Asian Polarization:

Conflict Scenarios between China and the Quad in Southeast Asia (Panel Discussion)
Asian Polarization:
September 18, 2022

InterRegional for Strategic Analysis organized a panel entitled “Asian Polarization: Conflict Scenarios between China and the Quad in Southeast Asia” The panel featured Dr. Rosalie Arcala Hall, Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Visayas in Iloilo and President of the Philippine Political Science Association. The discussion focused on various topics, which can be summarized as follows:

Points of Contention

Panel participants emphasized the importance of maritime security and developing resilient infrastructure to monitor coastlines. However, countries in the region have differing capabilities regarding their capacity to achieve this. There is also intense competition between regional players, especially China, over water resources and maritime borders. The main points of disagreement between countries centered around the following:

1- Maritime border disputes: Participants brought attention to disputes between several countries in the region over maritime borders, particularly between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Brunei. The most prominent of these conflicts is a judicial dispute that occurred a few years ago between China and the Philippines over their maritime borders in the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and held that Beijing violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. According to the keynote speaker, there is also fierce competition over open waters beyond official state borders. Under international law, a state’s territorial waters extend up to 12 nautical miles from its baseline. However, participants indicated that the twelve-mile rule was hard to enforce since these boundaries between countries overlap in multiple areas, triggering disputes between nations.

2- Regional competition over open waters: Participants explained that there was intense competition among Southeast Asian countries over control of open waters, given the huge potential of resources in these areas. However, not all countries have the same capability to pursue these interests. For example, the US Navy roams freely throughout different regions of the world to uphold freedom of navigation. Participants noted that the US has the capacity to do this, unlike the Philippines, which only began to strengthen its sea monitoring capabilities a decade ago through importing technologies from the US and Japan.

3- Uncertain role of law enforcement at sea: Adequate law enforcement in Southeast Asian seas is crucial both because of the importance of regional security sphere as well as the huge commercial potential of these waters. Law enforcement should be given clear roles that do not overlap with those of the navy. Participants indicated that there was a lack of clarity regarding the roles and responsibilities of the navy and law enforcement at sea. It added that the navy was usually responsible for maritime security, while the coast guard and other civilian entities played a major role in securing and facilitating trade and economic growth overseas. The keynote speaker discussed attempts by the Chinese Coast Guard and a paramilitary navy backed by the Chinese government to displace commercial fishermen from islands such as Palawan and Zambales in the western Philippines. These forces have prevented fishermen from reaching these islands.

4- Lack of security in strategic areas: Participants emphasized that there are areas lacking sufficient security support, and that there has been a rise in crimes such as smuggling, human trafficking, and terrorism, which are difficult to eradicate. For example, the Philippines has focused its security efforts on the island of Sibutu for economic reasons: approximately 60 to 80 oil tankers en route from the Middle East to Australia travel through the Sibutu Passage every day. The island of Sibutu is also rich in seaweed and sought-after species of fish that are caught to sell live. Given the Philippines’ limited maritime surveillance capabilities, it is difficult for the country to also secure other areas such as the Sabah corridor, which connects the island of Tawi Tawi in the Philippines with Sabah Island in Malaysia. Security personnel monitor visitors to Bongao, the capital of Tawi Tawi, but those arriving in any other area of that island are not subject to the same scrutiny.

Gray Zone Operations

The keynote speaker explained that many countries in Southeast Asia, especially China, have adopted a policy of plausible deniability by carrying out gray zone operations to provide a form of cover and legitimacy for their activities. The most important of these practices include:

1. Indirect attacks: The keynote speaker indicated that China patrols the South China Sea with coast guard vessels. China also maintains paramilitary forces that operate under a civilian cover, such as commercial boats that organize parties, play loud music, or install bright lights to obstruct fishermen in the vicinity from practicing their trade. Under international law, such acts do not constitute state aggression against the fishermen because the perpetrators are commercial boats. The lack of clearly-defined maritime security regulations poses a significant challenge to state actors, and enable other states to maneuver around these rules.  

2. Restrictions on other countries: The keynote speaker stressed that some countries have found it difficult to carry out non-political and non-military activities at sea, such as underwater exploration for minerals and oil. They have likewise encountered obstacles in carrying out scientific research and data collection, particularly due to China’s gray zone operations. The nature of these operations makes it difficult to hold the responsible parties accountable since the operations are not classified as acts of aggression under international law.

3. Expansion of militarized artificial islands: The keynote speaker indicated that China is expanding its artificial islands in the South China Sea for military purposes. This has  provoked border disputes with many other countries in the region, including the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea. Panel participants drew attention to the Mischief Reef incident in the South China Sea in the 1990s, in which China fired on Philippine coast guard vessels. At first, the Philippine government did not respond, and China seized the Mischief Reef under the pretext of building shelters for fishermen. Several years later, these alleged shelters became an enormous military facility equipped with a supply base and airstrip. Chinese boats also appeared off other nearby coasts which were purportedly all fishing areas. Despite the lack of any fishing activities there, the Chinese presence has become almost permanent.

4. Potential for escalation against other countries: The keynote speaker stated that the potential for regional escalation looms large, especially after the war in Ukraine. This is a source of great concern for Southeast Asian countries who are afraid that the Ukrainian scenario could be repeated in Taiwan. Panel participants raised many questions about potential intervention from and alliances with countries outside the region, namely Australia and the US. For example, Australia and Japan have established security cooperation agreements with the US, which has pledged to protect Taiwan. If the US tries to intervene to protect Taiwan, Australian and Japanese forces will act unilaterally to support US actions.

