Category Archives: Indo-Asia-Pacific

Working with Dulles: An Insider’s Account of the Taiwan Straits Crisis

This article originally featured in The Foreign Service Journal and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Marshall Green

Diplomatic biographer Sir Harold Nicolson once wrote that the worst kind of diplomatists are zealots, lawyers, and missionaries; the best kind are humane skeptics. In his first years as secretary of state, John Foster Dulles seemed to fall clearly in the first category. He was a dyed-in-the-wool lawyer with Cold War missionary zeal. For him, Soviet aggressive moves toward the West invited “massive retaliation”; neutrals were “immoral”; and his policies and acts gave rise to a new term in diplomacy: “brinkmanship.” He was also associated in the minds of many Foreign Service officers with Senator McCarthy and his ilk, who pilloried the Foreign Service and hounded out of office several of our best China specialists whose only “crime” was the accuracy of their reports out of China during World War II, predicting the decline of the Chinese Nationalists under Generalissimo Chiang and the rise of Mao’s Communists.

I came to see a rather different Dulles when I was his working-level action officer during the Taiwan Straits crisis of 1958. My involvement in China policy dates back to 1956, when I was assigned as regional planning adviser in the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs, which was then headed by Walter Robertson. Robertson was the quintessential Virginia gentleman, a banker by profession, who had powerful connections in the administration and Congress. His overriding interest in world affairs was to uphold the position of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as president of all of China, even though the “Gimo” and his forces had fled the mainland in 1949 to take refuge on Taiwan, China’s island province. For several months in 1958, I had chaired a small working-level interagency task force (State, Defense, and CIA) established by the White House to examine U.S. capabilities to cope with two or more simultaneous military crises in various parts of the world. One of the task force scenarios related to a Chinese Communist (Chicom) aerial or artillery interdiction of the Quemoy island group, held by one-third of the Nationalist forces, though located just a few miles off the shore of mainland China.

When, in fact, an artillery interdiction was launched against the Quemoy and Matsu islands on August 23, 1958, I was able that same day to have on Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Parson’s desk our agreed task force recommendations on U.S. countermeasures. These recommendations called for a cautious escalation of U.S. naval and air support operations, as necessary, to protect Taiwan from a Communist takeover. Parson and Robertson approved the recommendations, which were forwarded to Dulles. However, Robertson commented to me, the United States would, of course, never make first use of nuclear weapons. I found this remark rather astonishing, coming from one of our leading hawks.

Dulles, flying down from his vacation retreat on Duck Island in the St. Lawrence River, immediately called a meeting in his office. He had read our recommendations, but his first concern was legal. What were U.S. defense obligations toward Quemoy and Matsu? What restrictions applied to the involvement of U.S. forces in their defense?

These small offshore islands were not included in the U.S.-Republic of China Mutual Defense Treaty’s definition of the treaty area, but a subsequent joint resolution of Congress in January 1955, at the time of the first Taiwan Straits crisis, had authorized the president to employ U.S. armed forces in the protection of not just Taiwan and the Pescadores but also “related positions and territories in that area.”

Dulles had no difficulty in making a legal case that the joint resolution covered the offshore islands in this crisis, since Peking, in attacking them, announced that its objective was Taiwan. The president and congressional leaders agreed. Establishing rules for the engagement of U.S. forces was more difficult. The Quemoy group was so close to mainland shore batteries that they could be blanketed with enemy shells, although there was no evidence of any impending Chicom landing operation against the islands. In fact, the shelling occurred immediately before the typhoon season, when amphibious operations would have been most precarious. It was fairly clear that Peking did not want to take the islands unless, in doing so, it brought down the government in Taiwan.

Peking’s evident intent was interdiction of the offshore islands: to prevent provisions, including food and ammunition, from reaching the defenders, thereby wearing them down to the point of surrender which in turn would precipitate a collapse of morale on Taiwan and a takeover from within by the Communists. The problem therefore came down to one of resupplying the embattled Quemoy group, a task that was beyond the capability of the Nationalist navy, which was not only poorly led at that time but had to contend with incessant bombardment, rough seas, and alleged 27-foot waves in landing supplies on the islands. Thus it was arranged that the U.S. Navy would escort Chinese resupply convoys to a point three miles offshore from Quemoy but would not enter Quemoy’s territorial waters. Nationalist vessels had to cover the last three miles on their own, loaded with supplies including shells for Quemoy’s howitzers.

Dulles, acting under President Eisenhower’s instructions, decided against U.S. air operations in the Taiwan Straits and reached agreement with Taipei that U.S. and Nationalist planes would not overfly mainland China, thereby ruling out air attacks on Chicom shore batteries. One important reason for this decision was that there was no way of silencing these batteries short of nuclear weapons or extensive air-drops of napalm bombs, actions President Eisenhower strongly opposed, as did Dulles. It was also increasingly apparent that Chicom air capability was being used with great restraint, there being no bombing of any Nationalist-held territories.

Our limited rules of engagement also reflected awareness of the lack of support in the United States for getting involved in a war over distant islands that “weren’t worth the life of a single American boy.” Nor did we have international support beyond that of the Republic of China on Taiwan, South Korea, and South Vietnam. Governments of key nations allied to the United States, such as Great Britain and Japan, were correctly restrained in their criticisms, but public opinion in these countries was highly averse to U.S. involvement.

Secretary Dulles accordingly was bent on finding some diplomatic course of action to bring the fighting to a halt. He set little store by what the periodic U.S.-People’s Republic of China ambassadorial-level talks in Warsaw could achieve on this issue, though he appreciated that public awareness of these talks forestalled criticisms that the United States was out of diplomatic contact with the Peking government on this and other issues.

Very early on the morning of September 7, I received a phone call from Dulles, who had evidently had a restless night. He suggested that it might be best for the United States to take the issue to the United Nations, since the General Assembly would be reconvening the following week. Dulles mentioned the possibility of having the British and French introduce a resolution in the UN Security Council calling for a UN-supervised cease-fire and neutralization of the offshore islands. I was strongly opposed to this suggestion, which both Peking and Taipei would reject out of hand. It would impose great strains on our relations with Taipei, which in turn might strengthen the case for Peking occupying China’s seat in the UN.

However, I said nothing about all this to Dulles over the phone but replied that he would have our bureau’s reactions as soon as possible. I immediately prepared a memorandum, approved by Jeff Parsons and signed by Robertson, pointing out the negative factors entailed in the secretary’s suggestion and alternatively recommending that we ask the British and French to introduce a UN resolution welcoming Washington’s and Peking’s discussions of this issue at Warsaw and urging that Peking and Taipei resolve this issue without further resort to force. Also included in Robertson’s memorandum was a suggestion that our side might at some point in the near future take unilateral and unannounced moves, such as shifting our regular Taiwan Straits patrols farther away from Chicom territorial waters, with the Nationalists suspending artillery fire from Quemoy, to see whether this invited any reciprocal moves from the Communist side.

