Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Maritime Cooperation in Southeast Asia

KRI Bung Tomo dan Usman Harun (Foto: Antara/M. Risyal Hidayat)
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.
What could upset this equilibrium is the rise of China. China is rising in economic and military power and pressing its claims—at times, diplomatically, other times via military muscle—in the South and East China Seas, which has caused a ripple of concern throughout Asia and at times dissension within ASEAN. To this point, talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea between ASEAN and China have not any progress. Indeed, it is well known that China opposes any attempts to internationalize the South China Sea claims and disputes. Instead, China much prefers to discuss these issues bilaterally, on an individual basis, between Beijing and each of the countries making claims to parts of the South China Sea.

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.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Big Problems for America's War in Syria

Smoke rises after an U.S.-led air strike in the Syrian town of Kobani Ocotber 10, 2014. REUTERS-Umit Bektas
U.S. air strike in Kobane. Credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The Obama administration has placed a big bet on the so-called  military moderates in Syria, the FSA. It's these folks that team Obama sees as doing quite a bit of the heavy lifting in containing, if not thwarting, ISIS. In brief, here's BO's plan: The U.S. and Sunni countries have launched air strikes on ISIS positions (including captured oil refineries) and personnel to weaken ISIS's expansion; at the same time, the U.S. and its allies are shipping arms and engaging in military training to strengthen the FSA to the point that it can better deal with a weakened, degraded ISIS. The FSA is, in short, supposed to be the anti-ISIS coalition's "boots on the ground." This has been portrayed as a good thing by Team Obama, suggesting that this plan will save the U.S. the burden of putting combat forces into battle.

Time for a reality-check: Is this really a good thing? Here are some things to think about.

1. The military power of the FSA has been badly degraded by ISIS and pro-Assad forces over the last few years. As a result, the FSA is in an even worse position now than it was when Obama originally debated arming the group over a year ago. Put simply, the asymmetries in power between the FSA and its opponents has significantly widened.

2. The moderates likely aren't so moderate. Reports say that the moderates have been switching sides, taking their arms with them as they defect. And when they're not switching sides, they're working with them, as in the case of the FSA and al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria. Never more was this evident than when the U.S. almost bombed a FSA building, precisely because of its proximity to a Nusra location--which reflects a closeness between both sides that the U.S. didn't expect to find.

3. The moderates aren't unified and cohesive, a problem that has plagued them for years. The FSA is an umbrella group of militias and rebels, each of whom have their own interests and agendas. Some of these interests and agendas align with those of the U.S., some don't at all.

4. Al-Nusra and ISIS seem to be America's primary targets, with a heavy emphasis placed on knocking out the latter. But bombing the so-called Khorasan group, a cell of AQ operatives within Nusra, has caused an uproar among some in the FSA who see Nusra as an ally in the fight against ISIS. This uproar has caused further divisions within the FSA, with some supporting the air strikes and some harshly critical and against them. These are our America's allies?

So what does all of this mean? In short, Obama's bet on the moderates is an extraordinarily bad one. The moderates have accomplished little militarily. The air strikes have helped, but only to a small degree. And ISIS is still on the move, showing no sign of slowing down.

All might not be lost if, perhaps, Team Obama has other cards up its sleeve. Alas, it likely doesn't.

Sensibly, the U.S. wants Turkey to get involved in the fight against ISIS, but one part of that requires Turkey to strengthen the fighting capabilities of the Kurds, something turkey is reluctant to do, despite the internal pressure from protesters and rioters to do so. At this point, because of its own Kurdish troubles, Turkey sees an empowered Kurdish population in Syria as a graver threat than a rampaging, malignant ISIS, which is both alarming and horrific. Indeed, right now, Turkish selfishness is abetting the fall of Kobane to ISIS, which puts hundreds of Kurds, if not more, who are outgunned and outmanned, directly in harm's way.

To get Turkey on board, it wants the U.S., along with its allies, to set up a no-fly zone in Syria. But this, too, is fraught with problems. It means that the U.S. would have to make a greater investment in the war, in terms of manpower and expense, which runs counter to team Obama's plan for a "limited war" and could possibly pave the way for another prolonged American war in the Middle East. The other wrinkle here is that setting up a no-fly zone would necessitate the U.S. either to take out Syrian air defenses or to coordinate with Assad. For now, both options are a no-go for Team Obama.

Furthermore, it also doesn't help that there's little communication between the FSA and the American military, which means the latter doesn't have the requisite eyes and ears to know where enemy targets are. The U.S. military is firing blindly. Of course, this ups the chances of killing innocent civilians, which only leads to bad things--such as turning them off to the war, angering them, and even possibly radicalizing them.

America and its allies' "excellent adventure" in Syria is a giant mess.