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Issues & Insights Vol. 16 – No. 11 – Beyond Bilateralism: Exercising a Maritime Security Network in Southeast Asia

The U.S. 7th Fleet is more powerful and better postured today than it has been at any other point in recent decades. At the same time, an increasingly complex array of transnational threats posed by both state and non-state actors dictates that no single navy can go it alone. This has been clearly demonstrated by recent history, as every modern maritime security situation confronting Southeast Asia has been met with a multinational response. Looking ahead, it is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where the United States would respond to a maritime crisis in Southeast Asia on a strictly bilateral basis. Recognizing that past multilateral responses have been burdened by challenges associated with coordinating diverse forces, the U.S. 7th Fleet is actively seeking to build upon the mutual trust and confidence established through decades of investment in regional partnerships to introduce new multilateral elements into previously bilateral events. Military units need to train on how they will operate and bilateral training alone isn’t good enough anymore.

The need to expand the cooperative maritime security network is broadly recognized and clearly reflected in the growing number of multilateral exercises sponsored by ASEAN members, ASEAN-related bodies, and other regional organizations. The United States strongly supports these efforts and 7th Fleet units routinely participate in multilateral exercises. These multinational exercises build trust, increase mutual understanding, and establish baseline procedures for working together during crises and contingencies. They also strengthen the foundations of what Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently described as a “Principled Security Network.” However, multinational exercises also suffer from a number of distinct drawbacks. The exercises must navigate policy barriers, sometimes very serious, that can limit the value of the training delivered to units involved. Furthermore, as the exercise sponsors seek to maximize the number of partners involved, the level of training must be aligned to the lowest level of interoperability or naval skill. In bilateral settings, on the other hand, navies can look more easily beyond confidence building to focus on the development of sophisticated skills. Such high-level events are essential to strengthening the readiness of 7th Fleet units and their Southeast Asia partners. Ideally, fleets would gain the advantages of bilateral and multilateral training by simply doing more of both sort of exercises. Unfortunately, fleets are not large enough to just do more.

Seeking to find the optimal balance between cultivating multinational cooperative capacity and developing complex maritime operational skills, the 7th Fleet and its regional partners are increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of their training by selectively introducing multilateral elements into previously bilateral training events. The modernization effort underway within the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) exercise series provides an excellent illustration of this evolution at work. With 22 years of history, CARAT has earned its reputation as the premier United States-sponsored maritime security training engagement in Southeast Asia. However, until 2015, CARAT had also remained strictly bilateral. Under the Targeted Multilateral CARAT Initiative, CARAT partners are eager to include other Southeast Asian and extra-regional navies into their exercises. At the same time, the introduction of these multilateral elements is being conducted methodically so that the more complex coordination structures and new capabilities enhance training outcomes without weakening existing value.