However, before any of these strategies could be pursued, our attention focused on the immediate, urgent issue of Quemoy running out of supplies. The daily consumption of supplies by the 80,000 troops and 45,000 civilians on Quemoy was estimated at 700 tons and yet, since August 23, only 125 tons had been delivered. This appalling record was ascribed to all the usual reasons—bad weather, tidal conditions, heavy shelling—but it also occurred to some in Washington that Taipei was deliberately holding back, or providing us with false figures, in an effort to get the United States more involved in the islands’ defense.

Our Joint Chiefs of Staff could see no reason why, with the exercise of guts and ingenuity, the Nationalists, under existing rules of engagement, could not off-load up to 1,000 tons of supplies a day under favorable weather conditions. Admiral Burke recommended new ways of delivering supplies, including floating them ashore. Over the next two weeks there was some improvement in deliveries but not enough to prevent an alarming diminution of food and ammunition on the Quemoys. By September 28, Taipei reported that only a few days of supplies remained. Cables from the U.S. embassy in Taipei were full of dire warnings.

At this point Secretary Dulles decided to go to New York to take the issue to the UN along the lines he had suggested over the phone on September 7. However, the very day he left for New York, I received word from the CIA that a reliable report had just been received from Quemoy stating that its supply situation was nowhere near as desperate as we had been led to believe. There were several weeks of supplies on hand in the extensive network of tunnels on Quemoy.

Robertson asked me to deliver this information in person to Acting Secretary Christian Herter, who immediately called a meeting in his office. There it was decided that I should go to New York to bring these developments to the attention of Dulles, with a recommendation from Herter that the secretary might wish to postpone any UN initiative.

I was met in New York by UN Ambassador Philip Crowe, who took me early the following day to the secretary’s suite in the Waldorf. When Dulles heard our reports, he canceled scheduled meetings with the British and French ambassadors to the UN, returned to Washington, and called a meeting that evening at his house. There, Admiral Burke was very upbeat on prospects for resupplying the Quemoys, mentioning for the first time in my hearing the fact that two of the Navy’s huge landing ship docks (LSDs) were about to arrive in the Taiwan Straits. These could contain dozens of amphibious landing craft, manned by trained Nationalist crews, which would run up on the shores of Quemoy with supplies.

Meanwhile, spirits on Taiwan had been lifted by the deadly effectiveness of several Nationalist fighter aircraft on patrol, whose U.S.-provided Sidewinders downed five MIG-17s. It was against this background that Peking radio announced on October 6 that it was temporarily suspending its bombardment of the offshores, emphasizing that its action was taken to spare the lives of Chinese compatriots inhabiting those islands. Our side immediately reciprocated by suspending U.S. convoy activities and modifying our naval patrol routes in the Taiwan Straits.

The outlook remained unclear. When Dulles departed on October 20 for Taipei, via Italy and England, Peking announced the end of its cease-fire on the alleged grounds that one of our LSDs had intruded into the territorial waters of Quemoy. On October 25, following the issuance of a joint U.S.-ROC communique at the conclusion of Dulles’s visit to Taipei, Peking announced its intention to observe a cease-fire on the offshore islands on odd-numbered days. Taipei retaliated by firing on Chicom vessels from batteries on Quemoy.

This curious arrangement left each of the Chinese governments with the satisfaction that it was master of the situation, but we had no idea of how long this arrangement would continue. Thus, when Dulles returned from Taipei, his first concern was to preserve the relative calm, while doing everything he could to get the bulk of Chiang’s forces off the offshore islands. But we felt we had to be careful in handling this effort, lest sharp open differences between Washington and Taipei tempt Peking to renew bombardment.

I well recall Secretary Dulles’s comments on his return to Washington: “If nothing is done now, and then a year or so hence the Chicoms again attack the offshores, it will be extremely difficult for us to give the ROC any military support. Already we have had to strain our relations with Congress and foreign governments to the breaking point. Our experience with the offshores was agonizing enough in 1955. It is worse today. We can’t go through this a third time.”

Our efforts to effect a drastic reduction in the garrisons on the offshore islands never succeeded. Eventually, there was a reduction, but meanwhile we came to appreciate that the Chinese in their own particular way had found a solution by turning their hot war into an endless propaganda battle—of propaganda shells, blaring loud speakers, and balloon-delivered leaflets. Peking also issued a long series of “serious warnings” to the United States every time one of our naval patrols in the Taiwan Straits came within Chinese mainland territorial waters, as defined by Peking but not by Washington. The serious warnings had reached the thousand mark by the time President Nixon’s trip to China was announced. Thereafter the warnings ceased.

In retrospect, I have often wondered whether Moscow had any hand in Peking’s decision to halt the heavy bombardment of Quemoy. We know that almost all of the 580,000 shells fired on the islands were produced in the Soviet Union, and that the first signs of serious Moscow-Peking differences appeared soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, about a year before the 1958 Taiwan Straits crisis. However, we assumed during that crisis that Peking had Moscow’s unqualified support. Moscow said nothing to suggest otherwise. In fact, Khrushchev warned on several occasions that any use of nuclear weapons would not go unanswered by the USSR. (Peking exploded its first nuclear weapon in 1964.)

Finally, a few comments about Secretary Dulles’s handling of the crisis. I was deeply impressed by his excellent working relations with President Eisenhower as well as with his associates in State, Defense, and CIA (headed by his brother, Allen). On several occasions, near the conclusion of meetings in his office, Dulles would pick up the secure phone and tell the president of our conclusions and solicit his comments or, where relevant, his approval. Dulles thus made it clear to all present that he was acting under Eisenhower’s orders. That, in turn, strengthened Dulles’s position with all his associates.

I was also impressed by the way Dulles took charge of the problem, making it his personal responsibility to work out a peaceful solution, losing many hours of sleep in the process. Yet he sought advice from his associates. I recall how Gerard Smith, at that time director of the Policy Planning Staff, used to argue almost instinctively against the emerging consensus of several of our meetings. Dulles seemed to welcome the ensuing debate, which helped to fine-hone the final decisions. John Foster Dulles may be remembered by history as one of our most zealous, hardline secretaries of state, especially in his dealings with Moscow and Peking, but, from my vantage point during the last year of his life, he appeared as a man of moderation and reason, an able practitioner of diplomacy as well as of law.

