaysia offers an interesting case study, and especially in the context of ASEAN’s historical background and recent developments. Previous strategies and actions by Malaysia and ASEAN merit closer examination, as well as the PLA Navy’s maritime overreach in the South China Sea. This will go to show how small and medium powers could play a role in the grander scheme of great power rivalries.

Malaysia’s Example 

Malaysia, a nation of only 33 million citizens with 4,809 kilometers of coastline, has porous maritime borders and is open to many traditional and non-traditional security threats. As a member of ASEAN, it is strategically located in the heart of ASEAN’s 10 member nations that encompass 650 million citizens.

Looking back on Malaysia’s history as a maritime empire during the pre-colonization age of 1500s, the Malay sultanate of Malacca had decent relations with the Ming Dynasty of China. The eunuch Admiral Zheng He (known as Cheng Ho in Malaysia) docked several times in Malacca, which was a tributary state to the Ming Dynasty. The Emperor of China saw Malacca as an important trading partner, and when it was conquered by the Portuguese commander Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511, the Chinese demonstrated their rage by brutally executing Portuguese diplomats based in Peking.

In the 20th century, Malaysia was the first ASEAN nation to normalize relations with Mao Zedong’s China, despite having communist insurgents within Malaysian borders. Malaysia’s second Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein made a strategic move where Malaysia needed China to counterbalance the communist threat within its own country. In 1989, communist threats in Malaysia ended with a peace agreement with the Communist Party of Malaya (PKM) signed on the border of Malaysia and Thailand. This was a clear indication of Malaysia’s success in keeping China as a friend while mitigating communism in its own lands. Decades later in 2018, the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, commented that China in medieval times was a strategic partner for Malacca and will continue to be an important friend for modern day Malaysia. “The Europeans came to Asia for a number of times, and decided to conquer and exploit our wealth and spices in the Far East. How can we trust the Europeans? China came as a friend and helped us grow,” Tun Mahathir further commented.

It is no secret that despite Malaysia’s stance against certain U.S. actions in its war on terror and invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, its ideals are based on American dreams. Even its flag is almost similar to the star spangled banner, or Jalur Gemilang as the Malaysian flag’s nom de guerre, or “Stripes of Glory,” as it is known. Malaysia’s Declaration of Independence is also based on the American declaration after gaining its independence from Great Britain’s empire. These historical linkages are significant as the U.S. is important for Malaysia and ASEAN, even when there are disagreements on American foreign policy and military actions.

This strategy is known as “soft balancing.” Malaysia and ASEAN cannot compete militarily nor economically with the U.S. and China, and it cannot mistakenly begin to choose sides or pick which one will win or lose. In this sense, ASEAN’s Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) signed in 1971 by its foreign ministers have worked to the region’s advantage. It is well-known that ASEAN was established to counteract the domino effect around when the U.S. began occupying Vietnam, and it had its own rivalries between democratic and communist governments that featured Soviet-backed North Vietnam, Mao’s China, and other communist allies. After South Vietnam fell Malaysia and ASEAN did not witness a domino effect and communist victory did not threaten the democracy of other Southeast Asian states. Vietnam successfully rebuilt after the war and normalized relations with the U.S. several decades later.

China’s divide and conquer strategy with ASEAN members and especially with South China Sea claimants like Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have thus far worked by having proxies play out China’s bidding within ASEAN. In 2012, it was unprecedented that ASEAN could not agree on a Joint Communique with regard to ASEAN’s stance on the South China Sea. Members of ASEAN heavily reliant on China’s wealth and investment overturned the region’s overall commitment to maintain its ZOPFAN strategies. Yet being neutral and friendly to all is what makes ASEAN effective. Can ASEAN recalibrate once again?

