I think of 2012 as the year of the South China Sea disputes. It seemed that hardly a day went by without it being a newsworthy topic. In particular, there was the standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships at Scarborough Shoal in April 2012, which escalated into a political and economic dispute between Beijing and Manila. At that time, the confrontation was discussed daily among many of my colleagues in the Indonesian Navy. It was clear that this was a matter of national and regional importance for Indonesia. One could not merely sit and let the storm pass, because even if it blows over, it is the kind of storm that will eventually return.
This dispute was both interesting and worrying at the same time. After the Scarborough Shoal incident, the Philippines sought ASEAN’s support, hoping that the political foundations within the regional political and security community would firm up in the face of Beijing. However, things were not that black and white for some members of ASEAN. Because of an inability to agree on how to deal with China’s actions in the South China Sea, particularly the Scarborough Shoal incident, ASEAN failed for the first time in its history to issue a joint communiqué during the annual meeting of its foreign ministers in Phnom Penh in July 2012.This shocked many observers. Graeme Dobell, a journalism fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said the impasse was a surprise to both Beijing and ASEAN. Dobell and many others saw ASEAN’s failure to reach consensus as a sign that the stakes were getting higher.
It didn’t take long for Indonesia, through Foreign Minister Marty M Natalegawa, to wade in and try to save ASEAN’s face. Natalegawa shuttled among ASEAN capitals to try and hammer out a communiqué acceptable to all sides. His gallant bid neither stopped tensions from continuing to escalate in the region nor calmed ASEAN’s four claimant states in the South China Sea dispute. China’s assertiveness in the region is real, and with its insistence on resolving disputes bilaterally, some ASEAN countries feel uncomfortable facing China alone. China’s move to create the Sansha prefecture in Hainan province, which includes a military garrison, to “administer” the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, not only outraged other claimants like Vietnam but also raised questions about Beijing’s commitment to peaceful dispute settlement.
Another key moment in 2012 came when the United States announced its “rebalancing” policy in Asia, also known as the pivot. In a commentary, Ralf Emmers, a security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the US policy added a new dimension to the South China Sea dispute that China clearly read as an effort to contain its rise. The possibility of China and the US facing off in the Asia-Pacific became even more real, although the Obama administration stated that it had no intention of going that far. The American pivot is sensitive, in particular to ASEAN, because most of its members have close relations with both powers, and some have de facto security alliances with the US.ASEAN needs its own plan to ensure maritime stability in disputed areas of the South China Sea as well as a strong statement that its members share the same opinion on the issue.
It is important to note that ASEAN’s member states are committed to a peaceful settlement in the South China Sea. The 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea is solid proof of ASEAN’s intentions, but a hoped for Code of Conduct to follow the declaration has been stalled inside the bloc as China is extremely wary of any multilateral involvement in the disputes.
The current situation requires a different kind of diplomacy — a naval kind. Since the time of 19th century naval strategists Alfred Thayer Mahan and Sir Julian Corbett, projecting naval diplomacy, also known as gunboat diplomacy, has been used by large powers to gain influence in international affairs. This form of diplomacy is, to quote James Cable, the British naval thinker, “The use or threat of limited naval force, otherwise than as an act of war, in order to secure advantage or to avert loss, either in furtherance of an international dispute or else against foreign nationals within the territory or the jurisdiction of their own state.” Its strength lies in its ability to apply appropriate force on the issue in dispute.
It is a common practice for nations to use their naval forces during peace and wartime to support their diplomatic efforts. Although much has changed in global geopolitics since the Cold War, countries around the world still rely on naval diplomacy as a way to show force within the framework of a state’s foreign policy. Corbett, the British naval historian, said that naval strategy should be part of foreign policy. He understood war as a political act, and the first function of a naval fleet is to counter the diplomatic efforts of another country.
In ASEAN, the good news is that the navies of member countries already enjoy close cooperation, which has been enhanced by the ASEAN Navy Chiefs Meeting (ANCM). This is an effective forum for ASEAN navies to communicate and share views and ideas, and develop and strengthen confidence-building measures and cooperation. Its informal setting does not undermine its effectiveness, since agreements by the navy chiefs have been quite effective in “binding” related parties.
Good news is also coming from the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) Experts Working Groups (EWG) and its activities. An ADMM-Plus Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief and Military Medicine Exercise is scheduled to be held in Brunei in June, as well as a counterterrorism exercise in Indonesia in September. These programs provide ASEAN navies with needed opportunities for joint exercises. Naval cooperation should not only focus on dialogue, which some consider as merely routine. The complexity of Southeast Asia’s strategic environment necessitates a shift from dialogue-level cooperation to operational cooperation.
