PacNet #33 – China cannot hinder international navigation through Taiwan Strait

During China Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on June 13, he responded to a Bloomberg question concerning the legal status of the Taiwan Strait. Asked about Chinese military officials’ contention that the Taiwan Strait does not constitute “international waters,” he said that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China’s territory. …According to UNCLOS and Chinese laws, the waters of the Taiwan Strait, extending from both shores toward the middle of the Strait, are divided into several zones including internal waters, territorial sea, contiguous zone, and the Exclusive Economic Zone. China has sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Taiwan Strait.”

He went on to say that calling the strait international waters is “a false claim” by “certain countries” searching for a pretext for “threatening China’s sovereignty and security.”

However, while the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) does not use the phrase “international waters” most waters, even territorial seas and exclusive economic zones (EEZs), can be used for international navigation.

Instead, the relevant UNCLOS terms concerning movement through the Taiwan Strait are that it is a “transit passage” through a strait used for “international navigation.”

The Taiwan Strait’s importance as a shipping channels is well-documented: it links major economies such as China, Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, India, among others. Maritime traffic on the Strait has also increased drastically in recent years. The Strait’s width is approximately 220 nautical miles at its widest, meaning that for both China and Taiwan, it falls within the 200 nautical miles afforded to all countries for their EEZs. Because the Strait is “used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone,” as defined by Article 37 of UNCLOS, “all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.”

Transit passage

Transit Passage is very well-founded in UNCLOS. According to Article 38, it “means the exercise of…the freedom of navigation and overflight solely for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit of the strait.”

One may observe that this right of transit passage merely repeats all states’ freedom of navigation and overflight within any state’s EEZ (as spelled out in Article 58) as well as in the high seas (according to Article 87).

Thus, the right of all States to navigate and fly over to transit, in this case, the Taiwan Strait, is very well defined in international law, and shall not be impeded by China or any other state.

Long-standing international conventions

In addition, UNCLOS recognizes “the legal regime in straits in which passage is regulated in whole or in part by long-standing international conventions in force specifically relating to such straits” (Article 35).

In the Taiwan Strait, there is a center line called the Davis median line with its origins in the 1954 US-Taiwan Mutual Defense Treaty. Even though China does not officially recognize the existence of the de facto center line, there has been a tacit understanding on both sides of the strait to respect the unofficial boundary. The line was established in 1954, and through August 2020, there was only four reported Chinese military incursions across the line.

Since September 2020, however, China has sent many airplanes into the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone, presumably crossing the Davis median line many times.

China may be trying to ignore the Davis median line. But its historical value in keeping the peace in the Taiwan Strait for more than half a century should be considered by an UNCLOS tribunal, in case of an eventual dispute in front of an UNCLOS panel, as “long-standing international conventions in force” that should be enforced.

In any event, China cannot do much to legally hinder or impede all States’ right of transit passage through the Taiwan Strait. China should respect the tradition of the median line, and deal with Taiwan Strait issues differently.

Innocent passage

In addition to the right of transit passage with freedom of navigation and overflight through the Strait in the EEZ and high seas, Article 45 says ships of all states also enjoy the right of innocent passage (in other words, is not engaged in prohibited activities) through China’s (and Taiwan’s) territorial sea within the Taiwan Strait.

In other words, China cannot claim the Taiwan Strait as its own waters, be they territorial seas or EEZ, just to hinder international navigation.

Tran Đinh Hoanh () is an international litigator and writer in Washington DC.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged.

Coast Guard Engagement as an Interim Alternative to Bilateral Maritime Cooperation

Issues & Insights Vol. 22, SR1, pp. 24-29

Abstract

The U.S.-Philippine alliance has been under strain in the past several years due to domestic political challenges, notwithstanding Manila’s worsening external security environment. To cope, Washington needs an interim approach to continue its maritime security cooperation with Manila, one that would not be perceived as simply a repackaged strategy to curtail Beijing’s aggressive behavior. This paper looks into the United States Coast Guard’s (USCG) recent involvement in promoting maritime security in the Philippines and the broader Southeast Asia. It poses the question: Why is coast guard cooperation between the United States and the Philippines serving as an interim approach to sustain maritime security cooperation? This paper contends three reasons why the USCG-Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) engagement is a step in the right direction that could, in the long term, advance a more rules-based and stable regional maritime environment. First, security cooperation through coast guard engagements avoids political intrigues and is welcomed by regional countries. As a regional norm, coast guard cooperation supports the non-militarization of maritime disputes and is not viewed as an escalation of tensions. Second, coast guard organizations have multifaceted functions that play numerous roles and are not solely focused on patrolling contested waters. For instance, coast guards have responsibilities that help maintain maritime order and protect global trade. Lastly, the use of the coast guard is a non-partisan issue regardless of the inclination of the government in power. The paper concludes with policy recommendations that underscore how coast guard cooperation between the Philippines and the United States is a complement (vice substitute) to current and future military engagements advancing the alliance.

Click here to download the full volume.


About this Volume

Authors of this volume participated in the inaugural U.S.- Philippines Next-Generation Leaders Initiative, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, through the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines. With backgrounds from academia, public policy, civil society and industry, the cohort brings rich insights on the past, present, and future of the U.S.-Philippines bilateral security relations.

The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their respective organizations and affiliations. Pacific Forum’s publications do not necessarily reflect the positions of its staff, donors and sponsors.


Jay Tristan Tarriela is a commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander. He is the Director of PCG’s Leadership and Doctrine Development Center. He obtained his Ph.D. in Policy Analysis from the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo under the GRIPS Global Governance (G-cube) Program. At GRIPS, he was a Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) ASEAN Public Policy Leadership Scholar. Previously, he was assigned at the PCG national headquarters in Manila and performed numerous functions in different capacities, including maritime security capability development and organizational restructuring reforms. He also acted as the personal adviser to the PCG Commandant on human resource management, particularly on recruitment plans, career management, and personnel specialization. He attended numerous military and coast guard training, locally and abroad. He holds a graduate degree from the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy Graduate School and a Master of Policy Studies from GRIPS and the Japan Coast Guard Academy, where he was part of the inaugural class of the Maritime Safety and Security Program launched jointly by both institutions in 2016. He is also a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, Honolulu. Further, he has written opinion-editorial articles published by The Diplomat, The National Interest, Analyzing War, and other leading publications.


Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Munro (left) and Philippine Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Vessel Gabriela Silang (right) render honors to each other following bilateral operations and exercises on Aug. 31, 2021, in the West Philippine Sea. Source: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Marine Corps Sgt. Kevin G. Rivas

PacNet #59 – “JAUKUS” and the emerging clash of alliances in the Pacific

When the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) agreement was announced in September, Moscow’s initial response was gloating. In 2015 Paris had reneged on a deal to sell Russia two amphibious Mistral warships and now France itself has been let down by its close allies.

Quickly, however, emotional satisfaction gave way to cold geopolitical calculations, which had little to do with France. On the surface, the military-technological arrangement of the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia is of minor concern to Russia. AUKUS’ area of focus is the Indo-Pacific, whereas Russia’s most vital security interests and geopolitical ambitions are in Europe and the Middle East. In the Pacific, Russia’s strategic posture is defensive and status-quo-oriented.

