Tag Archives: ASEAN

South China Sea arbitration: Beijing puts forward her own views Part Three

By Alex Calvo

This is the third installment in a four-part series devoted to China’s 7 December 2014 document, putting forward her views on the Philippines’ international arbitration case on the South China Sea. Although Beijing is refusing to take part in the proceedings, as confirmed following the Court’s 29 October 2015 ruling on jurisdiction, by issuing this document, and communicating in other ways with the Court, the PRC has failed to completely stay aloof from the case. It is thus interesting to analyze China’s narrative as laid down in that document. Read Part One, Part Two

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Has Manila committed herself not to initiate compulsory arbitration proceedings? Section III largely consists of a long list of bilateral agreements and statements, and ASEAN documents, laying down commitments to settle disputes by negotiation and agreement, whose purpose is to prove that Manila is therefore “debarred from unilaterally initiating compulsory arbitration.” In the former category, the text cites among others (31) the “Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of the Philippines concerning Consultations on the South China Sea and on Other Areas of Cooperation, issued on 10 August 1995” which contains “the principles that ‘[d]isputes shall be settled in a peaceful and friendly manner through consultations on the basis of equality and mutual respect’ (Point 1); that ‘a gradual and progressive process of cooperation shall be adopted with a view to eventually negotiating a settlement of the bilateral disputes’ (Point 3); and that ‘[d]isputes shall be settled by the countries directly concerned without prejudice to the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea’ (Point 8)” and (33) the “The Joint Statement” of 16 May 2000 whose Point 9 states that the two countries “agree to promote a peaceful settlement of disputes through bilateral friendly consultations and negotiations.”

Concerning China-ASEAN documents, the text stresses (35) the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (‘DOC’),”whose Paragraph 4 reads “The Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means … through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” The DOC is of particular interest, not only because it has also been signed by most coastal states in the South China Sea (although not by Taiwan), but because it has often been touted by observers and governments as proof that it was indeed possible to settle the status of the sea without resorting to war. Does this agreement close the doors to compulsory arbitration under UNCLOS? As often in the law, at least two different interpretations are possible. On the one hand, a literal reading of the quoted paragraph seems to restrict the avenues opened to coastal states, although the term “only” or words to that effect do not appear in that section (as China’s position paper openly acknowledges in its Section 40). On the other it could be argued that the reference to UNCLOS is in itself a door open to arbitration, since that treaty provides under certain conditions and limitations for this form of dispute settlement. An intermediate view could be that the DOS forces signatories to first resort to direct consultations and negotiations, with arbitration under UNCLOS as a last resort. Concerning this view, Manila argues that China has no intention to engage in meaningful negotiations, whereas Beijing says (45) that “the truth is that the two countries have never engaged in negotiations with regard to the subject-matter of the arbitration.” This is, at least to some degree, surprising, when we bear in mind the emphasis in the text on China’s commitment to negotiations. Given Beijing’s stress on bilateral negotiations, why have these have not even started with the Philippines? Not that they have not concluded, or progressed, but not even begun. Perhaps with such a question in mind, the position paper provides (47) some possible reasons, such as the fact that “the South China Sea issue involves a number of countries.” This is of course true, but by pointing it out as a reason not to have even begun negotiating with the Philippines, China is contradicting another pillar of its posture in the South China Sea: its insistence on bilateral, as opposed to multilateral, negotiations. One could thus argue that China cannot have its cake and eat it too. If the issue is complex because of the large number of actors involved, would a multilateral forum not be more appropriate? If so, why does Beijing insist on bilateral negotiations? And when someone like Manila argues these are leading nowhere, then the reply is that they have not even started because, among other reasons, of the large number of countries involved. There are of course powerful reasons why China may prefer a bilateral approach, but this illustrates how easy it is to fall into contradictions in the international arena, not something that affects just China of course.

Chinese marine archaeologists working in the South China Sea in 2008. Archaelogy plays a key role in Beijing's narrative.
Chinese marine archaeologists working in the South China Sea in 2008. Archaelogy plays a key role in Beijing’s narrative.

