Sunday, August 14, 2011


Keynote Address at the International Graduate Students Conference on "Asian Security"
Asian Center, University of the Philippines
13 August 2011

Introduction: Asian Security 30 years ago

The Asian Center is my alma mater and even now, my mother unit, where I continue to teach and which serves as my base for the research that I do. It was in Romulo Hall where I first developed a deep fascination with Asia, and a keen interest in the study of northeast Asia, and then eventually of China and things Chinese. That was over thirty years ago. I recall that as a young graduate student starting my Master of Arts in Asian Studies program in 1980, Japan was the most prosperous country in the region and it enjoyed much economic and cultural influence in the Philippines. It still does. Japan was a leader exercising soft power, back in the days when the concept of soft power had not yet been invented. China was then barely out of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution; it was in the earliest stages of economic reform and opening up, with much of the country and its people still described as 'poor and backward'. Korea was the strange and unfamiliar Hermit Kingdom, with minimal links to the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia itself was a region greatly preoccupied with conflict, with Vietnam occupying Cambodia and other kinds of social and political problems taking place within the various states. ASEAN referred to five rather than ten countries, and was functioning still as an institution intended to prevent its own members from engaging each other in armed confrontation. India was oblivious to the world beyond South Asia and beyond China, and the world was oblivious to India back then. The conflicts in the Middle East raged, with Israel invading Lebanon in 1982, and the Philippines paid attention because of the implications on conflict in Mindanao, but did not have to worry then about the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of OFWs, who had yet to discover the jobs that lay waiting there.

Thirty years ago, the study of Asian regional security -- the theme of our conference today and tomorrow -- meant analyzing the bipolar conflict between the opposing ideological camps led by the United States and the then Soviet Union. Cold War power politics had thickly enveloped the region, and many regional conflicts were perceived as proxy wars between the two rival blocs, with a sub-drama of Sino-Soviet competition. The study of security then involved counting tanks, missiles, and nuclear warheads to see which side had more of this, which side had a longer range of that, which side enjoyed more destructive power and therefore more capacity to deter a first strike by the other.

But of course, there were also other discourses on security. Countries who chose not to take sides in the Cold War joined the Non-aligned Movement. ASEAN under Malaysia's initiative had declared our neighborhood a Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality, an aspirational statement given the realities of the time. Indonesia had proposed that the region be recognized as a nuclear weapons-free zone. ASEAN countries decided to focus on what they called national resilience rather than on building up defenses against armed threats, emphasizing the deep connections between peace, development and security. Like Japan, ASEAN's conception of security was one that focused not on external military threats but on a host of non-military challenges to peace, development and nation-building.

Changing Discourses of security

With the end of the Cold War, later scholars began to assign new conceptual categories to some of these alternative understandings of security - and we began to refer to more inclusive and comprehensive definitions of security, such as "non-traditional security challenges" as against traditional military threats, and "human security" as distinct from state security.

Hunger became re-framed as a matter of "food security", pollution as "environmental security", fuel shortages as "energy security". Even new health challenges such as AIDS and SARS were counted as security issues, alongside transnational crimes such as trafficking in persons, drugs, and small arms, or piracy and armed robbery at sea, or cyber-crime.  In fact, the phenomenon of re-framing old issues in new security parlance also eventually led to a backlash in some circles, against excessive "securitization" of what were really various long-standing problems afflicting the human condition.    

As you may have surmised from looking at our conference program, the concept of security indeed has become so stretched as to be inclusive of many things, allowing us to sit and discuss together what even fifteen years ago would have taken three or four or even five separate conferences to take up. The common denominator across our papers is the challenge these issues represent to the public good, and to values held dear, whether by individuals, communities, nation-states or even groups of states in Asia.

Now let me turn to what I would like to offer as the focus of this address - maritime security in East Asia, and the impact of rising and declining powers on maritime security.