That doesn’t mean Russia isn’t concerned. The Russian Pacific Fleet currently has only seven nuclear-powered submarines on active duty, and Australia is expected to receive eight submarines with American and British assistance. Still, no one expects that Russia will need to fight Australian subs, if only because their area of operation would likely be much closer to the South China Sea than the Sea of Okhotsk.

Everyone understands that AUKUS has China in its crosshairs. So, Moscow’s stance on AUKUS is first and foremost determined by Russia’s relationship with China. Mostly because they have a shared foe—the United States—Moscow and Beijing have been building up a “strategic partnership” since the late 1990s. The Russo-Chinese alignment, as it stands now, has all the features of a quasi-alliance, or entente.

There is little chance that Russia and the United States work out their differences in the foreseeable future, especially given the Ukraine issue. At the same time, a multi-faceted geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry between Beijing and Washington is intensifying. The Moscow-Beijing bond, then, will only get stronger. Russia expects Chinese support in its confrontation with NATO in Eastern Europe. As we will see, based on readouts of official talks and commentary from Chinese state media, Beijing seeks to enlist Moscow as an ally against US-led coalitions in the Indo-Pacific. This is why Moscow opposes AUKUS—and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (“Quad”) between the United States, Japan, India, and Australia—even if these arrangements do not pose a direct challenge to Russian security.

Moscow has repeatedly expressed its disapproval of AUKUS, including at the highest level. In a recent public appearance, Vladimir Putin called it a “closed alliance” whose establishment “leads to more tensions” in “the Pacific zone.” During his videoconference with Xi Jinping on Dec. 15, both leaders denounced AUKUS, as well as the Quad. Putin has also expressed support for Beijing’s “legitimate position on Taiwan-related issues.” According to Xinhua’s account of the Putin-Xi conversation, Russia “will firmly oppose moves by any force to undermine China’s interests using Taiwan-related issues, and moves to form any type of ‘small groups’ in the Asia-Pacific region.” Reciprocating Putin’s understanding of Chinese strategic concerns in the Indo-Pacific, Xi “supported Russia’s demands” that NATO should stop expanding toward Russian borders.

Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov referred to AUKUS as a “bloc” and “destabilizing factor,” which may “usher in a new phase of struggle for dominance not only in the Asia-Pacific, but in other regions as well.” Gerasimov also emphasized AUKUS’ potential to proliferate nuclear technology. In another sign of Russian solidarity with China, the Russian envoy at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna joined his Chinese counterpart in labeling AUKUS a potential nonproliferation concern. (As an aside, Russia’s purism with respect to the nonproliferation dimension of AUKUS may smack of double standards. For decades, since the 1980s, the Soviet Union/Russia has been leasing nuclear-powered submarines to India and this collaboration program is still active.)

To counter AUKUS, Beijing may expect more from Moscow than rhetorical solidarity. With China bracing for a long-haul rivalry with the United States and its many allies and partners, Beijing will probably attempt to construct its own network of alliances, and Russia will be front and center. In military terms, Russia offers three benefits to China. First, Russia is the most significant external supplier of military technology for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), even as China is becoming increasingly capable of designing and producing most sophisticated weapons. Second, Russia can tie down US forces in the European theater, distracting Washington and weakening its capacity to respond to contingencies in the Western Pacific. Finally, Russia could support China in the Pacific strategic theater in the event of a confrontation, most probably over Taiwan.

It is perhaps only a question of time before a fourth nation, Japan, throws its weight behind AUKUS. De facto, it is already there, informally, and a formal linkage may be in the works, despite US officials’ claims to the contrary. Tokyo has consistently signaled that it would not stand aloof in a contingency over Taiwan, and it has been more vocal in recent months.

The emerging “JAUKUS” is primarily a naval partnership. If there is a war between China and JAUKUS countries, it will happen primarily at sea. This is where Russia’s assets in the North Pacific would come in handy, and there are signs that Beijing is beginning to see Russia as an important part of China’s response to the maritime threats coming from the JAUKUS coalition. Even just a month before AUKUS was announced, the Russian International Affairs Council published an article by Zhao Huasheng, a professor of Fudan University, in which he proposes to add a maritime dimension to the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. The article argues that “China and Russia are facing serious security threats from sea, some of which are from the same source. Maritime military cooperation between China and Russia can enhance their respective military defense capabilities and more effectively safeguard their security.”

Given the sensitivity of the subject, it is unlikely a senior Chinese scholar published this article without a nod from Beijing. In a Russian-Chinese expert roundtable in late October, which I attended, there were also calls from the Chinese side for arrangements consisting of states not happy with AUKUS and the Quad.

The maritime domain has been an increasingly important component in Russo-Chinese military cooperation. The most spectacular recent manifestation was a “joint patrol” by Russian and Chinese warships in the Pacific Ocean, in which they nearly circumnavigated Japan. Of note, the commanding ship of the joint flotilla was the Chinese newest destroyer Nanchang. Beijing’s Global Times said the Sino-Russian naval demonstration was “a warning to Japan as well as the US, which have been rallying allies to confront China and Russia, destabilizing the region.”

The North Pacific is the most logical theater to operationalize a Moscow-Beijing military axis. Russia and China have a direct presence in the region, where they maintain substantial military capabilities, which can complement each other. It is also in the North Pacific that Russia and China directly interact with a shared adversary—the United States and its junior ally Japan. Last June, Russia held massive military drills in its Far East and adjacent waters. The exercise simulated “a standoff of two coalitions of states,” even though the composition of antagonistic coalitions was not revealed.

Russia’s naval capabilities in the Pacific are limited, with the Russian Pacific Fleet being essentially a green-water navy. Still, Russia can provide a range of force multiplier functions to the Chinese in the event of a new Pacific War. For example, Chinese submarines can use Russia’s Pacific littoral zone, especially the Sea of Okhotsk, as a sanctuary. In recent years, Russia has been building its coastal defenses in the Pacific, paying special attention to the Kuril Islands that guard the entrance into the Sea of Okhotsk. The prospect of China getting basing rights on the Russian Pacific Coast, perhaps in Kamchatka, also no longer looks out of question. When a conflict over Taiwan erupts and the United States and Japan intervene militarily, China might rely on Russia to launch a counterattack against Alaska and the Japanese Islands.

One might ask about Russia’s motivation to get drawn into a Pacific war between China and JAUKUS, especially given that such a war could easily escalate? The simple answer is that Moscow has no choice. If the Ukraine crisis escalates and the West imposes massive sanctions on Russia, Moscow will turn to China for an economic lifeline. Chinese help is unlikely to come free of charge. In return, Russia might be asked to accommodate Beijing’s military requests in the Pacific.

North Korea is another strategic player in the North Pacific whose geo-economic dependence on China, along with its avowed anti-Americanism, makes it a suitable candidate for a Sino-centric alliance network.

Over the next few years, a “RUCNDPRK” partnership could become a counterbalance to JAUKUS.