With regard to the absence of an explicit exclusion of third-party settlement, which as pointed out the text acknowledges, China cites the “Southern Bluefin Tuna Case”where the arbitration tribunal stated that “the absence of an express exclusion of any procedure … is not decisive.” Two key words for China are to “agree”, which the text (38) explains often appears in bilateral communiques, and “to undertake”, which features (38) in Paragraph 4 of the DOC. China’s position paper stresses, citing the ICJ in Bosnia and Herzegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, where the Court ruled that “[t]he ordinary meaning of the word ‘undertake’ is to give a formal promise, to bind or engage oneself, to give a pledge or promise, to agree, to accept an obligation. It is a word regularly used in treaties setting out the obligations of the Contracting Parties …. It is not merely hortatory or purposive.” For China, bilateral agreements and statements with the Philippines and the DOC are not separate realities, but (39) “mutually” reinforce “and form an agreement between China and the Philippines”, giving rise to “a mutual obligation to settle their relevant disputes through negotiations.”

The position paper underlines (50), as a further argument to prove that exchanges of views with the Philippines did not start in 1995, that it was not until 2009 that Manila abandoned claims in excess of UNCLOS. Concerning the doctrine of Estoppel, that is the ban on acting against one’s own acts, the paper rejects (51) Manila’s assertion that Beijing has incurred a “grave breach of the terms of the DOC,” preventing it from invoking Paragraph 4 “to exclude the jurisdiction of the Arbitral Tribunal”, dismissing it as “groundless.” The text considers this to be a “selective” resort to the DOC and a “self-contradictory tactic” amounting to a violation of “good faith.” It is true that a general principle of the law, also of international law, is that one cannot refer in isolation to a given excerpt from a rule or document. The problem is perhaps that the position paper overdoes this by next (55) referring to an alleged “current relationship of cooperation between China and the ASEAN member States in the South China Sea,” to which countries like Vietnam might not fully subscribe. The text (56) also argues that Manila’s resort to arbitration amounts to “running counter to the common wish and joint efforts of China and the ASEAN member States,” and here this is not something that can be so easily dismissed, since the Philippines has indeed been the only littoral state to try to resort to arbitration, although Vietnam and some other states, including non-littoral ones, seem to be at least providing a measure of support to Manila, although framed in terms designed not to overtly provoke China.

Lastly, the position paper argues (73) that when one state has issued a declaration in accordance with Article 298 of UNCLOS, excluding itself from compulsory arbitration in certain areas, another state cannot initiate proceedings arguing that they do not fall within the exemption, before first engaging in negotiations with the defendant state. The text says that otherwise Article 298 would be rendered “meaningless.” To reinforce this, the text adds (74) that this is the first such case, and that “Should the above approach be deemed acceptable, the question would then arise as to whether the provisions of Article 298 could still retain any value,” placing a question mark on “the declarations so far filed by 35 States Parties under Article 298.” Here we should distinguish the core of the matter from the procedural issues at stake. Even if it were to agree with Beijing on this point, the fact that the arbitration court will have to rule on the admissibility of the case and its own powers could be seen as a barrier to any attempt to institute compulsory arbitration in areas covered by an Article 298 exemption. Of course, the problem for the state sued is that in order to argue before the court that the latter should dismiss the case it would be necessary to appear before it, which is precisely what Beijing is bent on avoiding. Issuing this position paper is a way to make its views known, while avoiding this trap. As mentioned earlier, this can be interpreted in many ways. From the point of view of the rule of law and the progress of international law and tribunals, it can cut both ways. On the one hand, we could say that China’s (and Vietnam‘s) decision to address the PAC, despite not joining the proceedings, shows that these, and more generally international arbitration, cannot simply be ignored, whatever the protestations to the contrary. On the other hand, such moves may be seen as bypassing formal proceedings, and showing how imperfect the actual powers of international tribunals remain.

Read the next installment here

Alex Calvo is a guest professor at Nagoya University (Japan) focusing on security and defence policy, international law, and military history in the Indian-Pacific Ocean Region. A member of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC) and Taiwan’s South China Sea Think-Tank, he is currently writing a book about Asia’s role and contribution to the Allied victory in the Great War. He tweets @Alex__Calvo and his work can be found here.