Territorial disputes in East Asia

From where the Philippine archipelago sits, in the middle of the ocean between the South China Sea to the west and the western Pacific ocean to the east, its southern tip kissing Malaysia and its northern highlands overlooking Taiwan, the surrounding environment is undeniably and predominantly a maritime one. Indeed, for the Philippines as well as for much of Southeast Asia, maritime security is a very important element of both national survival and diplomacy with neighbors. 

In recent months, diplomatic squabbles over territorial disputes in the South China Sea (now also referred to in the Philippines as the West Philippine Sea) have been grabbing the headlines and the attention of both the public and policy makers in this country and beyond. There is no need to recount the recent incidents that have transpired between the Philippines and China, and between Vietnam and China in the last several months, as they are still fresh in our memories.  What may be less known to some of us is that similar tensions have flared in the East China Sea between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku or Diaoyutai islands, with even more dire consequences on the relations of these two major countries, and between Japan and South Korea over the Takeshima or Dokdo islands.

Suffice it to say that in the last two years, various states staking different claims to islands, waters and maritime resources, have each undertaken unilateral actions that have been interpreted by others as assertions of sovereignty impinging on disputed areas. These include the passage of laws and policies relating to territory and maritime zones, such as the joint submissions by Vietnam and Malaysia of their partial continental shelf claims before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, as well as the Philippine passage of its baselines law in 2009 (a law that was over fifteen years in the making).  China vehemently opposed both as infringements on its “indisputable sovereignty” in the South China Sea.

Claimant states in both the South China Sea and the East China Sea have also engaged in fisheries and oil exploration and exploitation activities, and have attempted to hamper similar activities by others. China’s actions, arguably reactions to what it may consider provocations by other claimants, have merited the most criticism, largely because : (1) they stem from the most expansive but yet unsubstantiated territorial claims, apparently encompassing  the entire South China Sea with China implicitly treating it as an 'internal lake'; (2) China is perceived to be gearing up to use the threat of force against militarily inferior states, building up its navy while also using civilian agencies such as its Fisheries Authority,  Marine Surveillance and Maritime Safety Administration to hamper activities by other claimants; and (3) China is also seen to have blocked possible regional diplomatic solutions to the disputes through its insistence on holding only bilateral discussions with the individual claimant states.

The types of assertions of sovereignty by the various states that we describe here are themselves not new or remarkable, and we have seen them occurring from time to time, with or without the media fanfare that we have been bombarded with of late.  What is worth examining is that – and here I put forward a proposition - the newest cycle of tensions involves more worrisome and destabilizing elements because it is taking place in a climate of a shifting power configuration in the region.

The rise and decline of powers

This climate is characterized on the one hand by the rapid military rise of a new power - China - one which is driven by new-found economic affluence and a confident and assertive  (according to some, even an arrogant)  nationalism. It is also a rising power that faces prospects of serious internal social and economic instability, with a leadership transition about to take place sometime next year. Both of these latter factors lend support to a chest-thumping foreign policy intended to distract a public from home-grown woes while rallying them behind a temporarily weakened central leadership.

On the other hand, we see the United States, a power whose influence is in rapid decline – not so much by the hand of successful competitors or of challengers to the hegemony it established after the end of the Cold War, but by virtue of its own successive internal mistakes and failures, be they misguided unilateralism in foreign policy under the Bush II administration, irresponsible economic and financial management culminating in the sub-Prime crisis, or unprecedented political deadlock as we have witnessed since the beginning of this month. The fear of some is that these indicate a need for internal catharsis, to be followed by recovery and consolidation, and therefore may once more herald a period of American isolationism.  Others would argue, myself included, that the one good thing the United States still has going for it, and possibly now its only persuasive claim to superpower status, is its military preponderance.  Therefore it will try against the odds to maintain and even expand its military presence and role, in the area most susceptible to the rise of the new power. And what area do I refer to but our region of Southeast Asia, our neighborhood of East Asia, and our maritime spaces of the South China Sea and the East China Sea.

