Challenges to Maritime Security in Southeast Asia

Lt Mohd Fadhil bin Ahmad

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Southeast Asia: The Current Challenges of Maritime Security


Since ancient times, the control (or to have at least some forms of control) over the lucrative waterways has always been the ambition of littoral states as well as those with vested and specific interests. The reasons can be abundance, such as that for the purpose of facilitating peaceful trade and commercial, or nations or empire’s expansion or projection of power and influence, or for gaining quick wealth through a less peaceful means of piracy. With everyone going for a slice of cake, it then resulted in disputes, conflicts and even war and some are still unresolved until today.

Back to the present, littoral states or these adjacent to Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) are now not only faced with tall order of keeping of SLOC safe for navigation and secured of threats, which most often than not are mostly non-traditional in nature, but are also pressured by extra regional and international “interested parties” to do so, as such are made preoccupied in keeping these “interested parties” at bay, i.e. from interfering. Littoral states are expected to ensure safety and security as their responsibilities, on their own effort and with heavy financial cost, without any modality of burden sharing through international funding. But, the question then, do they (the littoral states) really want any forms of funding with the terms and conditions which can be interpreted as external interference? Especially, when international users have already considered the Malacca Straits for an example as an international sea lane with their rights of usage.

Apart from these threats and the conflict of interest, this strategic outlook or landscape can also be looked upon as having its own opportunities at the same time. Although the factors that shape these opportunities are mainly driven by economic gain, the aspect of security interests could lead to other mutual beneficial partnership.

A lot has been said on the needs for collaboration or joint efforts with regard to maintaining the safety and security of our immediate waters which include from the north-west of the Indian Ocean-Andaman, down to the Straits of Malacca and the Straits of Singapore, and up to the South China Sea as well as the adjacent seas, oceans and waters. Has this SLOC not attracted enough attention with regard to the availability of both threats/challenges and opportunities? In this regard, have we not seen the rising numbers of piracy at the Straits of Malacca before, in the early 2000s of the increased traffics and trades that play this SLOC (from 56,000 ships in year 2000 to 73000 in 2011 for ship of more than 300 GRT)? Has this situation not attracted influential players-major military and economic powers, into this foray? These only proved how vital this SLOC is, and why all concerned parties should coordinate, cooperate and collaborate–bilateral or multi-laterally, for a concentrated/ integrated effort.


Over the years, ASEAN through its various forums has introduced numerous commendable efforts and initiatives to ensure the safety and security of its water. The outcome has been remarkably encouraging especially when incidents of piracy has dropped to a near-zero. However, there are still other works to be done especially at the Straits of Malacca and more work elsewhere vis-a-vis the South China Sea.

With regard to the Straits of Malacca, with piracy no longer in the limelight, the main concern now is the increasing traffic volume as mentioned earlier. As we know, the Straits of Malacca is one narrow Strait and with this increased in traffic volume; coordinated efforts now must be focused towards regulating the North-bound passage in ensuring navigational safety and putting in place a mechanism to address shipping-related pollutions-by irresponsible acts or mishap at sea.

Competition over Resources

There are some issues with regard to the maritime Southeast Asia waters which have been standing out such as competition over resources. As we know, maritime Southeast Asia, which are located between the Pacific and Indian Ocean, is composed of the volcanic and non-volcanic islands and also the island arcs. The geology of the area is highly complex but it is very promising in term of resources development. Extensive continental shelves washed by seas of less than 200metres deep join many of the islands to Australia and Asia. The Continental Shelf areas are the important location of sedimentary rock which contains of yields oil, tin, and others minerals.

The growing in demand for energy is obviously generating greatly increased in offshore exploration for oil and natural gas. China for example, has expended massive efforts in exploring for oil in South China Sea as well as the Pearl River Basin to the North of Hong Kong. Nowadays, we can see that the developed oil-fields in Southeast Asian waters are small and located only in continental shelf area. So that, reservoirs are being depleted and increased in exploration and competition are to be expected.

At present, oil, offshore minerals and also fisheries are the main focal point of disputes and future conflict. China has claimed a major portion of the South China Sea makes other littoral feel threatened against other interests over the South China Sea and its resources. Most of the contiguous states have claimed a 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Indonesian and the Philippine concept of the archipelagic state were incorporated in the 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea. Article 47 of this convention stated that an archipelagic state may draw straight baselines to the outermost points of the outermost island. Furthermore, the 200 nautical mile EEZ, other claims of the littoral states, and the archipelagic claims of Indonesian and the Philippines and also the China’s undefined general claim, leave no uncontested or unclaimed maritime areas in Southeast Asian waters. Example like what had happened with regard to the Spratly Island where friction and some violence have occurred which jointly claimed by Malaysia, China, Vietnam, Taiwan and Philippines.