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Avoiding Conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Jack McKechnie

The People’s Republic of China’s new Military Strategy white paper indicating China’s military strategy is a positive step towards transparency, but comparison with the recent U.S. National Military Strategy (NMS) reveals a significant difference and ominous implications of future paths. Should China and the U.S. pursue their stated military strategies, a period of increasing tension and force buildup will ensue as the U.S. and allies seek to maintain an absolute advantage over a rising Chinese regional advantage. While the national leaderships of China and the U.S. will likely strive to avoid the use of force, miscalculations can occur and attempts at reassurance can fail with severe, complicating, and long-lasting consequences for everyone involved. A future strategy by China that reassures the rest of the world that its rise is peaceful is necessary to avoid this situation.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters

Although both documents appear to portray each country’s military strategies, there is a key difference that makes this an imperfect comparison. While the U.S. president is both commander-in-chief of the U.S. military as well as party chief of his political party, the U.S. military is not a party army, and the U.S. NMS has no mandate to keep the Democratic Party in power. Xi Jinping is both chairman of the China’s central military commission as well as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), but the PLA is a party army, and the PRC defense white paper declares that “China’s armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC’s absolute leadership” and “remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC’s ruling position.”

Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com
Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com

The PRC defense white paper articulates a response to security threats to the CPC, not China, and there are circumstances in which a move benefitting the CPC does not benefit China. A fixation to remain in power and a tendency to exaggerate threats to party rule may lead the CPC to assume a more aggressive posture resulting in higher risk of conflict than the actual security threat to China would justify. The risk of a serious conflict, which would be devastating for the Chinese people, warrants consideration of an assuring and less threatening stance instead. The CPC’s aggressive rhetoric regarding Taiwan, Japan, and the South China Sea may be intended to bolster domestic support for the CPC, but should miscalculation and conflict occur, the impact to China’s growth could be severe. Ironically, these economic consequences of conflict may cause the CPC to face a primary concern, disorder at home, and which they may hope to forestall by rallying their populace with assertive foreign policy.

From the perspective of the CPC, this makes reassurance and the avoidance of miscalculation critical, but the difference in objective for the PRC defense white paper contributes to difficulties in reassuring the U.S. and other countries that China’s rise will remain peaceful. The U.S., distrustful of authoritarian governments and wary of attempts to unilaterally disrupt the international order by a rising power, would need enhanced reassurances from China.

Dale Copeland describes the commitment problem as the inability of one state’s leadership to convince another state’s leadership that promises made today will be kept. In this case, the U.S. may not only be concerned that China may have a change of heart later once they have more relative power, but also that new leaders in China may adopt very different policies.1 Ambiguity in the PRC defense white paper regarding how they intend to safeguard Chinese maritime interests and address the issue of Taiwan fails to ease the U.S. and regional states. And while principles of defense, self-defense, and post-emptive strike are declared, other countries have little assurance that these principles will be adhered in the future.

U.S. Navy Photo
U.S. Navy Photo

The ambiguity in the PRC’s strategy, in conjunction with an alarming, sustained military buildup at a time when China’s mainland has never been safer from invasion, may be construed as a more or less direct contradiction of reassurances that China does not pose a security threat. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese military strategy explicitly discusses force posture, but the fact that the U.S. is transparent with products such as the U.S. Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan to Congress, a document that describes long-term future fleet composition, while China has no overt guidance for their desired size for their rapidly-growing military does give cause for concern by the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The strategies executed together produce the conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War in the future security environment as described by a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Deepening regional bipolarization and militarization, driven by a worsening U.S. – China strategic and economic rivalry in Asia.”2 Arms races, military crises, and increasing tension regarding Taiwan reunification could result in a period of constant tension while the U.S. and regional allies balance the increase of Chinese capabilities to preserve an absolute advantage that, they hope, deters conflict. China’s lack of articulation regarding the intended future size of their military and the failure to provide reassurance for exclusively peaceful means to handle their concerns with Taiwan, Japan, and with other claimants in the South China Sea do not reassure the U.S. and other countries, and the likely result will be continued arms build-up and increasing tensions.

The deliberate use of lethal force by China in pursuit of territorial claims, whether for a coercive reunification of Taiwan or establishment of solid control over the nine-dash line, will result in dramatic changes around the world. A loss of confidence in Asia will cause multiple, independent actors to react in unforeseen ways which may have a dramatic effect on Asian commerce. Moreover, the CPC may not understand the potential resolve of the U.S. and other democracies to resist lethal aggression and what actions they may take against China and what consequences, economic and otherwise, they are willing to impose. While growth and stability of the entire world would be profoundly affected, China, with its high growth dependence on foreign trade and commerce, could face the most serious consequences. The results within China would ironically jeopardize the social and political order the CPC may have used to justify aggression in the first place.

ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.
ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.

To best serve the security interests of China and maximize economic potential while minimizing threat of war, there are measures the CPC might pursue to assure the rest of the world while remaining in power. As stated by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, China can better reassure the U.S. and regional countries by leveling military budget growth at approximately half of the U.S. level and scaling back missile deployments and other military capacities directed at Taiwan, commit to exclusively peaceful means towards Taiwan, and join in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct with a commitment not to use or threaten force to resolve territorial disputes.3 As a revisionist power, assurance is incumbent on the Chinese, and only positive measures such as these will provide the necessary assurance to regional and global powers that China’s intent is peaceful and will minimize the risk of miscalculation and the associated social, economic, and military consequences.

Jack McKechnie is a Commander in the U.S. Navy currently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He was a former U.S. Seventh Fleet operational planner, Japan country officer, and assistant director for theater security cooperation from Oct 2011 to July 2014 and a Federal Executive Fellow with Johns Hopkins University APL from Aug 2014 to July 2015. The views expressed in this article are his own.

[1] Dale Copeland. Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton University Press, 2015), 41.

[2] Michael Swaine et al. Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2015) 167.

[3] James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon. Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S. – China Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014), 209-210.

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China’s South China Sea Strategy: Simply Brilliant

This article can be found in its original form at ASPI here, and was republished with permission.

In the past 12 months, China has provoked considerable attention with its reclamation activities in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratlys where it controls seven maritime features.

China’s history of salami-slicing presents a dilemma to regional countries as well as external powers with regional interests: do they escalate an incident each time China slices the salami and risk open conflict, or stand down and allow China to augment its territorial claims.

The million-dollar question remains: who or what will freeze China’s reclamation in the South China Sea? The answer: nothing, really.

It has been proposed, for example, that like-minded states carve out a ‘code of practice’ that would stress the rule of law and mirror the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Another option being considered by the Pentagon is to send US aircraft and ships within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese-built reefs in the Spratlys, to challenge its influence there.

While useful, such proposals won’t freeze or rollback China’s attempts to change the facts on the ground (or the high sea). China’s reclamation seeks to pre-empt any decision that would come from the Philippines’ challenge in the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea over China’s nine-dash line claim to the South China Sea.

It’s noteworthy that China hasn’t only engaged in salami slicing; it has sought to use the attraction of its economy, trade and aid to offset its high-risk behaviour.

Following the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with the Philippines, China launched a charm offensive in 2013, wooing ASEAN with a treaty of friendship and cooperation, stressing that it intended to take China–ASEAN relations from a ‘golden decade’ to a ‘diamond decade’.

This year, when concerns about China’s reclamation have intensified, China has offered a carrot: US and other countries would be welcome to use civilian facilities it’s building in the South China Sea for search and rescue and weather forecasting, when ‘conditions are right’.

China has also used its economic weight to deftly tilt the balance (of influence, at least) in its favor. Its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is attracting long-standing American allies such as Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. China has stolen a march on the US in the battle to win friends and influence people.

And the economic offensive doesn’t end with the AIIB. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership—a free trade agreement that would involve ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea—is seen as a rival to the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. China’s Silk Road Economic Belt is also another lure for peripheral countries keen on leveraging on China’s economic ascent.

Concerted and effective opposition to China’s fait accompli in the South China Sea requires an astute mix of diplomacy and deterrence. It might take the form of a regional effort to get China to clarify its nine-dashed line claims based on UNCLOS principles, an ASEAN ultimatum for China to at least freeze its reclamation activities, and joint ASEAN–US patrols near the reefs being reclaimed by China. This looks unlikely to emerge anytime soon.

ASEAN was damaged in 2012, when it failed—for the first time in its 45-year history—to issue a communiqué due to differing views over the South China Sea. ASEAN has recently upped its game by underscoring the dangers of China’s reclamation, but there’s little the group can do apart from pushing for a formal Code of Conduct. A successful conclusion of the code isn’t assured; China dangles the carrot of code negotiations to buy time even as its carries out reclamation.

For all its rhetoric about the need to uphold international law and the freedom of navigation, the US is conflicted when it comes to China. It all boils down to this: will the US risk its extensive relationship with China over a few rocks in the South China Sea? As Hillary Clinton once said: how does the US ‘deal toughly’ toward its banker?