Note the contrasting images we have seen on television just this week:  political deadlock in the US Congress, the credit downgrade of the United States (and then the inexplicable anarchy in the streets of UK) on the one hand; then on the other hand the most recent headline-grabbing development is China's launch of an aircraft carrier, reportedly its first of possibly four planned acquisitions over the coming years. Weakness and disorder in the West; power and ambition in China.

Defense analysts are saying that the political significance of the aircraft carrier, symbolizing China's coming of age as a maritime power, far outweighs its military importance, and that it will likely take another several years before this first carrier is fit to navigate the oceans. Beijing also has a long way before it can play catch up with Washington’s 11 aircraft carriers and everything else under the purview of the powerful US Pacific Command. But for China's immediate neighbors, the fact that the declared purpose of the carrier is to serve China's maritime interests, including defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, in a maritime theater characterized by power asymmetry, China’s expansive claims, and the escalating disputes, naturally causes  concern.

Beyond the territorial and fisheries and oil resource disputes among the regional states themselves are higher stakes involving geopolitical competition for influence among the big powers over strategic maritime spaces. In the last ten years, there had been a number of incidents demonstrating  sharp disagreement between the United States and China over their respective interpretations of what military activities are allowed in foreign EEZs. China has scored the US for engaging in spying in its EEZ and airspace, and the US has insisted on its freedom of navigation, overflight and freedom to conduct even spying activities in Chinese EEZ.

On its part, China realizes the folly of the situation where - without its own blue water navy and maritime law enforcement capacity - it has to depend on the US to provide sealanes security for its own commodity trade and oil imports being transported  all the way from the Gulf region through the Indian Ocean, Malacca Straits and the South China Sea.  This is at least part of the reason that China aspires for naval power. Moreover, as the US continues to provide weapons to Taiwan, China continues to develop new military technologies that allow it to accomplish so-called “area-denial” and “anti-access” defense strategies against the United States.

Efforts by the United States and Japan to involve India - with its powerful navy - in a regional security role to act as a balancer to Chinese influence are also indicative of growing geopolitical competition. Beyond the management of the territorial disputes, therefore, the more critical aspect of maritime security will be addressing challenges that may arise from great power competition and conflict, if indeed this should emerge. 

(See also: Robert Kaplan on South China Sea as "the future of conflict")

Conflation with other maritime security challenges

As we have seen, the territorial and sovereignty disputes are only one of several inter-locking layers of security challenges in the seas of East Asia. Aside from the disputes and military competition for sea control among the big powers, there are also undefined or overlapping maritime boundaries resulting in jurisdiction issues, as well as threats to maritime safety and sealane security such as piracy, terrorism, smuggling and trafficking.

The territorial disputes are very much intertwined with the maritime boundaries and jurisdiction conflicts. Territorial disputes aggravate problems over maritime jurisdiction because they lead to difficulty in determining the basis from which a state’s maritime zones are to be projected, as stipulated in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, therefore leaving it unclear whether one state or another should exercise rights and obligations over particular areas of ocean. On the other hand, the desire to extend maritime boundaries farther out to sea so as to enlarge control over ocean spaces and resources has emboldened states to assert more strongly their respective territorial claims.

At the same time, territorial disputes and overlapping maritime zones become conflated with maritime safety and security issues because many of the non-traditional security challenges such as piracy, smuggling, trafficking of persons and illegal substances tend to occur within the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and territorial seas of coastal states, therefore under UNCLOS giving coastal states the primary duties and obligations to regulate such activities, though they may not have the capacity for it.

Solutions based on Cooperative Security

Looking at the bigger picture, the best thing about non-traditional maritime security challenges is that – unlike territorial  issues and big power rivalry - they reflect common interests and shared goals of the littoral states. Piracy, smuggling, trafficking, illegal fishing are illegal activities typically undertaken by non-state actors but which the states have some obligation to act against. The next best thing is that such challenges are of a transnational nature and can only be properly addressed through cooperative arrangements among various stakeholders. And indeed, there have been a number of multilateral initiatives to deal with such maritime security issues.