Because of the pressure for a greater exploration develops, the areas with potential for exploration and drilling, which are normally located on or near continental shelves and disputed boundaries are becoming pressure points for disputes. The areas which are currently in disputed and believed to have hydrocarbon potential are the South-western Gulf of Thailand (involving Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam), the waters North of Natuna Island (involving Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Vietnam), the waters offshore of Brunei (involving Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and China) and also the Spratly Island (involving China, Malaysia, Philippine and Vietnam).

The fisheries issue is more difficult to address in many ways since fish do not respect political boundaries. The fishery resource management problems are largely unresolved and frequently not even identified. The recent changes in the Law of the Sea, especially the establishment of 200 nautical mile economic zones, make governments are ill-prepared to cope. The establishment of the 200 nautical mile economic zones has created severe hardship for fishermen of certain Southeast Asian nations. For example, Thailand has suffered the loss of some 115,000 square miles of traditional fishing grounds. It is reported that most of the Thailand fishing fleet has been force back into the Gulf of Thailand which is already overfish.

Sea Lines of communications, the Straits, the Achipelagoes and Extended Jurisdiction

The question of the unilateral extension of maritime jurisdiction is gradually over loading regional mechanisms designed to avoid conflict. Political orientation and economic circumstances are important fact ors in the temptation to use force in order to establish or defend a maritime claim. Within ASEAN community there are well-established, if not perfect, informal procedures for settlement of disputes. The communist states of the East and Southeast Asia are less practicable and have used naval power in the recent past to emphasize their claim to areas in the South China Sea. Use of the straits and sea lines of communication throughout the region affect not only regional powers but also international trading community. Closure, for any reason, of the straits of Malacca and Singapore would severely damage the economies of Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, as well as other states. Major shipping routes of international importance use Indonesia’s Sunda, Lombok, Makasar, and Ombai-Wetar straits. The Philippines, which also has declared its achipelagic status, possesses international passages within its territory.

The maintenance of open sea lines of communication is of great interest to nations using the South China Sea. The major north-south routes transit the Natunas area disputed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. They also pass through the Paracel and Spratly zones disputed by China and Vietnam as well as other states. Future local naval engagements in either of these areas will impede or lengthen the transit period of user nations. The extended jurisdictional claims of China (legally unspecified but encompassing much of the South China Sea) and Vietnam require the most attention. The Chinese and Vietnamese claim the Paracel and the Spratly areas based on their claims of historical occupation. The Chinese evicted the South Vietnamese from Paracels in the 1974. Oil is being extracted to the west of these islands and is rumoured to exits on or very near the Chinese-occupied Paracels. The Spratly area viewed as being potentially rich in oil and natural gas. So far China has not pressed its claims to the Spratlys by occupying one or more of the islands.

Vietnam and Indonesia are currently at a stalemate in their discussions over the delineation of their maritime boundaries. The talk have been going on for five years and involves rights to hydrocarbons located in the continental shelf north of the Natuna islands which are occupied by Indonesia. Indonesia has allowed Marathon Oil Company to explore in this area. Vietnam has vigorously and challenged this contract and stated that “foreign companies should pay attention to this matter and should not conduct survey and exploration operations in the disputed area without Vietnam’s consent”. Any oil company which failed to observe these instructions must be held responsible for the consequences arising from its act.

Impact of the Arms Build-up and Major Power Interests

The South China Sea and the maritime waters of Southeast Asia are of major strategic importance to the littoral nations as well as the major powers. The guarantee of innocent passage for the merchant and military ships of all nations is fundamental to stability in Asia. Passage in these waters, however, is becoming increasingly constricted especially in the sea lines of the South China Sea and the Vital Straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Wetar-Ombai, all of which are within Indonesian archipelago.

Waters adjacent to these sea lines as well as the straits are sensitive for security and political reasons. These seas are bordered by countries of very different political ideologies and political outlooks. The western area (Spratly Islands) of the South China Sea especially sensitive, mainly because so many states have made claims to and have occupied island in this area. Potential strategic uses for the more developed island islands in the Spratly included bases for sea line interdiction, surveillance and possible launching points for further attacks. The Philippines and the Indonesia have particular reason to seek for influence maritime activity in parts of their archipelagos. The south of the Philippines, especially the Sulu Sea area, is a focal point for continuing friction with our country. Supplies for the continuing military support for the Moro National Liberation Front and New People’s Army in Zamboanga, Tawi-Tawi, Palawan and Davao are via sea routes. Indonesia views the eastern portion of the country with continuing concern for security.

Other strategic considerations include continuing use of the major straits for military purposes. East to west passage in important for surface units of all navies. North to south passage is also importance to submarines.

The existence of the U.S. military bases in the Philippines and Soviet bases in Vietnam serve to complicate the security picture in the South China Sea area. Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base in the Philippines have been importance features of U.S. security policy in Asia since World War II. Both are vital logistics support facilities which allow the U.S. Navy and Air Force to stand behind security commitments made to Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. These bases also support U.S naval missions in the Indian Ocean.