To get a sense of the effect of China’s creeping invasion of the South China Sea, one only need look at Vietnam. Faced with China’s challenge to its claims to the Paracel Islands, Vietnam has purchased Kilo-class submarines, reportedly armed with sub-launched land-attack Klub missiles that could threaten Chinese coastal targets. But Vietnam didn’t fire a shot when China towed a US$1b oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam last year. On a recent trip to Hanoi, Vietnamese scholars told me that Vietnamese military officers urged sterner action, such as firing on Chinese ships, but senior leaders vetoed them, instead deciding to sit back and let China incur ‘reputational damage’.

Not many people in Asia would agree with what China is doing in the South China Sea. But as it stands, China’s strategy—salami slicing, using offsets to soften risky behavior and accelerating its reclamation activities in the absence of significant opposition—can be summed up in two words: simply brilliant.

William Choong is a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

An ASEAN Maritime Alliance?

The year 2014 brought new tensions to the South China Sea, particularly as Chinese authorities sought to establish a series of island-like structures in the midst of the disputed Spratly Islands. Such provocative actions, however, are unlikely to generate sufficient political will among the other countries of the region to establish a Political-Security Community under the auspices of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) by the 2015 deadline. But were this collection of ten countries to pool their resources into a security community or even a security alliance, it would be an impressive force and a potential deterrent to aggression in the South China Sea.

In particular, it is worthwhile noting the relative strength of ASEAN coastal defence forces. Some member states, such as Indonesia, possess respectable ‘blue water’ navies, that is to say, they have larger vessels capable of operating in deep waters and engaging in long-range standing battles. Other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines, have considerable ‘brown water’ navies,  forces consisting of small patrol boats which can cruise inland waterways and the shallow waters that weave between tight-knit island chains. But the varied nature of the waters disputed in the South China Sea particularly requires the flexibility offered by corvettes.

Generally, corvettes fall between the Royal Canadian Navy’s Halifax-class frigates and Kingston-class coastal defence vessels in size. But there is much debate as to what constitutes a contemporary corvette. For example, the Royal Omani Navy calls its Khareef-class vessels ‘corvettes’ even though the displacement of each vessel in the class is approximately 2,660 tons. Recent advancements in shipbuilding have also allowed the US Navy to introduce new vessels with substantial displacement but with shallower drafts, meaning the new USS Liberty can approach closer to coastlines than the similarly sized but older Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates.

For the purposes of this analysis, only those vessels with a displacement greater than 100 tons but less than 1,700 tons will be considered corvettes. China’s maritime forces, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN),  has a substantial number of vessels in this range deployed to Hong Kong and a network of naval bases off the South China Sea. 12 Jiangdao-class corvettes (1,440 tons) are the workhorses of this maritime presence in the region and China may possibly add 3 more vessels of this class by the end of 2015. Beyond the Jiangdao-class corvettes, PLAN’s southern presence includes six Houjian-class missile boats (520 tons) and approximately 80 other missile boats and gunboats of various classes and ranging in displacement from 200 to 480 tons each. This vastly exceeds the quantity and quality of vessels any individual Southeast Asian country could bring to bear in a conflict. But ASEAN’s combined maritime forces could meet the challenge presented by a limited PLAN offensive.

Brunei in particular has emerged as a promising new maritime actor in the region, even actively participating in the 2014 edition of the Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC). The Royal Brunei Navy acquired four specially built Darussalam-class offshore patrol ships (1,625 tonnes) from the German shipbuilder Luerssen-Werft, which replaced Brunei’s previous coastal defence workhorse, the Waspada-class fast attack craft (200 tonnes). The Waspada-class vessels have since been decommissioned and donated to Indonesia to be used for training purposes. The introduction of the Darussalam-class greatly upgrades Brunei’s defence capabilities and it will be of interest for Southeast Asian observers to see how Brunei further pursues the modernization of its forces.

