Commentary: Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship a chance to make practical progress on South China Sea

Commentary: Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship a chance to make practical progress on South China Sea

The S Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ Henrick Z Tsjeng and Collin Koh suggest Singapore make full use of its ASEAN chairmanship to set ground rules among operational agencies.

A ship of Chinese Coast Guard is seen near a ship of Vietnam Marine Guard in the South China Sea
A Chinese Coast Guard ship is seen near a Vietnam Marine Guard patrol craft in the South China Sea, about 210 km from Vietnam on May 14, 2014. (File photo: REUTERS/Nguyen Minh)

SINGAPORE: 2017 marks a challenging year for ASEAN, the same year that ushers in 50 years since the organisation was formed.

As with any jubilee celebration, the association’s 10 countries share many significant milestones and recent achievements worth saluting, particularly in the area of security cooperation.

For the Asia Pacific, a region where unresolved territorial disputes – which do not seem likely to be settled any time soon – are potential hotspots for conflict, making diplomatic progress on key agreed principles that undergird countries’ approach to a dispute is the best way to keep all parties engaged in finding a meaningful resolution.

So it is a relief to see significant effort to make progress in the South China Sea culminate in the promulgation of the Framework on the Code of Conduct between ASEAN and China early last month in Manila.


As 2017 comes toward a close and the regional bloc’s chairmanship transits from the Philippines to Singapore, we should expect to see further concrete activities and measures to promote peace and stability in this area.

For a country known more for action than talk, and also a neutral party that has no territorial stake in the South China Sea, Singapore stands best placed to advance ASEAN’s agenda in this area.

Having actively shaped security cooperation in the Asia Pacific to make practical cooperation among 18 countries under the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting Plus a reality with joint exercises and professional exchanges, and being a small state that has a knack for making hard-nosed calculations about regional security, Singapore has the instincts to shape the way forward on this issue.

This is not to say that we wish away geopolitical realities of the intractability of territorial disputes and the long process of negotiation. 

Political elites and policymakers will likely engage in lengthy discussions over specifics for the Code of Conduct, and indeed, this mechanism would take time to materialise.

But in the interim, practical realities demand that maritime practitioners – the navies and coastguards in this case – devise ways to prevent and mitigate close encounters in these geopolitically contentious waters.

Strong relationships based on habits of cooperation and trust among security agencies in the larger Asia-Pacific to ensure that tensions do not get out of hand and misunderstanding on the ground doesn’t spiral into an armed exchange cannot be understated.

Open channels of communications and clear actions that all sides agree to take in the event of an incident are critical ingredients to regional peace and stability in the South China Sea.

In essence, security agencies will have to keep peace in the short term while the foreign affairs policymakers work together for a shot at peace in the long term.

Land storming exercise ADMM-Plus
3,500 personnel took part in an ADMM-Plus counter-terrorism drill in Lim Chu Kang in May 2016. (Photo: MINDEF)

One such initiative integral to regional countries’ efforts in this regard is the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), a “gentleman’s agreement” among 21 navies who have signed this code and agreed to its set of ground rules on managing encounters between naval vessels.

There has been generally positive compliance with it among regional navies. CUES has been practised by the Americans and Chinese in the South China Sea, for example. It has also formed part of the training and exercise engagements between some regional navies.

The time has come for CUES be extended to other realms, starting with the coastguards, most of whom work the frontlines in the Asia-Pacific maritime hotspots, before including other agencies who guard in deeper waters and higher above ground.


During the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2017, Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen proposed a set of guidelines for air encounters between military aircrafts of ASEAN states, similar to those agreed to by the US and China in September 2015 and captured in the US-China Memorandum of Understanding on the rules of behaviour for air and maritime encounters.

Given the increasing capacities and sophistication of Southeast Asian air assets, the implementation of guidelines of behaviour is becoming an increasingly urgent task.

Air assets have a high chance of meeting with an accident during a close encounter due to their high speed of travel. The weapons they carry are also deadlier and have longer range compared to one or two decades ago.

J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area of South China
J-15 fighters from China's Liaoning aircraft carrier conduct a drill in an area in the South China Sea on Jan 2, 2017. (Photo: REUTERS/Mo Xiaoliang)

Once such an incident occurs, interstate or regional tensions will inevitably spike, as demonstrated by the political fallout from the 2001 Hainan incident where a US Navy intelligence aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter crashed into each other, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the detention of the American crew in China.

Guidelines are needed not only to lower the possibility of a major air incident in the region, but also to provide a way to manage tensions should one take place.


At the same time, Dr Ng has proposed extending CUES to the underwater realm as a preventive measure against proliferation – Asian-Pacific navies are expected to hold arsenals of some 250 to 300 submarines by 2030.

Some progress has been made in terms of enhancing information exchange to prevent a collision of submarines in the region, with the Republic of Singapore Navy’s launch of a Submarine Safety Information Portal earlier in May this year, which helps outline potential maritime hazards such as surface traffic and seabed obstacles on a common platform.

Ng Eng Hen file
File photo of Singapore's Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen. (Photo: Koh Mui Fong/TODAY)

Recent ship collisions such as the USS John McCain’s highlighted the prevalent dangers of navigating narrow maritime confines plied by dense traffic.

Though these mishaps involved surface vessels, the potential risk of accidents involving submarines cannot be discounted.

Region-wide acceptance of CUES, which stipulate standard operating procedures for submarine crew to take while on mission, will go some way to entrench this culture of safety and de-escalation during an unplanned incident at sea and complement information sharing and submarine emergency rescue capabilities.

This is all the more pertinent because submariners have limited communications with their shore bases once out at sea. The onus is on them to ensure safety in their routine duties and interaction with various users sharing the same water space, above and below.


Being the next after the Philippines to take on the mantle of ASEAN chairmanship, there is much ground for Singapore to cover next year as ASEAN and China look set to engage in serious, intense discussion about the Code of Conduct.

Singapore should take the lead to push for the extension of CUES or promote similar arrangements in other domains, not just to coastguards but also to the aerial and underwater dimensions.

Ideally, in its capacity as ASEAN chair in 2018, Singapore could facilitate talks between ASEAN and its dialogue partners, such as through the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus or ASEAN Regional Forum, as the most desirable route to apply these extended CUES more universally throughout the regional maritime domain.

However, short of such broad participation, one possible alternative would be to promote discussions first as a purely ASEAN-level initiative, which can later expand to include other interested extra-regional partners.

In so doing, ASEAN will be working towards maintaining, and even enhancing, its relevance in regional peace and stability.

While such guidelines should be binding, the mere act of promulgating these codes will help develop norms of good behaviour at sea and in the air, and ultimately lead to better communication and reduce miscalculation among security forces in the region.

The damaged USS John McCain is docked at Changi Naval Base in Singapore
The damaged USS John McCain, docked at Changi Naval Base in Singapore on Aug 22, 2017. (File photo: REUTERS/Calvin Wong)

The current tranquility in the regional maritime hotspots may well be temporary, as history has shown how abrupt domestic and geopolitical upheavals could potentially upend peace and stability.

Given the fluid and fast-evolving nature of the maritime security environment, it is necessary for regional governments to adopt a more proactive, rather than passive, posture in coping with future challenges.

ASEAN has charted a remarkable course in 50 years, particularly in security cooperation. With Singapore as chair, it is well-placed to go further in 2018.

Henrick Z Tsjeng and Collin Koh are researchers at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Source: CNA/sl