Marshall Green served as ambassador to Indonesia and Australia and as assistant secretary for East Asia and the Pacific. This account, based on diary and other personal material, commemorated the 30th anniversary of Secretary Dulles’s death in May 1959.

Featured Image: A Chinese propaganda poster depicting warships, warplanes, and guns, and referring to the metal needed for the war effort with a depiction of a vat of molten metal being poured onto the island of Taiwan, during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis of 1958. (Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Competing with China for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

This article originally featured in the September-October 2019 edition of Military Review and is republished with permission. Read it in its original form here.

By Gen. Robert B. Brown, U.S. Army, Lt. Col. R. Blake Lackey, U.S. Army, and Maj. Brian G. Forester, U.S. Army

As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.

Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy

We are at a strategic inflection point. A hypercompetitive global environment coupled with accelerating technological, economic, and social change has resulted in an incredibly challenging and complex twenty-first-century operating environment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Indo-Pacific as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), seeks to undermine the rules-based international order that has benefitted all nations for over seventy years. The PRC’s intentions are clear: to shape a strategic environment favorable to its own national interests at the expense of other nations. Recognizing the growing global challenges emanating from the region, our national leaders have offered a contrasting vision: a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”1 Since the end of World War II, the substance of that vision has benefitted all nations and none more than China. As an integral part of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s joint and combined approach to realize that vision and maintain the advantage against the PRC, Army forces are actively competing for influence in the region. Maintaining an Indo-Pacific that is free and open will require us to continue competing with Beijing by forward posturing combat-credible forces, strengthening our regional alliances and partnerships, and tightly integrating with the combined joint force to succeed in multi-domain operations.

A Revanchist China

The CCP’s unabashed vision for the future is the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”2 Beyond just words, this blueprint has manifested itself in actions such as China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, wherein the CCP promises loans for infrastructure development across the Asia-Pacific region and, increasingly, the globe. In 2018, China expanded One Belt, One Road to include arctic regions as the “Polar Silk Road” and emphasized its growing status as a “Near-Arctic State.”3 Exploiting the resources of other nations for China’s benefit, One Belt, One Road development agreements often come with harmful, mercantilist terms that result in host-nation corruption, crippling debt, and Chinese takeover of critical infrastructure. For example, Chinese loans to Sri Lanka for a port project in Hambantota ultimately resulted in political turmoil and debt default. In 2015, Sri Lanka was forced to hand the port over to China along with fifteen thousand acres of coastline.4 This and other examples represent the type of “debt-trap diplomacy” that typifies the predatory economic practices under China’s One Belt, One Road.5

Beyond simple regional influence, the CCP has a long-term vision for global preeminence.6 President Xi Jinping has offered a plan to guide China through domestic transformation and realize the “Chinese dream.”7 This plan includes “two 100s,” a symbolic representation of the CCP’s and the PRC’s one hundred-year anniversaries (2021 and 2049, respectively). By 2021, the CCP aims to achieve status as a “moderately prosperous society,” doubling its 2010 per capita gross domestic product and raising the standard of living for all Chinese citizens.8 By the PRC’s one hundredth anniversary in 2049, the CCP envisions the nation as “fully developed, rich and powerful,” with an economy three times the size of the United States backed up by the world’s premier military power.9 Collectively, the “two 100s”—with 2035 as an interim benchmark year—outline China’s self-described path to revitalization as a superpower. This future vision is evident in the rhetoric and views of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leaders. Command level engagements with PLA officers indicate that they no longer fear the United States. Twenty, or even ten, years ago, it was evident that the PLA viewed the United States with a healthy dose of both respect and fear. That view has noticeably changed in recent years. While the PLA still respects our military capability, it no longer fears us, which is reflective of its confidence in its growing relative military power.

China has been utilizing the current peaceful interlude in international relations to aggressively modernize its military force. From 2000 to 2016, the CCP increased the PLA’s budget by 10 percent annually.10 And while the CCP has voiced its intentions to achieve a fully modernized force by 2035, its actions indicate a far earlier target.11 Capitalizing on the research-and-development efforts of other nations, frequently through underhanded means, the PLA is rapidly expanding its arsenal, focusing less on conventional forces and more on nuclear, space, cyberspace, and long-range fires capabilities that enable layered standoff and global reach. The PLA’s updated doctrinal approach to warfighting envisages war as a confrontation between opposing systems waged under high-technology conditions—what the PLA refers to as informatized warfare.12 In short, this is using information to PLA advantage in joint military operations across the domains of land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and the electromagnetic spectrum. Additionally, recognizing the need to carry out joint operations in a high-tech operating environment, the PLA is in the process of reforming its command-and-control structure to resemble our own theater and joint construct.13 In sum, the CCP characterizes the PLA’s military modernization and recent reforms as essential to achieving great power status and, ultimately, realizing the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”14

Our Competing Vision

It is against this backdrop that U.S. Indo-Pacific Command is implementing a strategy toward our national vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”15 As stated by Adm. Phil Davidson, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command:

We mean ‘free’ both in terms of security—being free from coercion by other nations—and in terms of values and political systems … Free societies adhere to the shared values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, respecting individual liberties.16

By “open,” we mean that “all nations should enjoy unfettered access to the seas and airways upon which our nations and economies depend.” This includes “open investment environments, transparent agreements between nations, protection of intellectual property rights, fair and reciprocal trade—all of which are essential for people, goods, and capital to move across borders for the shared benefit of all.”17The substance of this vision is not new; “free and open” have buttressed our regional approach for over seventy years. As an enduring Pacific power, we aim to preserve and protect the rules-based international order that benefits all nations, and it is this objective that underpins our long-term strategy for Indo-Pacific competition.18

Despite our conflicting visions, we must not overlook areas of common interest with China. As noted by then Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan at the recent IISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, “We cooperate with China where we have an alignment of interests.”19 We have strands of commonality—especially in the military realm—notably related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. U.S. Army Pacific annually participates in the largest exercise with the PLA that focuses on disaster response. We can and should find common ground to build trust and stability between our two nations. But, as Shanahan went on to say, “We compete with China where we must,” and though “competition does not mean conflict,” our overarching goal is to deter revisionist behavior that erodes a free and open Indo-Pacific and, ultimately, win before fighting.20 Land forces play a key role in competing to deter the PRC. Deterrence is the product of capability, resolve, and signaling, and there is no greater signal of resolve than boots on the ground. Forward-postured Army forces, alongside a constellation of like-minded allies and partners, provide a competitive advantage and a strong signal of strength to potential adversaries. Should deterrence fail, forward-postured land forces support a rapid transition to conflict, providing the Indo-Pacific commander additional options in support of the combined joint fight. In an environment where anti-access aerial denial systems provide layered standoff, forward-postured land forces can enable operations in the maritime and air domains if competition escalates to crisis or conflict, which we have demonstrated in tabletop exercises, simulations, and operational deployments.