ASEAN, Malaysia, and China 

Malaysia sent a unilateral submission to the United Nations on December 2019 on claims of its South China Sea Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which also overlaps with China’s and Vietnam’s claims. It was expected by the Malaysian government that China will heavily and strongly protest the claims by Malaysia. However, the submission also gave mixed signals and confused observers of the region, commenting that it puts a dent on Malaysia and Vietnam’s 2009 joint submission on the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

Earlier in 2020, Malaysia’s national oil and gas company Petroliam Nasional Berhad (PETRONAS) contracted and deployed the drillship West Capella, which not only provoked China but spawned a three-way standoff between Malaysia, China, and Vietnam. Malaysia choose this path and ignored the 2009 joint submission with Vietnam and undermined ASEAN solidarity to a degree. Yet Malaysia’s actions were also praised from some quarters, since prior to this it behaved cautiously when it comes to disagreements with China in the South China Sea.

Claimants of the South China Sea should adhere and accept any decisions similar to the 2016 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitrations that ruled in favor of the Philippines. The ruling decided that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the “nine-dash line.” Secondly, the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Seas (UNCLOS) does not provide for a group of islands such as the Spratly Islands to generate maritime zones collectively as a unit. Third, China had breached its obligations under the convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea and Article 94 of UNCLOS maritime safety. Finally, China violated its obligations to refrain from aggravating or extending the parties disputes during the pendency of the settlement process. It was not a surprise that China rejected the arbitration and continues to extend its operations deep into the South China Sea.

However, if China is to earn the respect worthy of a superpower it so craves then it should seek cooperation and collaboration in the much-stalled Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. China needs to earn the trust of its neighbors and friends, otherwise continued aggression could put China at the losing end of the disagreement in the long term as other nations refuse joint ventures within the resource-rich South. China should set a good example, and it could also work closely with other claimants of the South China Sea by promoting collaborative efforts toward shared prosperity. ASEAN has always believed in the prosper-thy-neighbor approach, where a thriving and stable community will spur growth to other corners of the region.

ASEAN and China

China unequivocally understands that having a strong military and a powerful PLA Navy will make it formidable in global affairs. China began modernizing its navy after experiencing rapid economic growth in the immediate post-Cold War era, and is projected to muster 360 battle force ships against the U.S. Navy’s 297 by the end of 2020. It is projected to further increase to 400 battle ships in 2025 and 425 by 2030. Its capabilities in naval ships, aircraft, and weapons are comparable to those of major Western navies. Finally, the PLA Navy is modernizing on multiple fronts, including maintenance and logistics, doctrine, personnel quality, education and training, and exercises, and it is quickly addressing deficiencies in these areas while simultaneously expanding its Coast Guard as well.

The navies of ASEAN member states will never come close to the PLA Navy. Yet ASEAN is still attempting to maintain China as an important strategic partner, especially economically, and at the same time reap the second-hand benefits of U.S. security guarantees to other regional actors. China has promoted the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) and the Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) which are both worth a staggering $6 trillion from 2013-2018 in trade between China and BRI countries, and investments have totaled $110 billion so far. With this amount of investment and trade, China and ASEAN will be working closer than ever even as China’s naval predominance grows.

ASEAN’s partner dialogues such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN Defense Ministerial Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus, as well as East Asia Summit (EAS) are effective and important platforms for ASEAN to have some access and influence with great powers, who are important members of these multilateral gatherings. If ASEAN continues to see that China’s self-interest supersedes the interest of the regional and global communities, China’s grip could be untangled with an approach of a “soft-silk strategy,” where individual nations need not pursue hardline policies and are free to pursue their own soft-balancing approaches. But collectively, ASEAN members and partners commit to work together and influence Chinese behavior toward a more cooperative nature.


If China follows the international rule of law it will grow stronger and become more respected. Its growing integration with the region need not be accompanied by a growing sense of mistrust. China needs ASEAN to maintain its growth, and ASEAN needs China and the U.S. for both growth and security, respectively. Once this is understood and reflected in the policies of great powers, new dynamics will not only benefit ASEAN Members, but ultimately China and the U.S. as well.

Afdal Izal is a Researcher on Asia Pacific Security with focus on maritime security and the balancing of great powers in Southeast Asia, specifically in the South China Sea. He is a PhD Candidate at the Graduate School of International Relations, International University of Japan.

Featured Image: Myanmar UMS King Sin Phyu Shin (F14) during  exercise Milan 2018 (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.