The United States has provided a continuous military presence in Asia since 1975. This presence has enabled the ASEAN nations, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, to increase their gross national product by an average of 10 per cent. While the United State does not take credit for the economy and the security successes of most of these countries, its policy of deterring Soviet, North Korean and Vietnamese intimidation has been effective. In the mid 1980s, the Soviet has a quantitative advantage in the military balance in the Pacific region, having greater numbers of newer, more sophisticated submarines, tactical aircraft, bombers, and infantry and so on. At present Soviet naval and air forces would be severely disadvantaged in a conflict with United State forces in maritime Southeast Asia. China’s impact on the security of maritime Southeast Asia already been outlined as it affects the Spratly area and also China’s relation with Vietnam. Other considerations worthy of mention are the upgrading of China merchant fleet and evolution of the PLA navy in recent years. China has not entered the maritime power competition but clearly has the capacity and will to do so. In the near future, China will further expand its volume of maritime trade on a global scale. The PLA navy is attempting to catch up rapidly with those of the Soviet Union and the United States by developing a seaborne nuclear deterrent. It is also obvious from the interview with Liu Huaquing, head of the PLA navy, that China is serious about protecting its claim to the resources of the South China Sea as well as asserting itself as a maritime power in Asia.

At present, the Soviets are effectively projecting their military power into an area which had previously been a preserve of the West. It is disconcerting to United States power to have the Soviets expanding their air and naval assets in Cam Ranh Bay as well as conducting a large scale construction programme within that base. The Cam Ranh Bay base in being expended into an advanced staging and repair facility which will save the Soviets time in projecting their naval forces into the Indian Ocean. In parallel and as back-up facility, in case of a break in relation with Vietnam, which is not likely to happen. The soviet are also developing the naval facility in the Kampuchean port of Ream. These points having been made, the soviet presence in Southeast Asia is prominent only in the military area. The KGB activity in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia in recent years has been closely monitored by the security agencies of these countries. However, the soviets present no role models for economic development.

Future Developments and Conclusion

The 1982 UNCLOS provides compulsory procedures for the settlement of disputes. Many venues are open to disputing parties, including arbitration, adjudication and conciliation, as well as other regional or local ad hoc procedures. As an example is ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus Expert Working Group (ADMM Plus EWG) on Maritime Security. This is one EWG which is giving full attention in as far as “providing a platform for information sharing among ADMM Plus countries in the hope of enhancing and further developing mutual confidence towards regional peace and stability” is concerned. It is sure that with the activities already conducted such as the Table-Top Exercise (TTX) held last year, and those already on the drawing board (i.e. to establish a virtual communication network/website, to conduct exercises at sea); practical operational cooperation in common areas of maritime security will soon become a norm (standard practice) among members, at least, where maritime security is concerned.

Conflict in which resources are said to be the major issue but where, in reality, strategic position is the major motivation, will be more difficult to resolve. Solutions to fisheries questions will apparently leave some countries, such as Thailand, disadvantaged. The claims to ownership of hydrocarbon are, in theory, more easily negotiated. Joint development in production and policy is a possible solution to competing claims within ASEAN. With no clear sight of a permanent solution, the easiest way out as a short term measure is to a model a Joint Development Area (JDA) involving all the respective claimants such that of the Malaysia-Thailand JDA which jointly exploit fisheries and hydrocarbon-based resources. It is worth noting that this idea of JDA has in fact caught the attention of claimants to other disputed areas as well. Therefore, if we could not resolve the challenges we might as well capitalise on the opportunities.

The question of providing a security presence in the region will increasingly become a problem for the regional powers. It may become increasingly difficult for the United States to continue to maintain its long term air and naval presence in Southeast Asia. Political and economic constraints are cited by friends of United States when there are ask to share greater cooperative security burdens.

The major security burden of the future will fall upon the ASEAN nations, Australia, Japan and South Korea. National interest in the security terms may serve to overcome other inherent obstructions such as South Korea-Japanese cultural issues and the lingering effect of anti-Japanese feeling in Southeast Asia as a result of World War II. Australia may have a heightened role to play, given a receptive political climate, as a partner in co-operative naval and air patrol agreements and as a fall-back position for the United State forces. The regional communist states (China, Vietnam) appear to be transferring to the South China Sea their current confrontational relations. In order for stability to be maintained in the South China Sea, China and Vietnam will need to avail themselves of existing mechanisms for resolutions of disputes.


ASEAN Partners invited to Jointly Develop Gas Field, Business Times (Kuala Lumpur), 14 November 1984.
The Malaysian Chief of Defence Force Presentation on 10th ASEAN Chief of Defence Force informal Meeting, Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei Darussalam, 19 to 21 Mac 2013.
Robert A. Brand, Defence Down Under: An American View, Pacific Defence Reporter, June 1985.
J.C Johari, International Relation and Politics, (New Delhi: Sterling Publisher 1997).
You Ji, The Armed Forces of China (Australia: Allen & Unwin, 1999).