Naval-missile-launch
A Naval Strike Missile fires from an Army Palletized Load System truck 12 July 2018 before hitting a decommissioned ship at sea during the world’s largest international maritime exercise, Rim of the Pacific, at the Pacific Missile Range near Kekaha, Hawaii. This was the first land-based launch of the missile. (Photo by David Hogan, U. S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center Weapons Development and Integration Directorate)

Competition with the PRC is happening now, and the twenty-five thousand islands in the Indo-Pacific will be a key factor in any crisis scenario we may encounter. U.S. Army Pacific delivers several advantages to the combined joint force as America’s Theater Army in the Indo-Pacific. This summer, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command completed the first ever certification of U.S. Army Pacific as a four-star combined joint task force (CJTF). This historic certification not only signifies the integral role of land forces in the Indo-Pacific, but it also provides the combatant commander the option of a land-based CJTF. Additionally, Army forces contribute to an agile and responsive force posture that ultimately strengthens the joint force’s capacity for deterrence.

Now in its seventh year, the Pacific Pathways Program is evolving to meet the demands of increased competition. Under Pathways 2.0, U.S. Army Pacific forces are now west of the international dateline ten months of the year, and the Pathways Task Force, which is growing from under 1,000 to approximately 2,500 troops, will remain static in key partner nations—especially in the first island chain—for longer periods.21 Doing so benefits the partner forces by increasing the depth of training and relationships, enhances the combat readiness of the deployed task force, and allows the dynamic force employment of smaller units to outlying countries. For example, in May of this year, we operationally deployed a rifle company from the Pathways Task Force based in the Philippines to Palau for combined training with the local security forces—the first time in thirty-seven years Army forces have been in Palau. Pathways 2.0 and other Army force-posture initiatives are expanding the competitive space, providing opportunities to compete with the PRC for influence in previously uncontested regions of the Indo-Pacific.

Operating among the people, our land forces are especially suited to strengthening the alliances and partnerships in a complex region containing over half of the world’s population. Everything we do in the region militarily is combined; we will never be without our allies, partners, and friends. Relationships must be built before—not during—a crisis. We strive every day to form our team in the Indo-Pacific so that when a crisis occurs, we are ready. During U.S. Army Pacific’s recent certification as a CJTF, key allies and partners provided critical capabilities that made the entire team better. The exercise exemplified the importance of forming the team prior to crisis, strengthening our capacity for deterrence to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. Because fear and coercion are central to the PRC’s regional approach, mutually beneficial and purposeful engagements build trust among our partners and enable us to cooperatively counter China’s intimidation. During this fiscal year alone, U.S. Army Pacific conducted over two hundred senior leader engagements, seventy subject-matter expert exchanges, and over thirty bilateral and multilateral training exercises involving thousands of soldiers. These partner engagements reinforce the message that nothing we do in the theater will be by ourselves; it is only by working together that we can achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Army forces also strengthen regional partnerships by enhancing interoperability among militaries. We often focus interoperability discussions on technical systems (communications, fires, logistics, etc.). The hard reality is that our systems will always have challenges with communication, and though we should not stop pursuing perfection, we must not forget the other dimensions of interoperability: procedures and relationships. Procedural interoperability involves agreed upon terminology, tactics, techniques, and procedures that minimize doctrinal differences. While we will always remain frustrated by—and often focused on—systems interoperability, procedural interoperability should not be overlooked as a way to enhance our cooperative effectiveness. The most important dimension of interoperability is personal relationships. Strong relationships among partners can overcome the friction inherent in today’s complex operating environment, especially at the outset of crisis, and they are a critical component of long-term strategic competition with China.

Finally, our strategic approach to the Indo-Pacific embraces the reality that current and future operations will be multi-domain. In competition and conflict, all domains—land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace—will be contested. The combined joint force will have to seize temporary windows of opportunity to gain positions of relative advantage. Considering the geographic complexity of the Indo-Pacific across twenty-five thousand islands, land forces will play a pivotal role in supporting operations in other domains whether during competition, crisis, or conflict. Exercises and simulations have demonstrated the value of land-based systems—integrated with cyber and space capabilities—in enabling air and maritime maneuver. For over two years, U.S. Army Pacific has been leading the Army’s Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF) Pilot Program; through exercises and experimentation in the Indo-Pacific, we are driving the development of multi-domain operations (MDO) doctrine and force structure. Earlier this year, we activated the first Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare, and Space (I2CEWS) Detachment, which serves as the core of the MDTF’s forward-deployed capability to strengthen our capacity for deterrence.

US-China-exercise
Soldiers from Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command and the U.S. Army Pacific carry an injured man 18 November 2016 as they conduct a search-and-rescue operation at a simulated earthquake-collapsed building during the U.S.-China Disaster Management Exchange drill at a PLA training base in Kunming in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province. (Photo by Andy Wong, Associated Press)

Succeeding in multi-domain competition with China will require an unprecedented level of U.S. joint force integration. In the past, we have waited for conflict to begin for jointness to take hold, but we cannot afford to do so now. And while we are well practiced at joint interdependence in conflict—notable examples include Operations Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom—MDO will require the “rapid and continuous integration of all domains of warfare to deter and prevail as we compete short of armed conflict.”22 Accomplishing this level of joint integration will require us to break down existing service stovepipes, overcome our tendency to seek service-centric solutions, and integrate doctrine, training, and modernization efforts to mature MDO into a joint warfighting approach. The Indo-Pacific is truly a combined and joint theater, and we must seek combined and joint solutions to the problem of competition with China.

Our Advantage

We should be clear-eyed about the PRC’s demonstrated intentions to undermine the rules-based international order and shape a strategic environment favorable to its interests at the expense of other nations. No one seeks conflict, but as George Washington once said, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”23 U.S. Army Pacific, as part of a lethal combined joint team, contributes to deterrence through the forward posture of combat-credible forces, the strengthening of our regional alliances and partnerships, and a joint approach to MDO. We will cooperate with China where we can but will also compete where we must to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific and preserve the rules-based order that has been at the heart of the region’s stability and prosperity for over seventy years.

