This post was cross-posted by permission from The Security Scholar and is republished with permission. It may be read in its original form here.
By Natalie Sambhi
Brad Nelson has a neat overview in the Jakarta Globe earlier this month of Indonesia’s strategic options vis-à-vis China and the U.S. Enabled by what he calls ‘strategic flexibility’ (which I think is actually an extension of Indonesia’s so-called ‘dynamic equilibrium’ approach), Indonesia can stay neutral, pick China or the U.S., be a mediator/conduit or play the big kids off against one another.
Nelson rightly identifies Indonesia as attempting to pursue a ‘conduit’-type role. In fact, to be an effective conduit and exert real influence on the U.S. and China, Nelson prescribes Indonesia build goodwill as a conflict mediator and regional problem-solver.
In theory, it’s a sensible option but I have my misgivings about how it’s presented in relatively unproblematic terms. I say this because I’m reminded of comments made at a recent workshop by a participant challenging Indonesia’s image as a neutral party in South China Sea disputes. They asked, how could Indonesia be a legitimate mediator if it refuses mediation itself on issues such as the Natuna Islands?
Not being an expert on Indonesia’s territorial disputes, I dug up some of I Made Andi Arsana’s writing to work out how much of an issue Natuna is. Arsana’s overview of the history around the Natuna Island EEZ reveals a complicated picture (excerpt):
On the other hand, China seems to have a different view. In 2010, for example, Chinese fishermen were caught fishing in waters off the Natuna Islands, which Indonesia unilaterally considers as part of its EEZ. When patrolling Indonesian officers approached to arrest the vessels, a large Chinese vessel arrived and demanded that the vessels be released.
This gives the impression that the fishing vessels were guarded by a large vessel known as the “Chinese fishery administration vessel”. It can be inferred that China has extended its maritime claim up to the area that Indonesia believes to be its.
The aforementioned incident implies that Indonesia is not totally free from the SCS conflict.
Nelson approach isn’t incorrect but it requires more detail than its current form to be a true representation of Indonesia’s strategic options. It might be strengthened by addressing questions about China–Indonesia strategic relations, found in other writings of Ristian Atriandi Supriyanto and Greta Nabbs-Keller, to name a few. With reports earlier this year of the Indonesian navy on alert for possible Chinese claims to Natuna waters, it seems like this isn’t over yet.
Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, editor of The Strategist and co-editor of Security Scholar. She is also a Hedley Bull Scholar and graduate of the Australian National University.
What advice would you give to a smaller nation on the maritime investments it should pursue, and why?
This is the eighth in our series of posts from our Maritime Futures Project. For more information on the contributors, click here. Note: The opinions and views expressed in these posts are those of the authors alone and are presented in their personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of their parent institution U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, any other agency, or any other foreign government.
Simon Williams, U.K. The nation in question must clearly enunciate what it seeks to gain from the maritime realm. Only in doing this will it construct an appropriate approach to its engagement with the sea.
Prof. James Holmes, U.S. Naval War College:
Lesser maritime nations often seem to assume they have to compete symmetrically with the strong in order to accomplish their goals. That would mean that, say, a Vietnam would have to build a navy capable of contending on equal terms with China’s South Sea Fleet in order to fulfill its strategic aims. That need not be true. Here at the College we sometimes debate whether small states have grand strategies, or whether grand strategy is a preserve of the strong. Small coastal states do have grand strategies. In fact, there’s a premium on thinking and acting strategically when you have only meager resources to tap. Our Canadian friends, for instance, take pride in operating across inter-agency boundaries. Small states can’t simply throw resources at problems and expect to solve them. They have to think and invest smart. That’s my first bit of advice.
What kinds of strategies and forces should the weak pursue? Here’s the second bit of advice: they should consult great thinkers of the past. The French Jeune École of the 19th century formulated some fascinating ideas about how to compete with a Royal Navy that ruled the waves. Sir Julian Corbett fashioned a notion of active defense by which an inferior fleet could prevent a greater one from accomplishing its goals. In effect it could hug the stronger fleet, remaining nearby to keep the enemy from exercising command of the sea. Mao Zedong’s writings about active defense also apply in large part to the nautical domain. The notions of sea denial and maritime guerrilla warfare should resonate with smaller powers today. Clinging to an adversary while imposing high costs on him is central to maritime strategies of the weak.
And third, what does that mean in force-structure terms? It means smaller maritime powers should look for inexpensive hardware and tactics that make life tough and expensive for bigger powers. I have urged the Taiwan Navy to downplay its sea-control fleet in favor of platforms like missile-armed fast patrol boats that could give a superior Chinese navy fits. Such acquisitions are worth studying even for a great naval power like Japan. So long as Tokyo caps defense spending at 1 percent of GDP, it has to look to get the most bang it can for the buck. Sea denial should be in its portfolio. Bottom line, lesser powers should refuse to despair about their maritime prospects. They should design their fleets as creatively as possible, taking advantage of the home-field advantage all nations enjoy in their immediate environs. That may mean a navy founded on small craft.