During the 6th ASEAN Navy Chiefs Meeting in Brunei in September 2012, Admiral Agus Suhartono, the Indonesian chief of naval staff and Armed Forces chief, proposed to host two events in 2013 including a first-ever joint exercise among ASEAN navies. This exercise would strengthen operational cooperation among navies in the region so they can better respond to common challenges and threats, in particular nontraditional threats. It was not the first time the Indonesian Navy proposed such naval cooperation. In 2004, it proposed the Malacca Strait Coordinated Patrol with the Singapore and Malaysian navies. A few years later, the Thai Navy joined the initiative, which was expanded to include an air patrol and an intelligence exchange group, and given the new name of the Malacca Strait Patrol. The Indonesian Navy has the experience of coordinating multilateral efforts among navies in the region, which is invaluable for new challenges ahead.
There are, however, two issues that would need special attention if the Indonesian Navy wants to move forward with an ASEAN-wide naval exercise. First, the exercise would undoubtedly have political implications and would create assumptions among countries outside the region. This makes it paramount to be clear on the exercise’s objective: strengthening naval cooperation among ASEAN navies at the operational level to ensure their readiness to face common maritime challenges and threats. Interoperability is key for better cooperation among ASEAN navies, and joint exercises would improve coordination among them as key players in securing Southeast Asian waters.
As a precondition, the Indonesian Navy will first need to consult and communicate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense on the suggestion for a ASEAN joint naval exercise. The consultations can be a forum for exchanges of views and ideas to ensure that the undertaking not only achieves its goals from a military perspective, but also from a political and diplomatic one. It is also important that the Indonesian Navy receives guidelines on issues that should not be breached regarding operational level naval cooperation.
Second, there is the military aspect to a joint naval exercise, in particular determining where it will be held and under what scenario. The maritime location will have political implications and determine the kind of message being delivered. As the initiator and host, Indonesia needs to consider its national interests. Among the Indonesian Navy’s four exercise areas, the Natuna Sea is the most strategic location. Natuna is an area of international interest in the middle of the Southeast Asia region that is accessible for countries with coastlines facing the South China Sea. Because the Natuna Sea lies in the northern reaches of Indonesia’s territorial waters, there would be no security concerns about the presence of foreign warships there.
The best scenario under which to hold the joint exercise is Military Operations Other Than War, as it provides a wide range of possibilities including humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, maritime security operations, and search and rescue at sea. This would help alleviate concerns that the exercise is aimed at any particular country in the region, thus opening the possibility for ASEAN navies to hold regular exercises in the future.To have a successful joint exercise, the Indonesian Navy would want to have all the other ASEAN navies (minus Laos, which is landlocked and has no ocean-going navy) participate in maneuvers. Their participation would be a benchmark of our naval diplomacy. At the very least, it would be sufficient to have the navies of Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Thailand participate.
One might ask what benefits Indonesia would receive from hosting this ambitious joint exercise. First, it will strengthen the role Indonesia has played since the establishment of ASEAN in 1967 as the organization’s de facto leader and make ASEAN’s interests an extension of Indonesia’s national interests. Second, there would be economic benefits, especially for those supporting the exercise, either directly or indirectly. Examples include government corporations PT Pertamina supplying fuel and lubricants and PT Pelindo providing port facilities, as well as the utilization of tourist facilities.
ASEAN would, of course, also benefit. A region-wide joint naval exercise would become a new foundation of security cooperation. Improving interoperability will strengthen current naval cooperation, since not all the navies in Southeast Asia have the same capabilities and readiness. As maritime challenges are becoming more complex, ASEAN will need its navies to be prepared to face any security threat against international seaborne trade, as well as secure its own waters and regional interests. In addition, because naval diplomacy has such a strong influence in international affairs, the exercise would be a statement of ASEAN’s commitment to regional maritime security. It would also show that we have an effective regional organization that is not only able to work together at conference tables, but also on the open seas.
The time has come for Indonesia to utilize naval diplomacy as part of its diplomatic tool bag. This initiative would be Indonesia’s first step toward expanding its diplomacy to the practical cooperation level. The first step in this venture is preparation within the Indonesian Navy and coordination with national stakeholders. The next is convincing ASEAN navies to take part in a joint exercise. Political implications and assumptions are unavoidable. Nevertheless, this is a test for Indonesian diplomacy to explain and understand the aims of the proposed exercise and its benefits for the region.