Artyom Lukin (artlukin@mail.ru) is Deputy Director for Research at the Oriental Institute – School of Regional and International Studies, Far Eastern Federal University (Vladivostok, Russia).

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #52 – The Growing Crisis of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing

A recent conference, in which Pacific Forum joined the Navy League’s Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange (IMSE), the East-West Center, and the Daniel K. Inouye Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, focused on the problems of IUU fishing and potential solutions to counter its recent dramatic growth. The author was one of the organizers of the conference, whose proceedings and session videos can be found at https://imsehawaii.org.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing has become a major problem worldwide and particularly in the Pacific. According to the US Coast Guard, “IUU fishing has replaced piracy as the leading global maritime security threat. If IUU fishing continues unchecked, we can expect deterioration of fragile coastal States and increased tension among foreign-fishing Nations, threatening geo-political stability around the world.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration states that approximately 60% of fish caught worldwide come from the Pacific Ocean. Over half are species that are unsustainable if fishing at current rates and methods continue. As fishing fleets have grown they have outstripped the oceans abilities to replenish stocks. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is estimated to catch approximately 35% of fish, according to NOAA statistics. Dr. Carlyle Thayer of the University of New South Wales stated in his address to the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange’s recent conference on the subject that the PRC is also the no. 1 nation for IUU fishing. Others have been complicit in IUU fishing, including Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnam, after receiving a warning from the European Union that its fish exports would be barred from its market formulated a high-level task force to work against such practices. Taiwan for diplomatic reasons has done the same. But IUU fishing tends to be a low-risk/high-value activity as penalties for IUU fishers consist mostly of modest fines.

There are many aspects to the problem.

  • Illegal fishing is conducted in waters under the jurisdiction of a state but without the permission of that state.
  • Unreported fishing involves a catch that has not been reported, as required.
  • Unregulated fishing occurs where there are no management measures and is conducted in a manner inconsistent with treaty responsibilities.

Besides over-harvesting of species, IUU fishing takes money from legal fishers and out of local economies. Fisheries are the primary source of income for many Pacific and Oceanic states. It is projected by the Nature Conservancy that many Pacific Island nations will not be able to meet their local food needs in a few years given their population growth and continued IUU fishing. The Nature Conservancy also estimates that over 95% of IUU fishing activities by the Pacific Tuna Fleet involve legally licensed boats that misreport their catch, not by so-called unregistered dark boats.”

IUU fishing also destroys habitat. Bottom trawling damages corals and sea grasses. The losses of sea grasses are important regarding COand climate change. It is estimated the loss of grasses has a greater effect than the CO2 emissions from Germany or the international aviation industry.

Other crimes are associated with IUU fishing, including forgery of records and fraud, corruption, false vessel identity and flagging, licensing avoidance and deception, human rights abuses (e.g., forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor), illegal transshipments of catch and fuel, smuggling of drugs and protected species, black marketeering and money laundering, and the evasion of penalties.

Finding potential solutions to counter IUU fishing was the principal focus of the Indo-Pacific Maritime Security Exchange conference in early September.

Heretofore surveillance of territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zones relied on a nation’s patrol ships and aircraft and active transmissions, such as from the Advanced Identification System (AIS) and vessel monitoring system (VMS), mandated by nations to monitor ships in their areas of responsibility. But IUU fishers often turn off these transmitters—and increasingly spoof their signals—to hide illegal activities.

Sea-based aerial drones are proving to be a valuable adjunct to ships and aircraft for covert surveillance, according to the US Coast Guard, which employs the ScanEagle drone from its newer cutters. Satellite electro-optical imagery has been available commercially for years, but is limited by field of view, resolution, and weather. When cued by other sources, however, it can help identify suspicious vessels.

Newer forms of imagery include the Visible and Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite, from NOAA’s Joint Polar-orbiting Satellite System, which detects the bright nighttime lights used by many purse seiner and ring net fishing boats to attract squid and other species. Another is synthetic aperture radar (SAR). It allows surveillance in all-weather conditions as it penetrates clouds and darkness. Many nations have orbited SAR satellites, and commercial companies have recently entered the marketplace for SAR imagery.

The collection of radio frequency emissions by commercial satellites is a new capability. Several US and European firms have entered this market and can pick up navigation radar and other radio emissions from boats at sea even if the boats turn off their required AIS or VMS broadcasts.

In development are unmanned vessels that tow underwater hydrophones that can detect, classify, and report via satellite vessels by type and activity through analysis of sonograms.

While there are many sensor sources, they can produce an overwhelming amount of data and any one source is rarely sufficient to determine many kinds of IUU fishing. The integration of data from disparate sources and the analysis of those data is therefore critical. The data glut is a challenge requiring various advanced analytical techniques, including artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Several organizations analyze data related to IUU fishing. Best known is Global Fishing Watch, a nongovernmental organization that tracks in near-real time fishing around the globe. Australia’s Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources is the responsible overseer of fishing in the broad Southern Ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent. The Pacific Islands Fishing Forum Agency, the International Maritime Control and Surveillance network, and several universities and commercial firms are also involved in aspects of analyzing IUU fishing to provide scientific insight, risk management judgments to companies, or assist in investigations of organizations and individuals behind such illegal activities.

IUU fishing knows no national boundaries. It is a growing global problem. No one nation is capable of enforcing fishing laws and regulations. Countering IUU fishing will require multi-state collaboration, information sharing, and multilateral agreements between regional fishing management organizations, of which there are a plethora. To date, however, information sharing has not always gone well.

There are approaches to IUU fishing beyond law enforcement that organizations are pursuing. These include eliminating national subsidies for fishing. The PRCs subsidies, the most generous of any nation by far, estimated at approximately $7.2 billion in 2018, make otherwise unprofitable fishing profitable, according to Prof. Tabitha Mallory of the China Ocean Institute and the University of Washington. Certification of catches assures buyers of fish that they were caught legally. Publicity about IUU fishing and the deceptive practices associated with it is seen as an important step in depressing market attractiveness of illegally caught fish. Finally, the promotion of aquaculture—farm-raised fish, in which the PRC is deeply invested, is seen as a potential solution for future food needs.

Peter Oleson (peter.oleson@yahoo.com) is a former senior defense official and professor.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #42 – Has Washington Found its Feet in Southeast Asia?

This article summarizes the author’s chapter in the new issue of Comparative Connections, which can be read in its entirety here.

In the months following Joe Biden’s inauguration, Southeast Asia was on the backburner in US foreign policy. Starting in May, however, the administration heeded calls for a more active role with a succession of visits by high-level officials, culminating in Kamala Harris’s first trip to the region as vice president. One key “deliverable”—renewal of the US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement during Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila—was enough to label the summer strategy a success.

The administration also responded to the surge of the COVID Delta variant in Southeast Asia with donations of vaccines, making strides in the “vaccine race” with China and Russia. Southeast Asia’s continuing economic crisis, a direct result of COVID-19, has raised concerns over Southeast Asia’s place in global supply chains, an issue Harris addressed on her trip.

Diplomatic Surge

For the first half of 2021 Southeast Asians were uncertain about the new administration’s approach to China. The previous administration had failed to forge a coherent trade policy with the region, and half of Southeast Asian countries lacked a US ambassador confirmed by the Senate.