The Republic of Singapore Navy has much in the way of heavier frigates and submarines to defend its unique position by the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s most significant shipping routes. Its corvette-like vessels are also impressive, six Victory-class corvettes (600 tonnes) and 12 Fearless-class offshore patrol ships (500 tonnes), but they are certainly not as new as some of the vessels boasted by Singapore’s neighbours. The Victory-class was acquired in 1990-1991 while the Fearless-class was introduced between 1996 and 1998. Therefore, it will also be of interest to see whether Singapore seeks to obtain any newer vessels which can serve as a bridge in capabilities between the Victory-class corvettes and the heavier Formidable-class frigates.

dsc_5220It is Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia that boast the largest complements of corvettes in the region, however. The Royal Thai Navy’s coastal defence is led by two Tapi-class corvettes (1,200 tons) and two Pattani-class offshore patrol ships (1,460 tons), which are joined by two Ratanakosin-class corvettes (960 tons), three Khamrosin-class corvettes (630 tons), three Hua Hin-class patrol boats (600 tons), six PSMM Mark 5-class patrol boats (300 tons), and 18 smaller patrol boats and fast attack boats of varying capabilities but all rather aged. The Philippines and Indonesia both have vast island chains within their respective territories, requiring corvettes and smaller patrol vessels just as much for counter-trafficking and counter-piracy operations as for countering conventional maritime forces. The Philippine Navy possesses one Pohang-class corvette (1,200 tons), two Rizal-class corvettes (1,250 tons), nine Miguel Malvar-class corvettes (900 tons), and three Emilio Jacinto-class corvettes (700 tons). Indonesia tops out ASEAN’s array of corvettes with three Fatahillah-class corvettes (1,450 tons), 16 Kapitan Patimura-class corvettes (950 tons), and 65 other missile boats and gunboats with a displacement of approximately 100-250 tons.

Yet it is unclear how much of their forces Indonesia or the Philippines would be able to deploy in the midst of a South China Sea conflict. As mentioned previously, many of these vessels have been used practically as inland patrol vessels. There are also some potential weak links in the chain should ASEAN establish some form of formalized maritime alliance. The Royal Malaysian Navy only offers four Laksamana-class corvettes (675 tons) and an array of 16 smaller missile boats and gun boats that could generally only be used to harass Chinese forces. Burma certainly has an impressive force in its own right – consisting of three domestically produced Anawratha-class corvettes (1,100 tons), six Houxin-class missile boats (500 tons), 10 5 Series-class missile boats (500 tons), and 15 Hainan-class gunboats (450 tons), but the military junta has already demonstrated that it will remain aloof from territorial disputes in the South China Sea and generally supports China’s policy toward Southeast Asia.

The Royal Cambodian Navy is in shambles, consisting solely of five outdated Turya-class torpedo boats (250 tons), five Stenka-class patrol boats (250 tons), and a lone Shershen-class fast attack boat (175 tons). But Cambodian authorities would be just as disinclined to engage in defence sharing as their Burmese counterparts. During Cambodia’s 2012 ASEAN chairmanship, Cambodian officials consistently interfered in efforts by other ASEAN member states to reach a common position on the South China Sea’s territorial disputes. Given the understanding on security issues shared between Cambodian and Chinese officials, as well as China’s status as Cambodia’s largest source of foreign investment and aid, it is apparent that Cambodia has relatively no need for the security guarantees ASEAN could provide as a regional counter-balance to China.

Vietnam is the unpredictable factor in the region. The Vietnam People’s Navy has a few corvettes of its own, including a Pauk-class corvette (580 tons), eight Tarantul-class corvettes (540 tons), and 23 patrol ships with displacements ranging from 200 to 375 tons. The Vietnamese government has also ordered two more TT-400TP gunboats (450 tons) from domestic shipbuilders with delivery expected in late 2015 or early 2016. This leaves Vietnam with a force perhaps not as sizable as that of Indonesia or the Philippines but with greater capacity to intervene should China seek to settle territorial disputes with Vietnam by force.

As Malaysia will hold the 2015 Chairmanship of ASEAN, the prospects for a maritime force in support of the bloc’s proposed Political-Security Community will depend to some degree on whether Malaysian officials will be willing to show leadership. If Malaysia looks to acquire new vessels and insists on placing maritime security on the agenda of upcoming ASEAN meetings, some arrangement could be struck by the end of the year. But this will require artful diplomacy, especially in the face of Burmese and Cambodian opposition. With Malaysian officials speaking predominantly about the need for a single market in the region and promoting a conclusion to negotiations regarding the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, such a drive for maritime security may not be forthcoming.

Paul Pryce is a Research Analyst at the Atlantic Council of Canada. His research interests are diverse and include maritime security, NATO affairs, and African regional integration.

This article can be found in its original form at the  
NATO Council of Canada and was republished by permission.