Strategic competition with China is a long-term challenge, exacerbated by the accelerating complexity of the global security environment. Within this challenge, though, is the opportunity to leverage our greatest long-term advantages: our partnerships and our people. Everything we do in the Indo-Pacific is in partnership with other nations. We must maintain strong alliances and partnerships, leveraging our combined forces to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific. And as Gen. George Patton said, “The soldier is the Army. No army is better than its soldiers.”24 Though our combined joint force is the envy of the world, we have “no preordained right to victory on the battlefield.”25 We must actively invest in the development of our people now in order to retain the advantage in MDO. Leaders who can thrive—as opposed to just survive—in ambiguity and chaos are essential if we are to maintain a combat-credible force that can succeed in a complex, multi-domain operating environment. We are confident in our greatest assets—our people, in cooperation with our great allies and partners. Investing in our advantage today will ensure we can compete, deter, and, if necessary, win as part of a lethal combined joint team.

Gen. Robert B. Brown, U.S. Army, is the commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC). He has served over fourteen years with units focused on the Indo-Pacific region, including as commanding general, I Corps and Joint Base Lewis-McCord; deputy commanding general, 25th Infantry Division; director of training and exercises, United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) J7 (now J37); executive assistant to the commander, USINDOPACOM; plans officer, USARPAC; and commander, 1st Brigade Combat Team (Stryker), 25th Infantry Division. Assignments in the generating force include commanding general, U.S. Army Combined Arms Center, and commanding general, Maneuver Center of Excellence.

Lt. Col. R. Blake Lackey, U.S. Army, is executive officer to the commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific. He has served in Stryker and light infantry formations in the Indo-Pacific, most recently commanding 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Maj. Brian G. Forester, U.S. Army, is speechwriter to the commanding general, U.S. Army Pacific. He most recently served as the operations officer for 1st Brigade Combat Team (Stryker), 25th Infantry Division at Fort Wainwright, Alaska.

Notes

  1. Alex N. Wong, “Briefing on the Indo-Pacific Strategy,” U.S. Department of State, 2 April 2018, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.state.gov/briefing-on-the-indo-pacific-strategy/.
  2. Rush Doshi, “Xi Jinping Just Made It Clear Where China’s Foreign Policy is Headed,” Washington Post (website), 25 October 2017, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/25/xi-jinping-just-made-it-clear-where-chinas-foreign-policy-is-headed/.
  3. Jack Durkee, “China: The New ‘Near-Arctic’ State,” Wilson Center, 6 February 2018, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/china-the-new-near-arctic-state.
  4. Maria Abi-Habib, “How China Got Sri Lanka to Cough up a Port,” New York Times (website), 25 June 2018, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/25/world/asia/china-sri-lanka-port.html.
  5. “The Perils of China’s ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy,’” The Economist (website), 6 September 2018, accessed 5 July 2019,https://www.economist.com/asia/2018/09/06/the-perils-of-chinas-debt-trap-diplomacy.
  6. Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 28.
  7. Robert Kuhn, “Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream,” New York Times (website), 4 June 2013, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/05/opinion/global/xi-jinpings-chinese-dream.html.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon, 28.
  10. Defense Intelligence Agency, China Military Power: Modernizing a Force to Fight and Win (Washington, DC: Defense Intelligence Agency, 3 January 2019), 20, accessed 5 July 2019, http://www.dia.mil/Military-Power-Publications.
  11. Ibid., 6.
  12. Ibid., 24.
  13. Ibid., 25.
  14. Ibid., V.
  15. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: The White House, December, 2017), 46, accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf.
  16. Philip Davidson, “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific” (speech, Halifax International Security Forum, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, 17 November 2018), accessed 5 July 2019, https://www.pacom.mil/Media/Speeches-Testimony/Article/1693325/halifax-international-security-forum-2018-introduction-to-indo-pacific-security/.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Patrick M. Shanahan, preface to Indo-Pacific Strategy Report: Preparedness, Partnerships, and Promoting a Networked Region (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 1 June 2019), accessed 5 July 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Jul/01/2002152311/-1/-1/1/DEPARTMENT-OF-DEFENSE-INDO-PACIFIC-STRATEGY-REPORT-2019.PDF.
  19. Patrick M. Shanahan, “Acting Secretary Shanahan’s Remarks at the IISS [International Institute for Strategic Studies] Shangri-La Dialogue 2019” (speech, Shangri-La Hotel, Singapore, 1 June 2019), accessed 5 July 2019, https://dod.defense.gov/News/Transcripts/Transcript-View/Article/1871584/acting-secretary-shanahans-remarks-at-the-iiss-shangri-la-dialogue-2019/.
  20. Ibid.
  21. The “first island chain” is a term used to describe the chain of archipelagos that run closest to the East Asian coast.
  22. U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) Pamphlet 525-3-1, The U.S. Army in Multi-Domain Operations 2028 (Fort Eustis, VA: TRADOC, 6 December 2018), accessed 5 July 2019, https://adminpubs.tradoc.army.mil/pamphlets/TP525-3-1.pdf.
  23. George Washington, “First Annual Address to Both Houses of Congress” (speech, New York, 8 January 1790), transcript available at “January 8, 1790: First Annual Message to Congress,” University of Virginia Miller Center, accessed 5 July 2019, https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/january-8-1790-first-annual-message-congress.
  24. George S. Patton Jr., “Reflections and Suggestions, Or, In a Lighter Vein, Helpful Hints to Hopeful Heroes” (15 January 1946), quoted in “Past Times,” Infantry 78, no. 6 (November-December 1988): 29.
  25. Summary of the National Defense Strategy, 1.

Featured Image: Chinese troops on parade 13 September 2018 during the Vostok 2018 military exercise on Tsugol training ground in Eastern Siberia, Russia. The exercise involved Russian, Chinese, and Mongolian service members. Chinese participation included three thousand troops, nine hundred tanks and military vehicles, and thirty aircraft. (Photo by Sergei Grits, Associated Press)

Undersea Surveillance: Supplementing the ASEAN Indo-Pacific Outlook

By Shang-su Wu 

The recently announced Indo-Pacific Outlook by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at the 34th Summit indicates the Southeast Asian perspective on the evolving geostrategic environment. Unsurprisingly, ASEAN highlights cooperation, stability, peace, freedom of navigation and other values in the statement. The Outlook, however, leaves a question: how will ASEAN protect these values when diplomatic measures fail?

Under the ASEAN way, it would not be realistic to expect strong words such as those implying the use of force in any official statement, but member countries bordering critical straits could indirectly convey the message by demonstrating relevant defense capabilities. Among a variety of defense capabilities, tracking foreign submarines through enhanced undersea surveillance could be a relevant option.