However, in late May and early June, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. Making Jakarta the first stop on Sherman’s itinerary signaled continued US support for “ASEAN centrality” in the face of Biden’s growing support for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or Quad) as a key element of Asian regional architecture.

In late July Secretary of Defense Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Then, in late August, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield made a brief stopover in Bangkok. And in late August, Vice President Kamala Harris visitedSingapore, and became the first US vice president to visit Vietnam.

With Southeast Asia in the grip of a new and more serious surge of COVID-19, US officials also underscored Washington’s position as a major vaccine donor. In Hanoi, Harris announced the opening of a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) office in Vietnam to help coordinate US efforts in Southeast Asia, and also pledged 1 million doses of COVID vaccine to Vietnam, to be delivered within 24 hours. China increased its own vaccine pledge to Vietnam prior to her arrival in Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials attempted to derail the brewing competition with a public reminder that Hanoi “does not ally with one country against another,” one of its longstanding “Three No’s” (along with no military alliances and no military bases in Vietnam).

Renewing the VFA

The most important deliverable of these visits was the renewal of the 1998 US-Philippines Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) facilitating military-to-military cooperation. Signed during a period of relative peace, the VFA has become increasingly relevant, both to the Philippines’ defense against Chinese maritime aggression and as a vehicle for cooperation on counter-terrorism in Mindanao. On July 30, when Austin was in Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced that President Rodrigo Duterte had consented to the renewal, and also signaled that he and Austin were discussing a side agreement governing conduct of US forces in the Philippines (an expected long-term effort).

Duterte had dragged out negotiations for renewal of the VFA for more than a year in protest of criticism in the US Congress of human rights violations connected to his anti-drug campaign. The Biden administration demonstrated patience in the face of demands, aided by careful choreography between Austin and Lorenzana. Although the renewal is expected to stick, Duterte will likely remain a thorn in the side of US-Philippine security relations. On Aug. 25 he announced that he would run for vice president in the 2022 general elections, presumably with a hand-picked presidential candidate.

Duterte has publicly linked his agreement to the renewal to Washington’s steady supply of COVID vaccines—nearly 3 million doses of Johnson & Johnson in July, and an equal number of Moderna in early August. He was also likely influenced by growing public disapproval of his handling of Chinese incursions into Philippine territorial waters, despite his overall public support.

Allies, Partners, and Strategic Partners

VFA renewal is a return to the status quo ante and it will mitigate China’s narrative that the United States is losing strength and resolve in the region. The Thai press, however, was quick to view the Austin and Harris trips as snubbing Bangkok and questioned the course of the US-Thailand alliance. Deputy Secretary Sherman and Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s stops in Thailand were essentially placeholder visits without notable deliverables. Bangkok, and to some extent Manila, worry Washington is prioritizing newer security partners in the region, particularly Singapore and Vietnam.

But if US-Singapore military-to-military relations are solid, the same cannot be said for the emerging security relationship with Vietnam. Harris’ declaration in Hanoi that the United States was receptive to a strategic partnership with Vietnam got a cool response. Vietnamese officials offered no public comment; the near-term prospects for a strategic partnership appear slim. To be sure, US and Vietnamese officials acknowledge informally that the two often act together “strategically.” Hanoi has a number of strategic partnerships, including with China, and does seek to strengthen its relations with the United States.

However, with US-China tensions high, an announcement that Vietnam was willing to upgrade its comprehensive partnership with Washington to a strategic one would be a provocation to Beijing. Moreover, a strategic partnership applies across the board, and it is not clear what Washington is willing to offer in other areas, particularly trade. Vietnam’s strategic partnership with South Korea led to a bilateral free trade agreement, for instance. The Biden administration does not appear willing to commit to new FTAs yet.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of US-Vietnam relations is positive. In June, the two countries announced that they had settled US charges of currency manipulation with a pledge from Vietnam that it would refrain from devaluing the dong to gain an export advantage.

Still, Southeast Asian leaders also worry that the Biden administration will continue former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s harsh line against China and ASEAN states will be caught in the middle. Harris and Austin made strong speeches centered on China during their trips, and Sherman’s visit to Cambodia was perceived as a sign of concern over Chinese intentions to refurbish Ream Naval Base for their exclusive use. Harris’ address painted China as a regional bully; the Chinese surrogate press charged that the Biden administration was attempting to “create a chasm.” Southeast Asian states with claims in the South China Sea or otherwise challenged by China in maritime zones welcome a principled defense of their sovereignty from Washington. In their view, however, rhetorical jousting—particularly with ideological overtones—makes it difficult for ASEAN to maintain good relations with both sides.

Looking Ahead

The Biden administration has established a new baseline in relations with Southeast Asia, giving Washington greater traction for several fall events. This month, President Biden intends to convene an in-person summit of the Quad; Southeast Asian leaders will watch carefully for signs of an emerging anti-China bloc. Additionally, the administration intends to host a Summit for Democracy in December; the choice of invitations to Southeast Asian leaders will be controversial. Due to COVID, it is not clear whether there will be an in-person East Asia Summit. If there is, Southeast Asia will expect President Biden and Secretary Blinken to participate. If the United States is truly “back” in Southeast Asia, the region will expect Washington to move beyond diplomatic visits and articulate more solid policies, particularly on trade and US relations with ASEAN.

Catharin Dalpino (catharindalpino@earthlink.net) is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. She has also served as a deputy assistant secretary for democracy at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, US Department of State, published several books on US policy in Asia, and has testified frequently before Congress on US relations with Southeast Asia.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #37 – Southeast Asia’s Maritime Security Should be a US-Japan Alliance Agenda

This article is draws its core argument from the author’s more thoroughly documented contribution to “Maritime Governance Capacity Building: A U.S.-Japan Alliance Agenda for Rule of Law in the Indo-Pacific,” in Advancing a Rules-based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific, edited by John Bradford and Jeffrey Ordaniel.

Rule of law is essential to ensuring the prosperity of Southeast Asia, a region rich in maritime resources, home to essential marine ecosystems, and the location of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

Unfortunately, state and non-state actors in this region exploit weak governance to undermine the security and well-being of those who make legal use of the sea. State-level contests over sovereignty and administrative control of key waters dominate maritime security policy discourse, while activities such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; smuggling; terrorism; plus piracy and sea robbery pose direct challenges to coastal communities’ immediate sustenance and safety. Rising interstate tension, rapidly depleting fish stocks, and an increasing rate of natural disasters are all troubling trends likely to drive any of these problems into crises with global implications. All of these threats thrive in the waters under the jurisdiction of states with limited capacity for maritime governance.

To address these challenges and preserve their own maritime interests, the United States and Japan, wealthy nations already bound by an alliance, should prioritize regional maritime governance capacity-building as an area of joint work. Cooperative capacity-building projects should take center stage to address the full range of Southeast Asian maritime challenges. This strategy should maintain focus on military competition, while significantly expanding activities to enable the maritime governance challenges prioritized by the coastal states.