Anonymous, USN: Protect your resources and people. Make friends with powerful nations that can help guard you.
LT Drew Hamblen, USN: Design high-speed, helicopter- and small boat-capable ships that can combat piracy and enforce maritime law. A few guided-missile cruisers may be needed to augment coastal defenses. Expeditionary navies will increasingly become obsolete in favor of submarine patrols and small surface surveillance units.
Felix Seidler, seidlers-sicherheitspolitik.net, Germany:
My advice would depend on the region. Latin American nations surely do not need blue-water capabilities, and instead should focus on small, mobile units to fight drug trafficking, etc. In conflict zones, my advice would be to build up sophisticated cyber-forces soon. From a cost-benefit perspective, the easiest way for a small nation to target a large one is cyber-warfare. With regard to naval vessels, I would definitely recommend submarines. It does not make any sense for smaller nations to try and get the upper hand on the surface. Instead I would advise using cyber and submarine forces for asymmetric tactics.
Matt Cosner, U.S.: I believe that smaller maritime nations – particularly those concerned with controlling significant maritime frontiers and resources vice projecting power – would be better served acquiring land-based maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft (MPRA) rather than buying additional warships. One needs look only at Japan as an example. Japan has a much smaller ship count (70 vs. 280 ships) than the U.S. Navy, yet fields only slightly fewer MPRA (80 vs. 120 aircraft).
For a smaller maritime nation, say Indonesia or the Philippines, an MPRA doesn’t necessarily have to be something as capable (and expensive!) as the P-3C Orion or P-8A Poseidon. These aircraft are optimized for long-ranged anti-submarine warfare, yet many countries have little need for this specialized capability.
In my opinion the better solution for most smaller maritime nations is something like a marinized Reaper UAS. Persistent maritime ISR is an enormous force multiplier that the U.S. Navy is only beginning to understand with its MQ-4 BAMS. In the context of a smaller nation – a squadron of 5 Reapers could provide persistent (24/7) surveillance over a very wide expanse of water, as well as a kinetic response if/when required.
LT Alan Tweedie, USNR: Invest in modular small combatants. I can’t stress the modular concept enough, many industries, including civilian shipping companies have been doing it for years. Modularity brings flexibility with lower cost, two must-haves for a small nation.
CDR Chris Rawley, USNR:
Buy small patrol vessels (or even converted commercial/fishing vessels) your country can sustain without external support, be that maintenance contracts or fuel. There is no need to purchase expensive, complicated, technologically intensive “maritime domain awareness” (MDA) solutions. Rather, acquire as many intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft – whether manned or unmanned – and the infrastructure to support them, as you can afford. Most importantly, invest in a competent and professional boarding team capability. These teams are the main battery of a nascent navy or coast guard with the primary missions of policing coastal waters and controlling maritime borders against smugglers, pirates, and the like.
LTJG Matt Hipple, USN: Don’t expand beyond your interests. For example, Pakistan has a “navy” with FFGs, but their interests don’t lie beyond their shores and serves little more than targets for India at sea. Maintain a bubble of security and legitimacy within your “realm” using corvettes and a corps of professional highly paid sailors and law-enforcement officers. Find maritime partnerships within which you can grow organically.
Dr. Robert Farley, Professor, University of Kentucky: The core role of a navy is to secure a state’s maritime interests. For a small, poor nation this will most often involve protection of fisheries, local anti-piracy measures, anti-smuggling, and other missions that run along the divide between military and law enforcement. Small, poor countries should concentrate on developing manageable, reliable, easy-to-maintain flotillas that can conduct these kinds of operations, and on developing a corps of sailors capable of doing their jobs well.
Small rich nations have different problems; many of them (in Europe, for example) already have relatively secure littorals. These states can focus on developing capabilities that will allow them to participate in and contribute to multilateral operations.
CDR Chuck Hill, USCG (Ret.): Not every coastal nation needs a navy, but they all need a coast guard – see Costa Rica for example. It is their only armed force.
Bryan McGrath, Director, Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis: It depends on where that nation is. If it is in the South China Sea, I would recommend that their maritime investments be targeted on understanding the battlespace around their territory. Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA)—from the land, on the sea and in the air.
Sebastian Bruns, Fellow, Institute for Security, University of Kiel, Germany: Be flexible. Find a niche. Work to provide the right framework and circumstances. Be reliable and somewhat predictable: politically, operationally, and strategically.
