SINGAPORE: Two reports over the past week that concerned the South China Sea had been striking in contrast.
The first was a report on an ongoing maritime standoff between China and Vietnam in Vanguard Bank, which reflected broader concerns about how geopolitical tensions have the potential to spiral out of control and impact regional peace and stability.
Singapore’s destiny has been intricately linked to safe and uninterrupted access to global maritime commons, not least the South China Sea, which has served as a conduit for most of the world’s seaborne trade.
Still, the Vanguard Bank standoff, which involves the risk of escalation into armed conflict and potential dangers to freedom of navigation, has been reported without much traction.
That news was largely overshadowed by another report of a South Korean-registered dry bulk vessel CK Bluebell being attacked by pirates, reportedly near the Strait of Singapore when it was en route to Incheon, though the exact location of the attack has since been clarified by Singapore authorities to 100 miles east of the Singapore Strait, in the Anambas Islands in the southern rim of the South China Sea.
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The pirates managed to flee with US$13,000 and crews’ personal belongings while two sailors sustained minor injuries.
This pair of incidents has highlighted that the South China Sea maritime challenges are not confined to geopolitical challenges but also involve day-to-day issues of maritime safety which typically preoccupy regional authorities, in particular, Southeast Asian littoral states.
LOOKING AWAY FROM PERTINENT CHALLENGES?
Unlike this week’s case of piracy, the scourge of transnational crimes - considered “high frequency, low impact” occurrences - such as smuggling, illegal fishing and the growing threat of violent extremism should receive well-deserved attention but often do not.
Some such transnational challenges have been more serious, such as the spate of kidnap-for-ransom attacks in the Sulu and Celebes Seas between March 2016 to 2017.
Part of the lack of attention might be due to the improvement of the reported piracy and sea robbery situation compared to the late 1990s and early 2000s.
A total of 28 incidents (including three attempts) were reported throughout the region in the first half of 2019, which represents a decline compared to 41 incidents (including 12 attempts) in the same period last year, according to the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia.
Of these, there was only one incident in the South China Sea compared to three last year.
This might have given the impression that all has been well. The understanding is that increased level of maritime security cooperation between regional governments has been instrumental in keeping piracy and sea robbery incidences under control.
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DOING MORE WITH LESS?
But the extant challenges in the South China Sea are more than that. Illegal fishing, for instance, has been rampant, amplified by territorial disputes between countries.
On the one hand, fishermen find themselves caught in the crosshairs when they wade into disputed waters.
Malaysian authorities just this month arrested those on a Vietnam-registered trawler fishing 18 nautical miles from Sibongor in East Malaysia, the ninth such Vietnamese vessel seized this year.
Such exceptional shows of force notwithstanding, the navies and law enforcement agencies of most countries around the South China Sea, with the notable exception of China, have been hamstrung by capacity shortfalls despite ramping up maritime security efforts.
In fact, for a long time, Southeast Asian government forces have had to stretch limited capacities to police those waters and respond to incidents at sea.
For instance, Indonesia musters about 167 surface combat and patrol assets in its navy and law enforcement agencies – all spread thinly across the entire Indonesian archipelago.
In response to the scourge of illegal fishing activities in the South China Sea, at times, Jakarta has had to reallocate assets from other parts of the archipelago to bolster patrols.
Likewise, Malaysia finds itself hobbled with similar capacity constraints in dealing with a host of transnational maritime security challenges in the South China Sea, off Sarawak and eastern Sabah.
STRENGTH THROUGH NUMBERS?
Prioritisation often becomes the norm for Southeast Asian maritime forces around the South China Sea, whereby limited assets and manpower would have to be channelled in a largely ad-hoc fashion to fill capacity gaps in response to particular exigencies.
To maximise the utility of such limited capacity, these days, regional governments place huge emphasis on improving maritime domain situational awareness. China’s expansion of new radar capabilities over the South China Sea has been widely reported.
But this concept is not just about getting surveillance equipment or other vessel-tracking capabilities. Awareness also involves interagency coordination and regional cooperation.
Where regional cooperation is concerned to tackle maritime security, Southeast Asia, home to many of the claimants states in the South China Sea, has its share of success stories.
Following the more serious scourge of piracy and armed robbery incidents in the late 1990s to early 2000s in Asian waters, regional governments have incrementally improved cooperation to tackle the threat. Notably, the Malacca Straits Patrols promulgated by Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore (and later joined by Thailand) in 2004.
But there is so far no such similar mechanism in the South China Sea, in part due to certain political sensitivities over unresolved maritime disputes.
Competition, underpinned by mutual distrust and rivalries, continue to take precedence over cooperation between the South China Sea coastal states.
In that space where the situation remains fraught with sensitivities and countries can be wary about making a wrong step, piracy and other more dangerous activities can mushroom if non-state actors understand that countries will be reluctant to enforce laws in specific areas of overlapping claims.
Such activities can give rise to the smuggling of controlled items, human trafficking and other threats to security.
CULTIVATING AN INCLUSIVE MINDSET
In the coming years, it is clear that the South China Sea will continue to be fraught with a myriad maritime security challenges.
Disputes over maritime sovereignty and rights should not overshadow the prevalent risks posed by transnational security challenges at sea, as the CK Bluebell incident has highlighted.
If anything, this piracy incident shows that a more inclusive cooperation which involves all stakeholders - not just the South China Sea coastal states, but maritime user states that straddle this region and beyond - is required.
By dint of its geographical character, the South China Sea constitutes a global maritime common, which countries within and beyond this region depend for their economic well-being.
There had been proposals made by certain parties in the South China Sea that allude to an exclusionary policy towards the role of external stakeholders.
But clearly, capacity shortfalls faced by governments in the region would necessitate external parties to play a constructive role through promoting a stabilising presence which contributes to building the maritime security capacities of Southeast Asian states bordering the South China Sea in particular.
In order to forestall or mitigate future, especially transnational maritime security challenges in the South China Sea, a forward-looking mindset that prioritises cooperation over competition between countries, and which embraces inclusivity instead of exclusivity, will have to become a change countries must welcome.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.