While various states have been accused of undermining good order at sea through actions that are non-compliant with the rule of law, China remains the most frequent and most aggressive culprit in the Indo-Pacific. However, when the People’s Republic of China is faced with strength, it can be deterred from direct action. In these cases, China has demonstrated a track record of resorting to “gray-zone” strategies that use incremental steps to advance the Chinese agenda, while keeping each step small enough to remain below the threshold that would trigger an armed response or other crisis. Because these steps exploit weak governance and disregard the rule of law, the sort of capacity coastal states employ in response to non-state criminal threats, also enables stronger responses to Chinese behavior. To this end, any maritime governance capability is valuable. Capabilities best suited for one governance activity can also be applied in others or free up resources that are used inefficiently. Because maritime domain awareness capabilities are often highly fungible and enable smart decisions, they are extremely valuable.

Japan and the United States are already large-scale investors in Southeast Asia maritime capacity-building, but they could achieve more through cooperation. While the allocation of additional resources would be welcome, fiscal constraints suggest that there is more to gain from improving the efficiency of the resources already budgeted. By sharing information, coordinating activities, leveraging each other’s comparative strengths, and establishing joint projects, the US-Japan partnership can gain greater efficiencies. US-Japan alliance conversations about cooperative capacity building in the region are not new, but achievements are limited thus far.

Part of the problem is a lack of sustained alliance leadership focus. Once an agenda item identified as a bilateral priority by US President Barack Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, cooperative maritime security capacity building disappeared from senior alliance leaders’ statements mid-way through the Donald Trump administration, and has not yet reappeared. While diplomats and action officers continue to advance this line of effort, without a clear top-down push, institutional urgency is lost and achievements piecemeal. Those individuals pushing ahead most vigorously can be inhibited by mid-level leaders focused on other priorities, stove-piped bureaucracy, and a lack of cross-levelled information from within their own governments.

A US-Japan alliance agenda that supports regional maritime governance capacity-building should include specific elements to maximize its effectiveness.

First, priority should be given to projects focused on coordinating maritime infrastructure, environmental protection, resource management, domain awareness, and law enforcement. The allies should share information about their defense capacity-building projects and, as they are doing currently, coordinate them on a case-by-case basis. To avoid endangering Japan’s current status as a viable “third option” for coastal states seeking to strengthen external security partnerships without being drawn into the US-China competition, military capacity should be held at the edges of this alliance-based maritime capacity-building agenda.

Second, a senior coordination committee should be established to overcome interagency dysfunction, set the prioritization needed to find resources, and sustain implementation-level energy in large bureaucracies. It should be a regional committee chaired by the US National Security Council Indo-Pacific Coordinator and a counterpart from the National Security Secretariat.

Third, working-level coordination should be centered in the coastal states’ capitals. When coordination takes place in Washington or Tokyo, it lacks the immediate and sustained interface with the coastal states’ leadership that is needed to understand their priorities and secure buy-in.

Fourth, only once these elements are up-and-running should additional nations and organizations be brought into the partnership. While it will be tempting to bring additional partners into the process, doing so too early will water down discussions, create distractions, and push policy actions toward the lowest common denominator. Similar focused capacity-building effort would also make sense in South Asia and the Pacific, but those should include coordination with India and Australia, respectively.

John Bradford (johnbradford@ntu.edu.sg) is a Senior Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. He is also the Executive Director of the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies and spent more than twenty years at a U.S. Navy officer focused on the Indo-Pacific. Twitter: @MarSec_Bradford.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #36 – 10 Things Every Sailor and Marine Should Know Before Deploying to Southeast Asia: A Regional Primer

An earlier version of this article was published on the US Naval Institute Blog.

With a little bit of advance preparation and intellectual investment, a deployment to Southeast Asia can be a life-changing professional experience for sailors and marines. Here are 10 points, based on several decades of personal experience in Asia, that can help any service member arrive ready to accomplish the mission, represent their service well, and enjoy themselves while doing it.

1. Southeast Asia matters. It is not just a battlefield. 

Those focused on geopolitical dynamics may regard Southeast Asia as strategic territory where the United States must win hearts and minds now and be prepared to sink ships in a future conflict. However, the region’s nations also have unique, vibrant cultures, and strong identities. Southeast Asian states are home to more than 655 million people. Their economies weigh in with a GDP of more than $3 trillion. Ensuring strong bilateral relationships is essential to the well-being of the United States. That is why most of our regional exercises are not about fighting an enemy state but strengthening bilateral relationships.

Prevailing in the strategic competition with China is critical to US security and many Southeast Asians will be ready to discuss shared concerns, but US friendship should primarily be about the bilateral partners’ diverse concerns. We won’t expand the trust and confidence we need by treating Southeast Asian partners like cartological chokepoints or the spoils of a prize fight.

2. Southeast Asia is neither with us nor against us. It is for itself.

Southeast Asians want to benefit from their relationships with the United States and with China but there is little confidence either power would look out for Southeast Asian interests. China is ASEAN’s largest trade partner, and ASEAN became China’s largest trade partner in 2020. To avoid falling into Chinese orbit, Southeast Asians are generally glad for the counterbalance delivered by the US military. Balancing these competing relationships is akin to charting a course between two reefs. To cleave too closely to the United States exposes them to the risks of abandonment and the ire of China.

3. Southeast Asia is incredibly diverse.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous country, largest Muslim-majority nation, and 10th-largest economy. It shares an island with Timor Leste, a predominantly Catholic nation with fewer people than Trinidad and Tobago. The per capita income in the city-state of Singapore is more than $100,000 a year, one and a half times that of the United States. Twenty-six million Indonesians earn less than one dollar a day.

To represent the US Navy well in Southeast Asia, get to know the various countries you visit.

4. Southeast Asian Sailors have plenty to teach you about gray zone operations.

Southeast Asian navies matter. So do their coast guards. In some cases, their ships are older. Some are decommissioned US vessels. Not even the most technologically advanced states possess the combat equivalent of a 96-cell US destroyer. Sensitive communications are often carried by unclassified apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook, or Line. This does not mean they are incapable. These maritime forces are engaged, day-in and day-out, in securing their nations’ sovereignty. Dangerous, close encounters with Chinese forces are common. They also regularly face off with neighbors in disputes over maritime boundaries and resources.

You will quickly notice that your Southeast Asian partners will approach problems in ways foreign to you. Pay attention; listen up; absorb the good. Do not lecture.

5. Nontraditional threats are a top regional priority.

In Southeast Asia, coast guards have become more popular in recent years but still commonly share constabulary duties with navies. Naval services across the region regularly face threats of terrorism and insurgency, as well as human and narco-trafficking. Environmental crimes and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing cost billions and imperil livelihoods. These threats to coastal communities demand national security prioritization.

Learn how your fellow sailors in Southeast Asia deal with these issues.

6. History matters.

When the United States arrived in Southeast Asia as the newest colonial power, our counterinsurgency operations were nothing to recall with pride. The US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is now an important pillar of regional security, but the United States only recently returned war trophies seized from Balangiga in 1901. During the Cold War, the United States was associated with violent coups that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths in several nations. Senior Vietnamese leaders have personal memories of the war against the United States. Washington dropped more explosives on Cambodia and Laos than the Allies dropped globally in World War II. Despite this, Vietnam welcomed two US Navy aircraft carriers.

