Photo: Antara/M. Risyal Hidayat
Maritime cooperation in Southeast Asia has been significantly boosted by the various regional forums and institutions that are in place. Most notably, the ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF), the Extended ASEAN Maritime Forum (EAMF), and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) have created crucial linkages between ASEAN countries and between ASEAN countries and important external countries, such as China, Japan, India, and the United States.
These mechanisms are crucial to peace and stability in Southeast Asia. They have expanded lines of communication between officials, bureaucracies and agencies in ASEAN countries and also between ASEAN and outside players, which is extremely useful in limiting misperceptions and fostering enhanced trust and understanding among regional players. Ongoing communication and dialog is also essential coordinating actions and speeding up response times to regional crises. Furthermore, they have helped to institutionalize regional norms of non-violence and conflict resolution.
Just as importantly, consider this: the various international institutions, courts, and treaties are important to world peace, stability, and order, but they also need to be supplemented and reinforced by regional pacts and entities. For instance, regional mechanisms, such as the ASEAN Maritime Forum and the ASEAN Regional Forum, function in ways consistent with international law and justice, which harmonizes regional and international orders, making regional and international security and politics operate in sync. But they also allow Southeast Asia to carve out its own space to determine its own interests, rules of the game, and standards of behavior. They enable Southeast Asia to pursue its own sense of identity and uniqueness—something that cannot be done in global forums.
Specifically, Southeast Asia’s maritime cooperation has enabled the region to protect the right of self-determination and ensure the proper respect for all ASEAN members—principles that are cherished by ASEAN members and that can get pushed to the side in global bodies as world powers jockey for power and influence.
The ARF, AMF, and EAMF have also benefitted specific countries themselves. Take Indonesia as an example. These mechanisms have enabled Indonesia to put into practice innovative doctrines such as the “1000 friends, no enemies” as well as the idea of dynamic equilibrium. Let’s take the latter as an example.
If you recall, Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has coined his strategic vision for Southeast Asia and Asia more generally as “dynamic equilibrium.” The term nicely captures how Indonesia wants political and security relations in Southeast Asia to look like: increasingly integrative and holistic, cooperative, stable, and peaceful. As I've previously written:
In a 2010 speech at the Council on Foreign Relations, Natalegawa argued that he sees dynamic equilibrium as “not quite in a classic balance-of-power situation where not one country is preponderant in our region, but in a more holistic and a more hopefully positive sense, in the sense that we don’t wish to see our region dominated by one country, whoever that country is, but we wish to see inclusivity, more countries, the merrier – the more, the merrier; and for countries to be engaged in multisectoral issues, not only security but also political and also environment, economic, social-cultural, et cetera.
The EAMF allows for precisely this kind of world. It is grounded in the notion of peace and stability and inclusivity. Rather than walling itself off from the rest of the world, ASEAN has made great strides to bring other countries into discussions and negotiations about Southeast Asia-related matters. In particular, the EAMF, which held its third annual meeting in August, brings together a motley crew of countries, such as ASEAN members, China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, and the U.S., to work together to enhance trust, openness, and cooperation.
Chinese actions and positions, no doubt, have been frustrating at times. But care and attention need to be exercised at the moment. There is no need to demonize China, which would only anger it, inflaming regional tensions. And there is no need to collectively gang up on China. That would only make China feel like it is being encircled in the Southeast---something it already feels is happening to its East. The key is to find ways to ensure that China feels safe, that it is allowed to be heard, especially regarding its interests in Southeast Asia, and that it has a stake in the regional status quo. That leads me to think that ASEAN must find better ways to engage with China.
I am not suggesting that ASEAN side or align with China. That would be destabilizing, at both the regional and international levels. It would alarm the U.S. and its friends, especially those in Asia, possibly provoking them into unproductive actions. It would abet China’s rise, practically handing it regional hegemony, thereby ensuring ASEAN members exist as subordinates or pawns—no matter how much China would underplay this scenario—in regional politics and security. It would also put at risk Southeast Asia’s cherished political and cultural identities.
No, instead, ASEAN needs to create more and better access points to China, especially on maritime issues. Perhaps a strengthened and empowered EAMF could fit the bill. Or, alternatively, given the importance of the seas in Southeast Asian politics, security, and economics, and to ensure that maritime issues get the continued and proper attention and resources they require, it might be well worth it to give serious thought to establishing an ASEAN Maritime Community (AMC).
What would this proposed, hypothetical AMC look like? How would it work?
To begin, special emphasis within the AMC should be on an AMC+1, which would consist of ASEAN countries plus China. There should be routine, periodic meetings—not just annual affairs—involving a wide swath of individuals from ASEAN countries and China. After all, maritime cooperation is not just a security matter. Of course, defense/military concerns are there and real, but issues pertaining to politics, foreign policy, economics, tourism, the environment, and natural disasters (and disaster relief), among others, are pertinent to 21st century Southeast Asia, as well as Asia as a whole. With this in mind, then, government officials and leaders, economic elites, along with policy experts, academics and even non-governmental organizations, from all of these issue-areas need to be brought into this entity and fully engaged with their counterparts from within ASEAN and China on a regular basis.
Undoubtedly, it would be fruitful for this proposed AMC to build bridges to other powerful and important countries beyond China, such as Russia, Indian, Japan, and the United States, among others. But that is a secondary step. The first priority is to get China on board and develop a good, solid working relationship with Beijing on maritime issues.
In terms of concrete actions and plans, an AMC should work toward implementing a number of other things, some of which include (1) routine defense/military to defense/military visits, (2) joint patrols, (3) joint military/humanitarian/piracy exercises, (4) the establishment of a maritime hotline, (5) a strengthened declaration of conduct, (6) a code of conduct on the South China Sea, (7) and a common security policy on common maritime goals and interests. Together, all of these things, if done well, can markedly improve the points of access and interaction, strengthen communications, enhance confidence and trust, and begin to shift the regional debate from what divides China and Southeast Asia toward the areas they have in common.
Yes, some of above are happening already. But my suggested approach calls for more time and effort to be invested on maritime issues. It also sees a more integrated approach—in terms of issue-area—as a good path to pursue. Moreover, a formal mechanism such as an AMC will likely be well-positioned to draw more resources to cope with the extant maritime challenges that ASEAN members face.
To be sure, there would be difficulties associated with an AMC, so it should not be viewed as a panacea. It could be difficult to get off the ground. For instance, it could face funding issues. Perhaps some ASEAN countries might resist its creation. Of course, there is the risk that, even if established, ASEAN and China might not grant it the attention that it deserves. And China could attempt to use the AMC as a vehicle to wield influence and control over the policies of ASEAN. Despite these potential difficulties, it is the huge payoffs, as stated above, that make it worthwhile to give strong consideration to an AMC.