Bret Perry, Student, Georgetown University: Smaller nations should focus on procuring sustainable, simple systems. The following example illustrates my advice: a second- or third-world nation would be better off with a fleet of armed RHIBs (rigid-hull inflatable boats) than one or two larger patrol boats to protect their waters. Many second- or third-world navies lack the capability or willingness to maintain these “larger” ships; as a result, they sit in port and fall out of service. The same sometimes happens to the smaller RHIBs, but since they might have dozens of these, damaged ones can cannibalized for spare parts. These simple systems, combined with investments in training, will allow smaller nations to effectively conduct basic maritime security operations.
YN2(SW) Michael George, USN: Rather simply, keeping the “quality over quantity” perspective when training, building, and forming their forces will go further than hustling as many ships and troops/sailors out there as possible.
LT Jake Bebber, USN: Missiles are cheaper than surface or subsurface platforms, and a small nation can probably raise the “entry fee” into their littorals enough to discourage a maritime power like the U.S. (or China for that matter) from operating near their coast with land-based missile systems. If the small nation can afford a few diesel submarines and maritime patrol aircraft, it can significantly increase the cost of power projection over their shores from a larger maritime power. As Lord Nelson said, “A fool’s a man who fights a fort.” Today’s anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) systems – both land-based and platform based – are the modern equivalent of the 18th century coastal fort. They alone cannot win a war for a smaller nation against a maritime power, but they can certainly discourage one.
International Maritime Satire Week Warning: The following is a piece of fiction intended to elicit insight through the use of satire and written by those who do not make a living being funny – so it’s not serious and very well might not be funny – but apparently producer Todd Stanley thought so (see comments below).
SILVER SPRING, MD—Following a loss in ratings to NBC’s Stars Earn Stripes, the Discovery Channel has decided to change the setting of its award-winning reality fishing show Deadliest Catch to the South China Sea.
Sources indicate that Discovery intended to cancel the series until Deadliest Catch producer Thom Beers presented the idea of moving the setting to either the Strait of Hormuz or the South China Sea. With the annual ratings boost from Shark Week a year away, Discovery elected to keep the show and film the next season in the hotly contested Southeast Asian waters.
When asked about the drastic change, Beers said, “The South China Sea is a great move for the series and the hardy American fishing crews viewers have come to love – Wizard, Time Bandit, Northwestern, Cornelia Marie, they’ll all be there. It’s home to a competitive fishing environment and surrounded by countries that have a passion for the sea. You’ve got Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Malaysians, and Indonesians out there sailing together. Now we’re throwing Americans right into the middle of this great, dynamic environment.”
Beers explained that the region’s depleted fishing stocks will actually enhance the show’s intensity because it raises the stakes for the competing fishing vessels. “These guys will be fighting each other for every single fish—literally,” said Beers said with a grin.
Sig Hansen, Captain of the fishing vessel Northwestern, also expressed confidence in adapting to the new environment. “If there’s one thing that we need to master right away, it’s persistence. We can’t turn around no matter what or who is in front of us.” Hansen also talked about the safety situation. “In the Bering Sea, we didn’t always have the Coast Guard backing us up because of the conditions. However, we’re told that in the South China Sea all these different nations send in their Coast Guard and military vessels to patrol the area. It’s a lot safer in my opinion.”
The lack of an American port does not deter Beers from basing the show in the region. His team plans to set up their base on one of the sea’s many islands. Producer Todd Stanley, Beers’ partner, said “Look, a lot of these islands, like the Spratly’s, don’t have any residents. We’re thinking, why not go in take one for ourselves? Of course, we would do the proper legal thing and make sure to hoist an American flag to keep everyone calm.”
Stanley revealed that the ships could just anchor at the Scarborough Shoal if they cannot find an island. “We’ll just follow the Chinese model, if necessary, and show up with an old-looking map with some lines drawn around things. I’ve got an old place-mat from my childhood. Do these dashes around Australia mean I own it? Who knows, they could just be spaghetti stains – the important point is it would take the UN years to sort through our claim.”
When asked for a statement, the Association of Southeast Asians (ASEAN) could not respond with an official comment. Deputy Press Secretary Naoko Saiki believes that the story is a hoax. “It’s hard to believe America is home to a television series about crab fishing…this is probably fabricated by one of the nationalist groups in the region. Everyone knows that Americans only watch Jack Baur.”
Discovery announced that they are also moving Sons of Guns to Iraq and American Loggers to the forests in Colombia. Production on Season 9 starts in October and will premiere on the Discovery Channel in early April.
Japan’s Coast Guard has its hands full: Latest reports indicate up to 11 Chinese maritime surveillance ships have entered the Senkakus/Diaoyus’ Continguous Zone while a pair of fishermen swam ashore one of the islands before departing.