Our past should engender a spirit of understanding and humility from US sailors in Southeast Asia.

7. ASEAN is central and not an “underdeveloped EU.”

The European Union is about governments relaxing sovereign control to pool resources, prevent state-to-state conflict, and facilitate flows of capital and people. Put over-simply, ASEAN is aimed at enabling governments’ efforts to strengthen their own states. ASEAN is built on principles of consensus and non-interference. You may hear the term “ASEAN Centrality”—it is a concept that reinforces ASEAN’s credibility and legitimacy, respecting its role as the driving force behind the region’s collective agenda.

Do not fall for the trap that ASEAN is destined to “mature into” something that exists elsewhere.

8. Southeast Asia does not want an Asian NATO, nor an Asian Combined Maritime Force.

NATO functions on the basis of shared threat perceptions and common interests. Its Cold War counterpart, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, fell apart shortly after the Vietnam War. Southeast Asian states are concerned about China’s behavior, tilting the alignment of some of those states toward the United States, but fears of entrapment and abandonment dictate that no Southeast Asian state is ready to tie itself into a collective defense pact.

Other officers envision opportunities to create a Combined Maritime Force. Attempts to sell the idea in Southeast Asia have fallen flat. If geared toward China, they are non-starters. Efforts geared toward the nontraditional threats at the top of regional states’ maritime priorities gain some traction. However, most of the nontraditional threats operate within domestic waters, so beyond information-sharing and coordination, there is little desire to invite in foreign security operations.

9. Corruption is rampant—do not let it trap you.

According to Transparency International, in ASEAN only Singapore and Malaysia rank among the world’s 80 least corrupt states. Things that might be illegal or unethical in the United States are often the way the system is designed in Southeast Asia.

Understand the relevant regulations and internalize your ethics training. If your command is not giving you training, ask for it before deploying. See the bevy of high-profile cases associated with the Fat Leonard scandal: Some of those Americans were filthy traitors. Others made much smaller mistakes; these individuals are free, but the ethics violations put their careers on ice.

10. Enjoy your liberty.

Done right, a deployment to Southeast Asia will be an experience that will stay with you. These ports offer world-class opportunities for sightseeing, shopping, and the relaxation needed for superior performance at sea.

A typical port visit is four days. Given the limited time and all the opportunities, mission success requires a plan. Planning requires information. Do as much as you can before you deploy. Shelling out a couple of bucks for a guidebook to read underway can save hours. Even if your deployment schedule is not fixed, taking along a library can be a great investment for your liberty crew. The sailor-centric non-profit YCAPS has a great list of suggestions.

A deployment to Southeast Asia is an opportunity to have a unique experience. To represent the US Navy well in Southeast Asia, get to know the countries you have the opportunity to visit. We hope these 10 suggestions will help you do just that.

John Bradford (johnfbradford@gmail.com) is a senior fellow in the maritime security program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Now retired from the US Navy, he spent more than a dozen years as a surface warfare officer in ships forward deployed to the Western Pacific and studied in Indonesia and Singapore as an Olmsted Scholar.  

Blake Herzinger (blake.herzinger@gmail.com) is a non-resident WSD-Handa Fellow at the Pacific Forum and US Navy Reserve foreign area officer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of his civilian employer, the US Navy, the Department of Defense, or the US government. @BDHerzinger.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #34 – Advancing a Rules-Based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific

The following is an excerpt of Chapter 1 of Issues & Insights Vol. 21-SR2, edited for length. Read the full article or download the entire volume here.

Many have called for stronger rule of law in maritime Indo-Pacific over the past decade. From Washington, Tokyo, and Canberra to the capitals of Southeast Asia, leaders and policymakers stress international law, as well as bilateral and multilateral cooperation to address maritime challenges. Year-after-year, ASEAN has repeated the same refrain regarding “the need to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with the universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).” In April 2021 US President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide also expressed shared opposition to “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” and reiterated “shared interest in a free and open South China Sea governed by international law, in which freedom of navigation and overflight are guaranteed,” consistent with UNCLOS. Yet, a strong rules-based maritime order appears elusive.

Despite apparent regional consensus on the benefits of a rules-based maritime order, why do tensions keep rising and the applicability of international rules and norms to the region’s maritime spaces continue to weaken? Authors of “Advancing a Rules-based Maritime Order in the Indo-Pacific,” an Issues & Insights edited volume, provide three categories of answers: lack of good faith, inherent weaknesses in regional multilateral mechanisms, and the politics surrounding “great-power competition.”

First, some countries continue to insist on maritime claims already declared invalid or without basis under international law by a competent, authoritative international tribunal. There is, therefore, a lack of good faith vis-à-vis adherence to related international legal regimes. In the South China Sea, Beijing insists on its nine-dash line, a claim rejected in July 2016 by an arbitration tribunal constituted in The Hague under Annex VII of UNCLOS. China has also sought to reverse Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, not through peaceful means such as judicial procedures, but coercive maneuvers in the East China Sea.

This lack of good faith and blatant disregard for international law is evident in Beijing’s dispatch of fishing vessels with maritime militia to neighboring states’ exclusive economic zones that fall within the discredited nine-dash line. China has also used its Coast Guard and other government vessels to question the longstanding control and jurisdiction of many Indo-Pacific littoral states over their waters, and to change the status quo. In maritime security parlance, these actions are called gray-zone operations—activities not rising to the level of an armed attack but consequential enough to achieve security or political objectives.

Regional states struggle to respond to these types of activities. For US allies, Washington’s security commitment is triggered by an “armed attack,” not gray-zone challenges. Hence, deterrence through collective defense has been difficult. The Philippines, for instance, lost Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012 because of a failure to respond to Beijing’s gray-zone maneuvers. Many in Japan have expressed concerns about China’s intrusions into the waters of the Senkaku Islands as well. For instance, how to respond to Chinese government vessels, which under international law enjoy sovereign immunity, entering the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands and refusing to leave isn’t obvious. Some actions could very well trigger war. For other regional states, dealing with an increasing Chinese presence in their waters is more difficult owing to factors such as insufficient maritime domain awareness and weak offshore law enforcement capacity.

Second, while ASEAN-led institutions remain important to advancing a rules-based maritime order in the Indo-Pacific, they are not designed to address high-stakes security issues, especially involving the great powers. The “ASEAN Way” of non-interference and consensus in decision-making constrains regional mechanisms’ effectiveness in dealing with maritime disputes. They allow for discussions on some functional cooperative engagements, but do not shape the strategic environment in ways that strengthen the rule of law. For instance, the so-called South China Sea Code of Conduct never materialized despite countless meetings between ASEAN and China since 1995. Moreover, as Kyoko Hatakeyama discusses in her Issues & Insights piece, the Quad has struggled to achieve a united front necessary to prop up maritime rule of law because its four participating countries have different threat perceptions, priorities, and approaches vis-a-vis China.

