Maritime Security Cooperation In South China Sea: Sailing In Different Directions – Analysis


At China’s eighth Xiangshan Forum in October, a major topic of discussion will be visions and the reality of multilateral maritime security co-operation.  The Xiangshan Forum is China’s  ‘answer’ to the U.K. – organized International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue. It views the Dialogue and its organizers as preferentially providing platforms for outside countries’ perspectives and criticism of China’s policies. Presumably many of the speakers at the Forum will provide an Asian and Chinese perspective on regional maritime security cooperation and the obstacles to achieving it. Hopefully they will address directly or indirectly critical questions like: whose security; security of or from what; and realistically how to proceed?

The Southeast Asian claimants (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam), China and the outside powers like the U.S. have very different answers to these questions. Indeed, they are sailing in the same waters but heading in different directions with different missions.

Regarding whose security, will they primarily discuss the security concerns of the South China Sea littoral countries including China? Or will they primarily discuss U.S. and outside powers’ security concerns or what the outside powers think the major security concerns are or should be?  They are not the same.  Moreover these concerns-and their priorities– also differ between individual South China Sea countries – especially including China.

For most South China Sea littoral countries, the prime international security issue is defending their territorial and maritime claims. The South China Sea countries including China have obtained independence since World War II and suffered through bitter internal and international struggles in doing so.  They jealously guard their sovereignty and any perceived undermining thereof.  In the short history of their modern nation states, it is only relatively recently that they have extended their maritime jurisdiction to 200 nautical miles or more.  Leadership and their populaces tend to view the areas and resources gained –and especially the legal rocks– as part of their ‘sacred’ national heritage.  Indeed, their maritime claims have become symbols of national pride and governmental legitimacy that must be defended against other claimants and outside powers.   This nationalist perspective overwhelms proposals for ‘shared security.’ Ironically this is both the main commonality and the main obstacle to their maritime security cooperation.

Beyond this fundamental obstacle, when the presenters consider security of, or from, what, will they focus mainly on common regional security concerns like ‘terrorism’, piracy, smuggling, illegal fishing and environmental degradation? Or will they focus on the more traditional security concerns of the big powers –like conforming to the “international order”, threats to use force, freedom of navigation for warships and warplanes, trade in weapons of mass destruction, and enhancing maritime domain awareness. These and their derivatives are mostly contentious issues between China and the outside powers, not between China and other South China Sea countries– or themselves. The U.S. and other outside powers would presumably view multilateral Freedom of Navigation Operations against China’s claims as a priority for maritime security cooperation.

In addition to the isue of what to focus on, there is also the all important question of how to proceed –that is who should take the initiative and provide the leadership and centrality for the effort?  ASEAN member countries would probably prefer a focus on non-traditional issues with leadership and centrality provided by ASEAN.  The U.S. and China would of course prefer a focus on more traditional security concerns with each wanting to provide the initiative and leadership in a coalition tacitly aimed at the other.

There are other conceptual and practical obstacles to maritime security co-operation in the South China Sea.

Lack of Trust

Many Asian nations harbor deep,-seated, historically based suspicions of each other making security co-operation all the more difficult.  As Lord Palmerstone and Henry Kissinger believed and practiced “there are no permanent friends or enemies – only permanent interests”.    Most countries’ decisions are influenced to some degree by the thinking behind this dictum, particularly in Asia.  Some view maritime security cooperation as advantaging the more powerful who can display the superiority of their technology, assets and weapons and thus tacitly intimidate their potential opponents while observing and detecting the their weaknesses. The same reticence applies to information sharing. This mind-set makes maritime security cooperation all the more difficult.

Differences in Scale

The scales of territory, population, military capacity and economy among South China Sea countries are quite asymmetric.  Many have limited resources and capabilities, and do not want to commit such scarce resources to cooperation to meet threats that are low priority to them.  These might include trade in WMD, non-commercial freedom of navigation concerns, and maritime domain awareness that are in the greater interest of outside maritime powers.

Soft Power Competition Between China and the U.S.

Both China and the U.S. (and its allies Japan, Australia and the U.K.) are offering co-operative maritime security exercises and assistance to the Southeast Asian claimants.  Maritime security co-operation with one is often seen as taking a stand against the other.  This pressure to ‘choose’ is reinforced by China and the U.S. themselves– sometimes publicly- – but more often behind the scenes.  Most Southeast Asian coastal nations welcome assistant in capacity building.  But they may well be more reticent to sign on to any regional scheme that could be taken as ‘siding’ with one against the other  – – or as endorsing a security role for external military forces.

Practical Obstacles

Practical obstacles to maritime security cooperation by Southeast Asian littoral countries include tight operating budgets; lack of common doctrine, language and interoperability of equipment; and widely varying stages of technological development. Intelligence information sharing is particularly sensitive because it involves potentially indirectly revealing sources and methods as well.

First Steps

Some analysts hope that co-operation and regime building in non-traditional security sectors will build trust and confidence and spill over into co-operation on ‘hard’ security issues.  This may eventually happen, but it would involve quite a leap of faith that most are not yet ready to take.


It now seems obvious that multilateral maritime security co-operation in the South China Sea can be successful only if the South China Sea countries collectively perceive a high priority threat and both China and the U.S. are willing and able to co-operate against this threat. Perhaps combating transnational piracy and ‘terrorism’ /insurgencies are prime candidates. Indeed, the cooperation between the Malacca/Singapore Straits countries—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand—in reducing piracy in the Straits shows that it is possible. However due to nationalist concerns, they insist on doing it themselves without outside power assistance—and are careful not to overstep each other’s ‘red lines’. An even better example is the cooperation against piracy/’terrorism’ in the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines with the assistance of the U.S., Australia, and perhaps even China.  But even in these positive examples, cooperation is somewhat retarded by differences in capacity and capability, and reticence regarding transparency, sharing of information and operations in sensitive areas.  To move beyond these beginnings to a region wide effort will take considerable time, and diplomatic effort.  The diplomatic graveyard is full of failed proposals and efforts that did not take regional realities into account.

*Mark J. Valencia, Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China

This piece first appeared in the Diplomat

Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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