In the last decade alone, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the 'track Two' Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) and other security-oriented dialogues have engaged in discussions on maritime security focused on problems such as sealane safety and security, maritime search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and others. In Southeast Asia, regional navies and maritime law enforcement agencies have shown willingness to cooperate on information-sharing and capacity-building  (e.g. the Information Fusion Center in Singapore, the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combatting Piracy and Armed Robbery against   Ships  in  Asia  or  ReCAAP) , moving up to  higher  and  more  complex  levels  of  cooperation,  such  as  the  MALSINDO  (MalaysiaSingaporeIndonesia)  anti-piracy Malacca Straits patrol that covers the territorial  waters  of  the  three  countries,  and  the  MALSINDO  Plus  Thailand  Eyes  in  the  Sky  program  of  coordinated  air  patrols. These are examples of cooperative security approaches that underscore an alternative philosophy that a nation can build security with - rather than against - others. This philosophy of cooperative security is antithetical to the premises of zero-sum, great power competition and should therefore be encouraged.

The fact is , using the language of international relations, anarchy still prevails in  the maritime arena. The seeds of an emerging security architecture have been sown, and for this, credit has to be given to ASEAN which despite severe constraints and limitations (including its own inefficiencies and the demands of internal consolidation), has persisted in playing a central role in bringing the countries of the region together through its gradually expanding concentric dialogue partnerships and multilateral mechanisms. The big powers should also be credited for choosing to engage and participate actively in the processes, and in this connection, the ASEAN  8 or the East Asia Summit later this year (with the new participation of US and Russia in addition to the ASEAN + 6) needs careful nurturing, especially as to how maritime security is addressed in the agenda. International law also provides guideposts that should help constrain the role of military power, if states would only use law for that purpose.

On the subject of maritime security and the impact of rising and declining powers, I have three propositions and embedded in them, three recommendations to put forward:

First, maritime security in the seas of East Asia is not just about territorial disputes. I argue that the territorial disputes are not stand alone issues but rather, are implicated in conflicting maritime jurisdiction claims, brewing big power conflict, and in the imperative of managing shared ocean spaces beset with transnational maritime security challenges. Thus, while it is important to sustain dialogue and to make real progress on the management of the disputes per se, ultimately only the establishment of an integrative, inclusive, multilateral cooperation regime for maritime security can guarantee successful outcomes. Maritime security cooperation, particularly in addressing non-traditional security challenges, would be a good starting point for building a new regional architecture founded on the cooperative security principle. 

Second, the perceived decline of the United States should not be seen as an opportunity for rising powers such as China to exploit in favor of establishing its own military hold in areas traditionally dominated by the United States. In other words, even if in the long term the US becomes weak and preoccupied, particularly in East Asia, China should not try to replace it. Instead such a situation should present China a unique opportunity to redefine itself into the alternative, non-hegemonic, kind of power it can be, in the process building new foundations for its interactions with both neighboring states and other big powers.

Third, the United States is likely to rely more on its allies and security partners in the coming years, both to sustain its primacy in East Asia and to maintain regional stability. A renewed emphasis on bilateral alliances or new security partners should be balanced with a firm US engagement and commitment to help strengthen the existing multilateral mechanisms, including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit/ASEAN + 8. While deterrence and power balancing might be expected to remain operative security approaches for a long time to come, rules-based institutions and regimes offer a better chance at sustainable peace and help develop shared norms. Alliances and new security partnerships should not undermine but help strengthen multilateral cooperative institutions. The earlier US argument in the 1990s that multilateral mechanisms are there to complement the alliance system should be turned around, as it is the system of US military alliances that should help secure the future of cooperative multilateral arrangements.


Indeed, a very important ingredient for peace to prevail is for great powers in these uncertain times to exercise calculated self-restraint, while an important ingredient for the successful management of territorial disputes and other maritime security challenges is for small and middle-powers to insist on norms of moderation and consultation, privileging cooperation over competition.

One can only hope that thirty years from now, graduate student conferences such as this one organized by the Asian Center’s hardworking students, will be less preoccupied with Asian security concerns. Perhaps that would mean that peace and cooperation have won the day.

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