Finally, the framing of maritime issues as part of the US-China “strategic rivalry” or “competition” has been counterproductive. Many regional states do not want to take part in that competition. More importantly, that framing has led to two narratives that prevent many states from taking stronger positions based on international law: 1) false equivalence that equates legitimate US maritime operations and regional presence as akin to China’s disruptive, illegal, and domineering behavior; and 2) an impression that Washington and Beijing are forcing Southeast Asians to take sides between them—hence strong pushback from regional leaders and decision-makers. As a result, when the United States or its allies and partners insist on adherence to international law, some regional states hear an anti-China push. Instead of “competition with China,” the United States and its allies and partners should focus on advancing a rules-based maritime order in which all countries, big and small, can benefit.

This volume dissects the multifaceted maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific from multiple perspectives, and explores policy options to advance a more rules-based maritime order. Shuxian Luo surveys six maritime crises between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and between Japan and the Republic of Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima, arguing that crisis prevention should be a priority.

Ishii Yurika’s paper explains how the unique structure of Japan’s national security law has created challenges by hampering seamless coordination between Japan Coast Guard and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, and effective alliance between Japan and the United States. Kanehara Atsuko’s chapter contends that in the maritime security context, the “rule of law” consists of three principles: making and clarifying claims based on international law, not using force or coercion to drive claims, and seeking to settle disputes by peaceful means.

Nguyen Thi Lan Huong highlights the importance of international law vis-à-vis the use of force at sea. She assesses China’s new Coast Guard law and its conformity with international law. Hatakeyama Kyoko focuses on the Quad, arguing that its embrace of two contradictory goals—maintain a rules-based order based on international law and promote a prosperous region without excluding China—makes it difficult to develop a framework for cooperation and set a clear purpose.

Virginia Watson proposes several recommendations, arguing that the “intensification of China’s global efforts to hard-wire geopolitical and security conditions alongside its hefty economic influence” have made the traditional alliance approach of the United States ineffective. Finally, John Bradford argues that the key to addressing the Indo-Pacific’s multifaceted challenges is improved governance capacity among the region’s coastal states and that maritime governance capacity-building, in particular, should be a priority for the US-Japan Alliance.

Jeffrey Ordaniel (jeffrey@pacforum.org) is Director for Maritime Security at the Pacific Forum. Concurrently, he is Assistant Professor of International Security Studies at Tokyo International University in Japan.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #29 – Ideating an India-France-UK Trilateral for the Indo-Pacific

Multilateral modes of dialogue—in which regional powers lead and stakeholder states actively participate—are increasingly drawing the Indo-Pacific’s political map. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—India, Japan, the United States, and Australia—has gained tremendous importance while trilaterals, like India-Japan-Australia, Japan-US-Australia, and the recently established India-Australia-France dialogue have further expanded the region’s security outlook. As China’s power grows, an increasingly number of states have begun reorienting their strategies toward the Indo-Pacific. France and Germany have formally adopted the “Indo-Pacific” terminology; the Quad’s third ministerial even highlighted Europe’s increasing support.

In this context, India’s growing ties with the United Kingdom and France can potentially build a new trilateral that can shape the maritime future of the Indo-Pacific—politically, economically, and in the security realm.

France hopes to build a “stable, multipolar order” driven by rule of law, free and open movement, and practical multilateralism; it identifies the Indo-Pacific as the “heart” of this strategic vision. France’s €200 million (about $242 million) COVID-response fund for India, promise of armed forces support in the immediate aftermath of the Galwan clash, and speedy delivery of Rafale jets are evidence of New Delhi’s importance to Paris. In line with France’s growing focus on the Indo-Pacific and India—further highlighted by the India-Australia-France trilateral—the time to upgrade their strategic partnership to a “special” or “comprehensive” bilateral has arrived. France-India synergy is quickly gathering momentum and can shape the future of India’s maritime security, especially in the Western Indian Ocean, traditionally a key area of influence for France. Paris’ support of European engagement in the Indo-Pacific—highlighted by its contributions to an increased European Union presence in regional forums such as the strategic partnership with ASEAN—and the priority it gives to improving the regional military power balance makes France a novel choice as a trilateral partner.

Concurrently, amidst a tense post-Brexit geopolitical landscape, deteriorating ties with China, and the financial challenges of COVID-19, London realizes that previous alliances are “all in question.” London’s report Global Britain in a Competitive Age highlights how the United Kingdom wants “deeper engagement” in the Indo-Pacific and recognizes the “importance of [regional] powers” such as India. UK Secretary of State Dominic Raab’s 2020 visit to India saw the two states prioritize creating a decade-long “360 degree roadmap” for upgrading the India-UK partnership. They have also classified UK-India ties as a “global force for good” and upgraded them to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The United Kingdom also invited India to be part of the 2021 G7 meeting during its presidency.

India welcomes the Indo-Pacific-driven shift from both countries. France’s importance to India’s changing China policy has grown, while the United Kingdom is taking on a prominent role in India’s Indo-Pacific outlook. Furthermore, ties between the two European powers themselves have taken on a nuanced shape post-Brexit. While surface hostility translates into sparring on financial matters, both countries recognize the other’s political importance. Economically, both countries have major stakes in the other. In the security realm, they are Europe’s two most significant military powers, have veto power in the UN Security Council (where they have supported India’s bid for permanent membership), and agree on most foreign policy issues (except the European Union). China is a mutual concern, yet all three states share strong economic ties with Beijing that they would like to salvage, especially in the difficult post-pandemic fiscal recovery.

Potential Areas of Growth

India’s Act East Policy has built strong ties between New Delhi and East/Southeast Asian economies that the United Kingdom and France can exploit for trade and economic benefit. Cooperation in renewable energy, climate change, sustainable supply chain creation, counter-terrorism, and anti-piracy operations could mark a natural evolution of the trilateral. France, like India, wants an “inclusive” Indo-Pacific while acting as an “inclusive and stabilizing mediating power”; the United Kingdom’s “commitment to a multi-polar world” ties well with this overture.

As maritime democracies, a UK-France-India trilateral can build on the common goal of developing the blue economy, while improving ties with littoral states in the Indo-Pacific. The United Kingdom’s “Commonwealth Blue Charter”—of which India, as a commonwealth nation, is a party—highlights Britain’s goals for “sustainable ocean development” and can build commonwealth-driven multilateral synergy. Owing to its overseas territories, France possesses the second-largest marine zone in the world, rendering oceanic resources pivotal to its overall economy. India has begun drafting an official Blue Economy Policy post identifying the potential for maritime resources to be the “next multiplier of GDP.”

The blue economy can also link with the Japan-India-Australia-led Supply Chain Resilience Initiative. Including the United Kingdom and France in this initiative could help expand it into Europe, finding synergy on vaccine cold chains, trade routes, maritime resource-sharing, and linking island states, creating a cross-continental connection between Europe and Asia. Furthermore, with India and Australia as member states of the Indian Ocean Rim Association, and France, the United States, and Japan as dialogue partners, greater synergy could help promote deeper engagement with small-island nations, especially with Western/African Indian Ocean nations.