In addition to the anti-Japanese protests and violence which has flared throughout China this weekend, Chinese state media has indicated the possibility of further reaction to the nationalization of the Senkakus/Diaoyus to come later this week. Chinese state radio said Monday that “1,000” fishing vessels are headed to the waters near the islands, as a fishing ban comes to an end. Of note, the report quoted a Chinese source who said the vessels’ activities would be monitored by a “marine observation satellite.” It is unclear whether this is an attempt to say the six vessels still believed in the vicinity of the islands will attempt to avoid a confrontation with the Japanese Coast Guard on station, or whether it just indicates China will be watching the situation very closely. Meanwhile, Hong Kong reports that the ship Kai Fung 2, which earlier helped keep the islands in the spotlight, will attempt a return voyage this week as well.
Hi, Hai Jian!
In the past week, while American attention has largely been diverted, China appears to have taken a number of steps to change the reality of the situation in the Senkakus/Diaoyus (hereafter referred to as Senkakus for brevity’s sake) in a coordinated diplomatic, media, legal, and physical push.
With the maelstrom of news emanating from the Muslim world, U.S. media coverage of other, possibly more consequential events inevitably slackened. Fortunately our international and domestic partners have carried the ball a bit with regards to the disputed islands claimed by Japan, China, and Taiwan. While we noted the reports on Tuesday of two Chinese ships – the Hai Jian 46 and Hai Jian 49 – dispatched to and arriving outside the islands’ Territorial Waters (TW), the number that arrived eventually totaled six, twice as many ever previously sent by China at one time. A good account of the stand-off, on pause for now, can be found at The Asahi Shimbun. Although the Chinese vessels have all left the islands’ TW, they remain in the direct vicinity.
The Senkakus are the same five islands, under administrative control of Japan (and populated only by goats), at the center of Japanese Coast Guard clashes with Chinese fishermen and most recently protestors from all claimants. The Atlantic Council of Canada has a good article on the history of the conflict, but the immediate cause of the Chinese flotilla was thepurchase of three of the islands by Japan’s national government (another was already government-owned, and the last owned by another private owner). The decision to go forward with the purchase was forced by Tokyo’s nationalist metropolitan government, which also attempted to buy the islands but would have furthered their use as a provocative cause célèbre – whereas the central government has mostly sought to play down tensions between the two economic partners.
Although unprecedented for this particular conflict, China appears to be following a course it charted earlier this summer in the South China Sea, where it has so far successfully established a new reality on the ground with the Philippines-claimed and previously administered Scarborough/Pantang Shoal. The Philippines Coast Guard pulled back its vessels on June 16th due to bad weather and has yet to return, effectively ceding control to the Chinese civilian maritime agencies, who have maintained a presence in the area and attempted to physically impede any non-Chinese vessels.
Back in the East China Sea, as the Christian Science Monitor noted, China likely had to take some action to appease nationalist sentiment at home in reaction to Japan’s moves. But the paper also said that the movement of the vessels back out of the islands’ TW can be taken as a sign of China’s unwillingness to take things too far. Here’s hoping they’re right – and that fears of further turmoil before the country’s leadership transition will serve as a break. But with precedence already established in the South China Sea, and the vessels still loitering in the area, many signs point to the potential for future confrontation – and it may begin as early as next week.
On Friday Xinhua said the vessels will start “patrol and law enforcement around the Diaoyu Islands” while the catalyst for conflict could begin Sunday, when China’s self-imposed three-and-a-half-month fishing ban in waters near the Senkakus ends (although a typhoon to the east of the islands may further complicate the situation (h/t Galrahn)). A Bureau of Fisheries official stated: “A large number of fishing boats will leave their ports…We will resolutely protect China’s sovereignty and the safety of fishers and step up controls in marine areas that include the Diaoyu Islands.” Adding to the fun, Taiwan has also sent two Coast Guard vessels to protect any of its own fishermen brave enough to wade into the waters.
From the perspective of the U.S., hoping to de-escalate any conflict between two of its most important trading partners and avoid being dragged in to an armed conflict, it’s clear we need better mechanisms with the PRC in case of emergency. The threat of MEOW (mutual economic obliteration worldwide) is not enough. It’s vital to separate the sides in the early stages to prevent a confrontation going past a point of no return – so we need to know who to call, and that they’ll have actual authority to call vessels back. That is of course easier said than done with a country whose future president can drop of the face of the Earth for over a week at a time. What the U.S. can work on, however, is building “habits of trust and cooperation,” through increasing partnership opportunities with China – a topic I will return to shortly.
If the long-term solution has to be through international diplomacy, China, by demarcating its claims to the specific rocks and islands around the Senkakus – a step experts have called the Chinese to take in the South China Sea – might this week actually have made progress of a sort. But next week might not be as useful.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.