Tracking Submarines

The major strategic significance of Southeast Asia in the Indo-Pacific region is mostly found in several critical sea lanes where various powers’ military assets travel through channels connecting the two oceans. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), military vessels and aircraft enjoy the right of innocent passage through these sea routes, whether classified as international straits or archipelagic waters, and coastal countries track these movements. Modern technology makes it feasible for coastal states to readily track foreign military aircraft and surface vessels, a task that is more about safety than security. But tracking submerged submarines is another matter with a much higher barrier to entry.

In the face of complicated hydrographic conditions along with the improving stealth of submarines, there are high requirements for detection in terms of sonars, training, joint operations, and other elements of undersea surveillance. Therefore, successfully tracking submarines requires a high degree of military professionalism and capability. But once successfully tracked and trailed, a submarine receives a clear but private message of deterrence.

Silent Deterrence

This kind of covert deterrence would fit the geopolitical context in Southeast Asia. Firstly, it is generally legitimate for a littoral state to detect underwater entities because submarines should sail on the surface during innocent passage in territorial waters, while a submerged transit is acceptable under UNCLOS in passing sea routes and international straits. But only when a littoral state can identify the locations of foreign submarines transiting underwater can it determine whether UNCLOS is violated or obeyed. In other words, Southeast Asian countries have a sovereign right and legal obligation toward undersea surveillance. 

Tracking submerged submarines also presents a credible level of readiness for uncertainty. Overt exercises can be tailored for specific scenarios to prove certain levels of joint operations and other tactical skills, while bilateral and multilateral exercises highlight partnership, alliance, and other interstate security ties. Exercises are often much broader than the single capability of tracking submarines. Exercises, however, are either fully or semi-planned, and tracking foreign submarines is a truly dynamic encounter between two sides without an advance arrangement. Furthermore, Southeast Asian countries already have routinely conducted various bilateral and multilateral exercises with regional and extra-regional counterparts.

Tracking submerged submarines is usually beyond the microscope of conventional and social media, and can avoid the open hostility or other forms of public outcry that often transpire after close encounters between surface vessels. As the detecting side can deny any information on the tracking, publicity of the event would be more controllable compared with open statements or actions. For the country of the tracked submarine, such encounters are usually negative for national pride and military professionalism, so decision-makers would not have much incentive for revealing the encounter.  

Improving Hardware and Challenges Ahead

Since the end of the Cold War, Southeast Asian navies, particularly those of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, have built up their anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities, including through several types of undersea sensors. These three countries have acquired survey vessels to establish their individual hydrographic databases. They have also procured state-of-the-art anti-submarine warfare helicopters such as the Super Lynx, S-70B, and AS-565MBe and deployed them on their respective frigates and corvettes which have towed or hull-mounted sonars. Furthermore, all three navies possess submarines to play the role of targets during training.

SOUTH CHINA SEA (June 18, 2013) A Royal Malaysian Navy Super Lynx prepares to land on the flight deck of USS Freedom (LCS 1) during deck landing qualifications (DLQs). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Cassandra Thompson/Released)

Some characteristics impose challenges on the ability of Southeast Asian countries to track submarines. Large areas of territorial waters are natural obstacles for Malaysia and Indonesia. The numbers of maritime survey vessels they have in service are rather small for accumulating and updating their hydrographic data. By the same token, these two countries’ sensors and platforms, including ASW helicopters or ships, are likely not numerous enough to cover their broad territories or responsively deploy to where contacts are found.

Thanks to its tiny size, Singapore’s assets cannot be geographically diluted, but it shares other constraints with its neighbors, including a lack of fixed-wing ASW aircraft. The Indonesian CN-235 and the Singaporean Fokker-50 maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) only have limited ASW capabilities, and Malaysia’s smaller Beech-200 MPAs have no payload space for ASW weapons. Finally, operational experience is another common challenge for these three countries, as they began to introduce their sophisticated ASW assets mainly in the post-Cold War era where opportunity for practice was slim. 

Currently, the three navies are on a trajectory of improving their ASW capabilities, such as through the towed sonar arrays found in Malaysia’s upcoming frigates and Indonesia’s plan of building underwater surveillance systems. These efforts would gradually make tracking foreign submarines underwater more feasible in the foreseeable future.

Conclusion

Unlike in the Cold War-era, some Southeast Asian countries, especially these three bordering critical straits, do not have empty arsenals. Although their defense capability is still inferior to most extra-regional powers, some wise and tailored applications of their military assets would support ASEAN agenda’s beyond diplomatic and economic means. Successful tracking foreign submarines would make the ASEAN Outlook more valid in the Indo-Pacific geostrategic landscape.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Featured Image: A Chinese submarine transits in the Yellow Sea (Wikimedia Commons)

Maritime Security in Sabah: ESSCOMM On the Rise

By Zachary Abuza, PhD

Security in Sabah

 In 2013, a group of several hundred armed militants from the southern Philippines landed in the Sabahan city of Lahud Datu in an attempt to retake the land in the name of the Sultan of Sulu. 10 security force personnel and 6 civilians were killed. 45 militants were killed, 30 were captured and nine were sentenced to death. Since then, the eastern Sabah State of Malaysia has witnessed a series of armed incursions, kidnapping for ransom, one of which led to the decapitation of a Malaysian policeman. Additionally, from March 2016 to April 2017, a spate of maritime kidnappings threatened regional trade. According to open source data, 70 seamen from six countries were taken in 19 separate incidents.1 Five were killed during the attacks, while others died while in captivity. By the fall of 2016, pirates were attacking large ocean going vessels, including Korean and Vietnamese vessels, while a Japanese ship took evasive action.

This forced the establishment of trilateral maritime patrols involving the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. While that led to a sharp decline in maritime incidents, they recommenced in 2018 and again in June 2019. Gunmen kidnapped 10 Malaysian fishermen, though they were soon released. Since 2017, Malaysian police have arrested 39 members of the Abu Sayyaf (ASG), a jihadist group, including two in 2019. Additionally, some of the most important terrorist cells arrested in Malaysia have been in Sabah, a key transit route for foreign fighters entering and leaving the Southern Philippines, including at least three of five suicide bombers since July 2018. All of this points to the fact that Sabah is not only the crux of Malaysia security, but regional security as well.

ESSCOM

The Malaysian government established the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM) in April 2013 in response to the chaotic and un-coordinated response to the Lahud Datu incursion.

The organization was supposed to be a coordinated and joint operational headquarters for the Malaysian Armed Forces (RMAF), the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), including the Special Branch which is the lead counterterrorism agency, the maritime police, and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (MMEA). The navy has deployed special forces to the region, and upgraded their fleet of small craft, as well as set up two offshore vessels as operational hubs. The maritime police established two operational bases on coastal islands.