The trilateral will also provide immense scope for third-country cooperation—the 2019 meeting between leaders of France, India, and the Vanilla Islands on a French overseas territory marked such cooperation between France and India in the Western Indian Ocean. UK inclusion in such third-country cooperation—via the British Indian Ocean Territory—can strengthen India’s ties in the Indian Ocean, where China’s influence is rapidly growing. Given the United Kingdom, France, and India’s strong ties with Japan—and their interest in countering China’s political and economic clout in Africa—the trilateral could also link with the “Platform for Japan-India Business Cooperation in Asia-Africa” to boost connectivity in the Indo-Pacific domain. Importantly, politicization of the India-France International Solar Alliance (ISA) could build a bilateral vaccine partnership by providing solar-powered logistics, also simultaneously fulfilling the Quad’s vaccine partnership goals. The United Kingdom joined the ISA in 2018; cooperation via the organization with African and Asian economies in creating sustainable energy with infrastructural aid from the West can make the ISA a major foreign policy tool for taking on China’s Belt and Road Initiative via a “One Sun One World One Grid.”

Cooperation in the defense and security sector must also be actively advocated. The United Kingdom is one of the world’s most successful defense exporters; however, production has become more expensive. Meanwhile, a thriving defense export sector is crucial for Paris’s post-COVID economic recovery. As India begins its “pointed-alignment” strategy, recognizing India as a “base for production of defense equipment” could build a structured defense partnership for the trilateral.

Existing bilateral maritime security collaboration between the three states can further grow into one of the most significant avenues of cooperation. The Indo-French bilateral military exercise Varuna began in 1993; recently, the two increased interoperability capacity via Samudra Setu and Resilience operations. India and the United Kingdom have established maritime exercises such as the “Konkan Exercise” and army exercises like “Ajeya Warrior.” The United Kingdom’s deployment of the HMS Queen Elizabeth to the Indo-Pacific region later in 2021 for maritime exercises with Japan provides scope for India to engage in a maritime trilateral with them; France’s inclusion can also be espoused. Beyond joint trilateral maritime exercises, the United Kingdom and France could also join with the Quad in Malabar, similar to the Quad’s recent inclusion in the French La Perouse exercise.

A trilateral with India—especially given Paris and London’s bilateral attempts at improving relations with New Delhi—can enhance cooperation and address shared interests. It will give the United Kingdom a link to the European Union via France in Indo-Pacific security outreach and aid India in promoting Europe’s deeper integration as a security and political player in the region. Its ideation as the Indo-Pacific’s next vital trilateral must receive urgent strategic focus.

Eerishika Pankaj (eerishikap@gmail.com) is an Editorial Assistant to the Series Editor for Routledge Series on Think Asia. Ms. Pankaj was also selected as a Young Leader in the 2020 cohort of the Pacific Forum’s Young Leaders Program and is also a Commissioning Editor with E-International Relations for their Political Economy section. She can be reached @eerishika on Twitter.

PacNet commentaries and responses represent the views of the respective authors. Alternative viewpoints are always welcomed and encouraged. Click here to request a PacNet subscription.

PacNet #28 – Thanks to COVID and China, the Quad is a Sealed Deal

The first ever leaders meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue on March 12 had more than symbolic import. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian PM Narendra Modi, Japanese PM Suga Yoshihide, and US President Biden took place in virtual mode. Nonetheless, it was significant in laying the tracks for the Indo-Pacific vision, as explained by the Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement. Reaffirming the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision, the “spirit” is premised on a joint commitment to “a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond” and support “the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity.”

The joint declaration released by the four leaders laid the foundation of this “spirit.” Even before the summit, the leaders penned a joint op-ed where they clearly stated the “quest [is] for a region that is open and free.”

However, the precursor to this leaders-level meeting was set by the Quad Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Tokyo in October 2020, which defied the norm of virtual meetings. The leaders’ meeting signaled the institutionalization of the Quad, clearly suggesting that the forum is here to stay. Some resonance can be drawn from former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement last October: “Once we’ve institutionalized what we’re doing—the four of us together—we can begin to build out a true security framework.” Furthermore, this Quad meeting also clarified the intentions of the new leadership in both the US and Japan under the respective Biden and Suga administrations. While there was anxiety over whether President Biden would follow the footsteps of his predecessor on the Indo-Pacific, Biden’s calling of the meeting alleviated such concerns, affirming America’s commitment to pursuing its Indo-Pacific vision.

And Biden is not alone in this commitment.

Growing Interest and Institutionalism

Having first met in 2007, the Quad quickly lost traction thereafter, only revived in 2017 when the four countries met on the sidelines of the ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings in Manila. Since then, the Quad countries have met twice a year. Additionally, in 2019, the grouping upgraded its dialogue to the level of foreign minister/secretary of state—with two meetings so far. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new boost to the Indo-Pacific vision, as exemplified by the upgrade to the “Quad Plus,” with the addition of New Zealand, South Korea, and Vietnam. Add to this the growing interest among countries, such as Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, to become party to the Indo-Pacific vision. This expansion of interest exemplifies the growing need to maintain an open, free maritime corridor in the region.

Furthermore, the very idea of the grouping is rooted in maritime security and stability. For the Quad, initially launched in response to the devastating 2004 tsunami, the pandemic triggered an expansion of the security canvas enveloping both non-traditional and traditional security concerns. This is exemplified by the joint pledge of the Quad: “to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains.”

This expansive portfolio demonstrates that China is mistaken to believe—and argue—that it is the “cause” behind the Quad. Yet, it is also true that the “China factor” cannot be discounted. The artificial island buildup in the South China Sea and the unilateral declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea have accentuated the PRC threat in the Indo-Pacific. Concomitantly, China’s increasing footprint in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) presents further complications. Specifically, PLA Navy activities, such as the deployment of submarines, anti-piracy operations, live-fire drills in the IOR, the establishment of an overseas military base in Djibouti and, finally, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road—resulting in port activities and base facilities in the IOR—have raised red flags regarding whether China intends to become an expeditionary force, willing and able to intervene in matters beyond its borders. This has prompted further calls for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” based on a rules-based order “anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion.”

How China Boosts the Quad

Such shared concerns constitute a binding factor for the Quad but also make Beijing anxious. Hours before the leaders’ meeting, Chinese China’s Foreign Ministry’s Spokesperson Zhao Lijian categorically remarked that “relevant countries” should “refrain from pursuing exclusive blocs.”

Yet, despite Beijing’s protests, the leaders’ summit only confirms that the Quad is here to stay. One can rightly posit that the old logic of alliance and containment has not changed, but is now taking the form of a multilateral framework. The more assertive China becomes in testing its adversaries’ resolve in a variety of quarters the more it lends credence to the Quad, thus causing a greater tilt among countries toward “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The primary outcome of this tilt is witnessed in that the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” vision is gaining currency among more countries who seek to become party to it. With security as the lynchpin, the vision will take a formal posture in the near future, and China’s expansionist policy under its Belt and Road Initiative will only provide greater momentum toward a potential security alliance.

Dr. Amrita Jash is Research Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. She can be reached at: @amritajash

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