Diverse Threats

Panel participants drew attention to traditional and non-traditional security threats in the maritime sphere. Traditional threats include border demarcation conflicts, vessel security, terrorism, and piracy, while non-traditional security threats at sea include human trafficking, unregulated and illegal fishing, and pollution, among others. Southeast Asia faces various types of traditional and non-traditional security threats, including:

1. Tensions in the Taiwan Strait: Panel participants discussed rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, following the recent visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan, China’s subsequent military exercises, and regional spillover. This strait is considered a vital sea lane and is of particular economic importance to countries such as South Korea and Japan since oil tankers from the Middle East travel through the strait to reach those two countries. Furthermore, any Chinese aggression against Taiwan would result in humanitarian disaster for the region. This is of particular concern to the Philippines, given its geographical proximity with Taiwan and the large number of Filipino expats living there. In such a scenario, evacuating these populations would be very challenging because that would have to happen by sea and at a scale that the region has not experienced before.

2. Increased piracy and terrorism: Participants indicated that piracy and terrorism were among the most prominent challenges facing the region, along with other pressing issues such as smuggling and human trafficking. Due to the lack of security in some areas in the southern Philippines, the island of Tawi Tawi  has become a backdoor for terrorists aligned with al-Qaeda to enter the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Panel participants emphasized the importance of conducting joint patrols between countries to mitigate this threat. However, countries in the region have differing capabilities with regard to taking on that role. The Philippines is trying to persuade Australia to participate in providing security, especially because a lack of security in the region would affect the passage of ships bound for Australia. With regard to piracy, participants said that security had significantly improved as a result of close cooperation between Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia in launching joint patrols. However, ships passing through the region still face the threat of piracy. Participants indicated that it was necessary to ramp up joint efforts to combat piracy in order to avoid serious economic repercussions.

3. Numerous environmental threats: Participants drew attention to the non-traditional environmental threat of unprecedentedly high levels of plutonium in the South China Sea. In other words, the water is contaminated with radioactive materials, which negatively affects fisheries there. This is particularly concerning for coastal countries in which maritime security is more critical than land security. The region has also witnessed attempts to illegally extract black sand from the water for construction.

4. Instability in Sabah: The keynote speaker highlighted tensions in the Sabah corridor between the Malaysian government and the Sultanate of Sulu over Sabah Island. After the Sultanate made a claim to Sabah, these tensions triggered protests on the island. The ruling army on the island then intervened, violently dispersed the protestors, and decided to cut off trade between Sabah and neighboring islands in the Philippines. These avenues of trade are a lifeline for the latter islands, because Sabah is much closer to them than the Philippines mainland in the north.

Policy Recommendations

Cooperation among Southeast Asian countries to confront these growing dangers will be challenging but is not impossible. There are several potential paths forward, including the following:

1. Enhance comprehensive security cooperation in the maritime sphere: Panel participants highlighted the importance of improving cooperation in both traditional and non-traditional spheres of water resource management, and of addressing unregulated fishing and environmental pollution. They also drew attention to the need to create new mechanisms for collaboration in data gathering, analysis, and dissemination. Participants indicated there was a great potential for oil exploration and scientific research in the South China Sea, but that tapping this potential was difficult due to gray zone operations by some countries in the region and intense competition regarding information sharing.

2. Clearly delineate the roles of coast guard versus the navy: With regard to the blue economy, participants agreed that there was a need to clearly separate the purview of the coast guard from that of the navy. This is especially important since some countries have exploited this uncertainty to evade regulations. The roles of these two entities should not be limited to monitoring coasts and maritime boundaries, but should also include meeting the needs of communities that make a living from the sea. Participants noted that the tasks of the coast guard and navy are intertwined. which makes it more important to delineate their roles in order to confront the regional threats of piracy and fishing wars, and to strengthen cooperation mechanisms between the two entities.

3. Pursue diplomacy to prevent escalation: Participants stated that diplomatic cooperation between countries would help confront regional threats and any sudden escalation or aggression from one country against another. For example, the Philippines and China have a hotline for direct communication between the two countries’ coast guards. Participants indicated that there have been bilateral meetings and workshops to discuss cooperation in the face of regional threats and that these efforts should be expanded. They also discussed the current focus on bilateral cooperation and the need to reach common ground at that level before pursuing larger-scale cooperation.

4. Clarify cooperation prospects with the United States: Many states in the region are concerned about the potential US role in the event of any regional aggression, especially against Taiwan, and proposed support mechanisms. Panel participants said that the US role remains uncertain. For example, the US annually conducts joint military exercises with the Philippines and added a missile launching exercise for the first time this year. There is also joint defense cooperation between Australia, Japan, and the US, as well as serious talks between the US and the Philippines to supply the latter with anti-missile systems. However, there is still a need to discuss potential avenues to further strengthen this cooperation.

Participants indicated that domestic political dynamics in some countries have played a role in shaping their cooperation with the US. For example, Rodrigo Duterte, the former president of the Philippines, was reluctant to cooperate with the US but was more open to China. By contrast, the current president is more open to collaboration with the US. This could provide an opportunity for the Philippines to revisit mutual defense agreements with Washington in the event of an attack on Taiwan, especially since the US has the technology to launch missiles and drones from military bases in the Philippines. However, the parameters of this agreement remain unclear.

In conclusion, panel participants agreed that there was an imminent risk of escalation and conflict between Southeast Asian countries. In light of this, they indicated that countries should rethink the concept of maritime security and the roles of those responsible for law enforcement at sea and coastal protection. These issues are not limited to traditional security concerns such as terrorism and border demarcation, but also includes urgent environmental hazards. The untapped economic potential of the region is an equally important issue, although the region must combat attempts by certain countries to establish monopolies. Without strong joint cooperation mechanisms between countries in the region, these goals will remain elusive.

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