Starting in 2015, Malaysia deployed the first of eight advanced coastal radar stations to give them greater maritime domain awareness (MDA). It was an important step. In 2018, Malaysian officials claimed to have thwarted 10 incursions by ASG militants, and killed nine kidnapping suspects in maritime skirmishes. The only successful maritime kidnapping in 2018, was that of two Indonesian fishermen.

A map of the ESSCOM area of responsibility (Wikimedia Commons)

But there were a number of shortcomings. Most importantly, Malaysia has little experience in joint operations, let alone inter-agency operations. ESSCOM was faced with an almost insurmountable challenge. It also goes to the highest levels as there is no formal National Security Council-like process.

Even with the nascent inter-agency planning and operational process, rivalries remained problematic. In its first operational year in 2014, it had a budget of RM660 million ($200 million at the time), but there were immediate fights over it. The army still controls the lion’s share of the ESSCOMM budget, despite being a largely maritime and policing issue. Many security analysts, however, noted that the police were the worst when it comes to coordination and inter-agency cooperation. That intransigence has given the army the space to step in. When there is close cooperation within ESSCOMM, it tends to come down to personal relationships, rather than formal coordinating mechanisms and processes. But even operational areas of responsibility between the RMAF, the police and MMEA were not always delineated and de-conflicted.

Budgets remain very tight. Even before the historic victory of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, the first opposition government in 61 years, Malaysian defense spending began to fall from its peak in 2015. The $4.5 billion debt that the PH government inherited from the government of Najib Razak from its massive 1MDB fraud case will mean that Malaysian defense spending will continue to fall as the government is predicting large deficits  for the next few years. In the past five years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s military expenditure data set, Malaysia’s defense budget fell from RM16.1 billion to RM14 billion, a 13 percent decline. In dollar terms, in the past five years, Malaysia’s defense budget contracted by 22 percent from $4.1 to $3.2 billion. Malaysia has among the lowest defense expenditure as a percent of government spending, at 4.3 percent. This has declined from 5.5 percent a decade ago. In the past decade, Malaysian defense spending as a percent of GDP was cut in half from 2 to 1 percent. We see this in terms of per capita spending as well. In the past five years, Malaysia’s defense spending has fallen from $160 to $108 per capita, a 32 percent decline.

But the problem isn’t simply budgetary; it is one of priorities. The RMAF budget is dominated by the army, despite the fact that most of the country’s security threats are maritime in nature. The army’s budget is larger than the combined budget of the navy and air force, and it has 80,000 men compared to the navy and air force with only 15,000 each. Moreover, this fiscal austerity is shared across the agencies.

Another issue is the sheer scope of the area to patrol. The coastline of ESSCOMM alone is around 1,400 kilometers, and includes seven districts in eastern Sabah. There have been discussions about expanding it, but to date that has not happened. The ratio of resources to area is just not there. In addition to the geographical scope is the fact that Sabah is home to an estimated 800,000 illegal migrants, most of whom are ethnic Tausigs, the same ethnicity of most of Abu Sayyaf. Those clan and kinship ties have proven invaluable for Abu Sayyaf and other kidnapping syndicates.

Finally, there is the fact that Sabah is treated differently. There is a sense of “internal colonialism,” which is shared by both Sabahans and peninsular Malaysians. RMAF forces from Peninsular Malaysia resist deployment there.

Reforms in the Offing

 The news is not all bad. There is an understanding of ESSCOMM’s weaknesses and an acknowledgement that it needs to be fixed. A former Sabah assistant minister, Ramlee Marahaban, from the former ruling UMNO party, provided a solid criticism. For him it was not a need for more resources or personnel, but a shift from army authority to the police and MMEA, with clearer lines of authority:

“The weakness of ESSCOMM, which has been in operation for six years now, is due to the lack of a clear jurisdiction of the agencies involved. Full power should be given to the police and maritime agencies as they have the authority to arrest, investigate, and prosecute. The army can support through asset deployment, including usage of radar. The number of assets and personnel stationed at the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (ESSCOMM) is more than sufficient but the weakness lies in the overlapping of power and duties.”

When the author interviewed senior members of the Pakatan Harapan government, they broadly concurred with this. Though they would not spell out the details of the ESSCOMM

reorganization, they made clear that it would be much more in terms of statutory authorities, chain of command, and procedures, rather than a host of new resources, manpower, or assets. The Minister of Defense Mohamad Mat Sabu announced the government’s intention to re-organize ESSCOMM, on 6 May 2019, which has since been endorsed by the Inspector General of the Police. What is more likely in terms of personnel is changes in command of certain bases or security sectors.

The Deputy Minister of Defense, Liew Chin Tong, has made maritime security a priority: “[W]e have to realise that Malaysia is a maritime nation and the seas are our lifeline, with many resources coming from the waters, and many strategic water spaces to protect in an increasingly complex security environment.” While he acknowledged that the army’s budget and size was unlikely to change, he was insistent that they would have to broaden the scope of its operations and take on some maritime roles. As he wrote, “The army has to learn to swim.” The army will soon deploy one battalion to train alongside naval special forces in Sabah. Perhaps more importantly, the Army is contemplating a major reorganization, along territorial lines, which would give Sabah greater primacy. But more importantly he prioritized joint operations, and at least pointed to “whole of government” solutions to Malaysian security concerns. These plans will be officially rolled out in the 2019 Defense White Paper, which should be released soon. 

While the overall budgetary pressure on the RMAF is large, the budgets allocated for Sabah-deployed forces have not taken such hits. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad is not a fan of conventional military spending, which he views as being something that antagonizes China. The Defense White Paper has prioritized non-traditional security threats, including those in Sabah, such as kidnapping for ransom and terrorism, in particular.

The government has a political incentive to improve the security situation in Sabah. The Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) is a key member of the governing coalition with 8 of 121 parliamentary seats; and the state’s Chief Minister, Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal, heads the party. In the 2018 election, Sabah proved to be a critically important vote bank, and it will remain so. The Sabah government itself is supportive of ESSCOMM. Shafie Apdal said in June 2019, “We welcome whatever changes, whether it is for cost cutting or not, but most important is the effectiveness of ESSCOMM’s role in Sabah.” He previously  made it very clear that ESSCOMM is not going away. The local economy in general, and tourism sector in particular, have been very hard hit by the kidnappings. Moreover, the curfews are very unpopular.

The Special Branch also knows how important Sabah is in terms of counterterrorism. This area remains the key logistics hub for getting militants in and out of the southern Philippines. In 2018 alone, Malaysian police arrested 29 foreign fighters in Sabah. This is critical as the southern Philippines remains a key draw for foreign fighters following the loss of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and it is the only place in all of Southeast Asia where militants have any possibility of controlling territory. Militants in the Southern Philippines continue to bill themselves as the leaders of the Islamic State in East Asia.

