Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Don't mention Beijing: The EU and Asia's maritime security

The security challenges facing EU member-states and south-east Asian countries are strikingly similar. Both regions have difficulties with their neighbours: assertive Chinese claims in the South China Sea are a less dramatic version of Russia's annexation of Crimea; refugees in boats and illegal migration are creating humanitarian and security challenges, and piracy threatens sea-borne commerce. More co-operation between the EU and ASEAN (the Association of South East Asian Nations) on maritime security could help both of them, but it could especially contribute to south-east Asian security.   

Mention maritime security at an ASEAN meeting and the conversation quickly turns to China and the South China Sea. Five of its six littoral states are members of ASEAN. But China claims 80 per cent of the South China Sea, including its islands, rocks and reefs and the natural resources it contains. That does not go down well in the region. The most recent spat arose when satellite photos showed China reclaiming land, erecting infrastructure and even building a runway on Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross Reef. These semi-submerged reefs are part of the Spratly island group, some or all of which is claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei and China. In this tangled mess of maritime disputes, China’s construction work creates new brick-and-mortar facts and further weakens prospects for international dispute settlement. On April 28th, increasingly alarmed by Chinese moves, ASEAN's ten member-states adopted an uncharacteristically unified position, saying that the land reclamations "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea." South-east Asian officials next expect China to declare an air-defence zone over a major part of the South China Sea, in a further step to bring the sea under de facto Chinese control. Not surprisingly, all littoral states have been investing in submarines, ships or other capabilities as part of a naval arms race.

For Europe the main concern is that trade disruptions resulting from tensions in the South China Sea affect European companies and consumers. The EU is ASEAN's second largest trading partner; the largest source of foreign direct investment, and main development aid donor. The EU has concluded, or is negotiating, free-trade agreements with nearly all ASEAN members. Thus, Europe shares south-east Asia's interest in maritime security.

That security is not only jeopardised by Chinese assertiveness; boatloads of migrants from Bangladesh and refugees from Myanmar pose a challenge to the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian authorities. European states are also grappling with the migration issue. In April, the European Council held an emergency meeting after more than 800 migrants died when their boat capsized in the Mediterranean. The European Commission now wants to disrupt the smuggling networks. Some ASEAN governments, controversially, opt to turn the boats around, leaving the refugees to face uncertainty and peril. The symmetry of the threat posed by illegal migration, and the diversity of their responses, should convince the EU and ASEAN at least to share their experiences of approaches that work.

Piracy is another area where the two regions share interests. Since 2008 European navies have co-ordinated a multinational anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa, to which some Asian navies have contributed, including those of Singapore and Malaysia. In the Straits of Malacca, since 2004, four littoral states have organised a patrol with aircraft and naval vessels to increase security in the strategic waterway. Both operations have had success, as piracy rates have dropped, although the threat remains and the two organisations should share lessons learnt.

ASEAN's main geopolitical challenge, however, is the rise of China. The organisation is too divided and weak to balance China's growing influence. Individual states, such as Thailand, the Philippines and increasingly Vietnam, look to Washington for help. Simultaneously, these and other governments express concern at being caught in the middle of a Sino-American 'great power' clash. Stronger relations with the EU could offer a way for south-east Asian states to hedge; to avoid being overly dependent on either Washington or Beijing. In a region of intense geopolitical competition, the EU is welcomed as a non-threatening party that promotes multilateral, not zero-sum, solutions.  Meanwhile Europe, reluctant to play the part of America’s junior partner but increasingly aware of its economic and security interests in Asia, is slowly finding its voice.

In 2013, the EU and ASEAN set up a high-level dialogue focused on maritime security. This dialogue could eventually contribute to resolving South China Sea disputes by encouraging ASEAN to act coherently on maritime issues, although this is not its official objective. For now, the question of how to handle China is too controversial for ASEAN. And so, the EU and ASEAN talk about a response to China's actions, without actually mentioning the big neighbour: after all, many of the things ASEAN could do to counter piracy, illegal migration or smuggling would also improve the region's ability to monitor, respond to and possibly discourage Chinese moves in disputed areas of the South China Sea.

The EU should offer its support and expertise on maritime security – drawing on its own experiences. By focusing on issues like people smuggling or piracy, Europe's involvement in south-east Asian security affairs will increase; it will build trust between the two organisations, and, by making maritime security about more than just China, it will invite the involvement of all members of ASEAN, not just those who have problems with Beijing.

As part of its dialogue with ASEAN, the EU should launch practical and political initiatives. On the practical side, resolving technical issues related to data sharing and analysis between coast guards and other regional agencies would improve maritime awareness. The EU could also help ASEAN member-states identify shortfalls in their maritime assets and develop ways to resolve them. On the operational side, the EU and ASEAN should organise joint exercises and training, for instance in the field of search and rescue operations. European navies, coast guards and Frontex – the EU’s border agency – should share experiences (whether positive or negative) from Operation Triton, the EU’s border security mission in the Mediterranean. The EU could give advice on how to organise civil-military missions with a group of 28 diverse member-states. At the political level, the EU should help ASEAN develop common norms for policing its maritime zone. This could result in a code of conduct that respects international maritime law and the freedom of navigation. This would help countries in the region to defuse tensions and avoid misunderstandings.

These measures will not easily change the security dynamic in the region, but they would better equip south-east Asian nations to respond to maritime challenges. They may be designed to address non-traditional security issues like piracy or illegal migration, but a more coherent and capable ASEAN would also offer the best chance of deterring risky Chinese manoeuvres. Sometimes it is best to pretend that the elephant is not in the room.

Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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