The heightened importance of maritime security issues, coupled with strategic competition between the major Indo-Pacific powers China and the United States, have turned the extensive maritime domain of Southeast Asia into an arena of great uncertainty. Here, various countries’ civilian and military maritime services navigate, operate, compete, and cooperate.
Complex politico-economic dynamics between the United States, the dominant power, and China, the emerging power, greatly affect the strategic positioning of other nations in the region. However, it is not only China’s thrust to gain operational superiority in the Pacific Ocean using its wide array of maritime agencies that is complicating the security environment; conditions such as the prevalence of transborder terrorist networks, and the geographical characteristic of the Indo-Pacific as the world’s most disaster-prone region, also play a role.
These volatile strategic and operational realities in the maritime domain have given rise to states trying to secure the vast regional waters through new and improved approaches, which are now reflected in the changing face of maritime security cooperation mechanisms in the region.
The 1990s were characterized by several strategic-level and navydominated cooperative mechanisms such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercises (CARAT), and the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS). These mechanisms focused on establishing lines of communication and developing avenues for greater dialogue, capitalizing on the inherent international nature of navies. There was subsequently a rise in functional cooperative mechanisms in the 2000s, especially in areas of counter-terrorism (e.g. the Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism or SEACAT exercise) and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
The late 2000s to the 2010s welcomed more actors into the maritime playing field, as the importance of Coast Guards and other maritime law enforcement agencies became magnified due to several operational developments, most notably the “civilianization” of the maritime domain previously dominated by the armed forces. Further, the 2010s also saw both the “hardening” of the institutions overseeing cooperation measures, as well as the flourishing of practical “minilateral” measures in maritime security cooperation. Examples of these include the Malacca Straits Sea Patrols (MSSP) and the “Eyes-in-the-Sky” Combined Maritime Air Patrols (EiS) among the navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, undertaken to ensure safety and security in the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. There is also the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) among Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines set up in 2016. There is a greater realization that, with the delicate diplomatic dynamics in the region, the challenge now is how to develop frameworks of cooperation which transcend differences in strategic interests.
Considering its geostrategic location and the diversity of security challenges it faces, the Philippines has crucial need to develop and put forward initiatives which can significantly impact on regional maritime cooperation. However, the country is still plagued with several internal challenges which hinder its own pursuit of maritime security and its capacity to influence and make a difference in the regional security milieu.
These include the lack of a comprehensive national marine policy and therefore lack of a coordinated maritime security strategy; poor inter-agency collaboration; shortage of proper assets and platforms for sustained participation in international cooperation initiatives; and practical obstacles such as resource constraints, prioritization issues, and the lack of common doctrine, language and interoperability of equipment.
In order to address these gaps, the author proposes a simple framework that may contribute to maximizing the potential of Philippine participation in regional maritime security cooperation initiatives. It is a framework that is centered on the characteristics of functionality, inclusivity, and sustainability.
Functionality is defined as an approach that zeroes in on the convergence of core strategic maritime interest of the state on one hand, and the operational or imminent security challenges, on the other hand, in order to address present, pressing, and persistent concerns. This involves identifying priority issues and working on these “convergence points” between core interest and imminent challenges.
Inclusivity is comprehensiveness and coherence of initiatives involving both state and non-state actors. It emphasizes the role of particular actors in developing maritime security cooperation, which the author identifies as these three: (1) the central government as the embodiment of national interests, (2) government agencies whose institutional mandates represent sectoral public interests, and (3) the private sector.
Finally, sustainability refers to the commitment of the Philippine state to addressing security challenges through the development of cooperative institutions that promote coordination and collaboration, while safeguarding the interest of the state. Further, sustainability requires proper monitoring and evaluation processes for participation in cooperative mechanisms, the feedback of which will aid in prioritization and planning for resource management, and in capability and capacity development.