While Malaysian security forces have publicly stated that they have not seen a revival of JI networks, as is very evident in Indonesia, privately, a number of Malaysian security analysts have told the author this is nonsense, pointing to the resilience of Darul Islam Sabah, which since 2014 has been working with Indonesian JAD and other pro-ISIS groups in the Philippines, but whose ties to traditional JI networks remains deep and enduring. In the ideology of both JI and ISIS is the concept of “Hijrah,” emigrating to join a struggle.

MMEA’s Growing Pains

One of the keys to Sabah’s security is the development of the MMEA, which is lauded for their professionalism and lack of corruption. It was established in 2004. While the police feared losing their maritime police functions, the Navy advocated for it because they didn’t want brown water constabulary functions. The MMEA was originally under the Prime Minister’s  Department, though since late 2018 it has been under the Ministry of Home Affairs. To date, it has been headed by a uniformed naval officer, while much of its senior leadership are also naval personnel. But now in its 16th year, it is developing its own leadership from within its ranks.

Like every security agency in Malaysia, its budget remains tight. It is currently constructing three offshore patrol vessels (OPVs) under license from the Netherland’s Damen Group. Japan recently donated two OPVs from its Coast Guard, as it has with the Philippines and Vietnam. The Malaysian Navy transferred two OPVs to them, as well. However, the deployment of smaller fast craft is what remains so important in the Sulu Sea off of Sabah.

A map depicting a series of kidnappings near Sabah (The Star/ANN/File)

While Sabah remains very important for MMEA, it has a host of other concerns: the territorial dispute with Indonesia, the Strait of Malacca, and countering Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) gray zone operations in the South China Sea, including defending Petronas oil platforms at Luconia Shoal that have been increasingly harassed by the CCG. The organization also has limitations in its personnel pipeline, as well as sheer budgetary constraints.

Trilateral Maritime Patrols

 The trilateral maritime patrols that commenced in 2017 are far short of their potential, yet they have worked. The data is very clear: since the patrols began maritime incidents have declined. And while the improved situation is not irreversible, other scholars haver agreed with this assessment. And in addition to naval and coast guard coordination, Malaysia and the Philippines established a maritime policing agreement in 2017. In July 2017, the three states augmented the trilateral maritime agreement, with a trilateral air patrol agreement.

(From left) Malaysian Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Hussein, Indonesian Defense Minister General Ryamizard Ryacudu and Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the Third Trilateral Defence Minister Meeting in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia on Aug 2, 2016. (Photo:EPA)

But by focusing limited resources on protecting key channels, they are leaving a lot of open ocean un-patrolled. While that might be fine for countering piracy, maritime kidnappings, and protecting regional shipping it has a downside for illicit smuggling and infiltrating terror suspects in and out of the Philippines.

There is still not a single place where the patrols are coordinated, and there is no fusion center such as what exists in Singapore’s Changi naval base. This coordination problem remains an issue of pride and sovereignty, where every state agrees to it in theory, but as long as they get to run it. But no state has the resources dedicated to make this effective. And they have been unwilling to take funding that Singapore or other outside partners (the United States and Australia) have offered. None of the states want to broaden this to be a multilateral force. Suggestions to shelve the sovereignty issue by basing it in a neutral third party, such as Brunei, have gone nowhere. Nonetheless, the Changi Fusion Centre in Singapore has greatly expanded its monitoring and reporting capabilities. Indeed, more information from the Sulu Sea region is being shared with them by both states as well as the shipping and fishing companies.

The lack of clear demarcated maritime borders that the author originally assumed would be a major impediment to the trilateral patrols has not borne out. The Philippines and Indonesia demarcated their 1,162 kilometer maritime boundary in the Celebes Sea in 2014, which came into effect in 2019. Malaysia and Indonesia still do not have a maritime border between Sabah and East Kalimantan, though there have not been any major flareups in the past few years. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reiterated his country’s claim to Sabah (still on the books, but long shelved) in 2016.2 The Malaysian government refused to discuss the issue with the Philippines, and maritime cooperation has continued.

It is a mere 15 minutes by fast boat between Lahud Datu and Tawi Tawi, so a clearly demarcated border, at least a de facto one, is important. At the very least, the countries have not let ongoing legal disputes interfere with maritime policing operations. Indeed, Indonesia and Malaysia were able to wrest the right of hot pursuit, a major concession, from the Philippines, after threatening unilateral military action.

The Malaysian security forces have maintained a very active defense posture on the water. They have not been shy about using force, and in 2018 thwarted ten attempted incursions, and killed nine suspected kidnappers, including four in a well-publicized incident in April.

No doubt, each country has increased their maritime capabilities, but they are still dwarfed by their land-based counterparts. In all three nations the army’s budget remains larger than the navy and air force’s combined. Indonesia’s attempts to stand up their Coast Guard continues to fall short. None of the three countries has maritime capabilities in proportion with their security needs or coastlines. And yet, even a small degree of coordinated patrols and additional resources has been a relatively effective deterrent.

Conclusion

 No Malaysian security official that the author interviewed saw any significant improvements in the security situation in the Southern Philippines, and especially throughout Sulu and Tawi Tawi. Despite bilateral pledges of cooperation in counterterrorism, they expect incursions, maritime kidnappings and ship-jackings to continue. And since they have little confidence in Philippine authorities, they know that the onus was on them to enhance security and deter incursions.

And yet, there is real concern that this over time will be a money pit that Malaysia simply cannot afford. As one Malaysian security analyst put it: “They don’t have an endgame [in Sabah]. Tell me how this ends?”

Zachary Abuza, PhD, is a Professor at the National War College where he specializes in Southeast Asian security issues. The views expressed here are his own, and not the views of the Department of Defense or National War College. Follow him on Twitter@ZachAbuza.

Endnotes

1. The author maintains an open-source data set on southern Philippine security incidents by non-state actors. As it is based on media reporting, it tends to be conservative, as many incidents do not get reported on.

2. The Philippines claims that Sabah was patent of the Sultanate of Sulu, which leased the land to the North Borneo Company, a British royal concession in 1878. The British claim that the land was ceded. In 1963, Sabahans voted in a referendum to join Malaya (along with Singapore and Sarawak), creating Malaysia. The Philippines has maintained the claim, though it has largely been dormant, until President Duterte’s 2016 statement.

Featured Image: Philippine government soldiers fighting the Maute group watch a helicopter attack (not pictured) as they take a break inside a military camp in Marawi City, southern Philippines May 30, 2017. (REUTERS/Erik De Castro)