While the China threat grabs the headlines, these are the maritime issues Southeast Asians want to talk about

OV Digital Desk
6 Min Read

Rebecca Strating, La Trobe University

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong issued a stark warning to Southeast Asian leaders this week: the region could face a “devastating” conflict over the South China Sea unless it strengthens its diplomatic and legal safeguards.

Wong said the region was already experiencing “destabilising, provocative and coercive actions”, in addition to “unsafe conduct” in the air and sea. These were not-quite-so-veiled references to China’s recent actions in the South China Sea.

Other countries in the region – especially Vietnam and the Philippines – share similar concerns about China’s maritime assertions. They question, for instance, what Beijing’s rejection of the 2016 South China Sea tribunal ruling might mean for upholding international maritime laws and keeping crucial sea trade routes open.

This week, Manila again called out China’s “dangerous manoeuvres” in the South China Sea. President Ferdinand Marcos junior vowed not to yield an “inch” to China in the contested waters.

Australia and the Philippines recently signed an agreement to deepen maritime co-operation. This may lead to more joint defence exercises and patrols in the South China Sea.

But not all regional leaders agree about the potential threat. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim issued a warning of his own at the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit this week over the West’s “China phobia”. If the US and Australia have problems with China, he said, “they should not impose it” on Southeast Asia.

Other challenges beyond territorial disputes

There is no doubt the great power competition between the US and China sets the strategic backdrop for Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia.

But while maritime co-operation is increasing among regional states, this doesn’t mean they all agree on the central issues that affect the stability, safety and security of the region’s waters, specifically the South China Sea.

Southeast Asian countries have diverse interests, political systems and strategic priorities. And leaders in the region – like those of many other smaller and middle powers around the world – regularly say they do not want to have choose between the US and China.

Not all countries are “hedging” to the same degree, but Australia should nevertheless focus its engagement on building genuine partnerships with Southeast Asian countries in their own right – not merely based on perceived external threats – and identifying and addressing shared issues of concern.

At this week’s ASEAN-Australia summit, for instance, Southeast Asian nations drove the idea of a dedicated maritime forum. While the forum did address security challenges such as “grey zone” activities, plenty of other challenges and opportunities were discussed. These included:

  • the importance of the “blue economy” concept, focused on the sustainable use of maritime resources for development and prosperity
  • improving maritime connectivity by ensuring free and open sea lanes of communication
  • bolstering law enforcement and governance to ensure maritime order across the region
  • better addressing environmental and climate change issues.

There was also a strong focus on understanding the local issues facing coastal and Indigenous communities in the region. An estimated 70% of Southeast Asia’s population lives by the coast, where they face increasing livability challenges due to climate change, economic uncertainty and the degradation of fishing stocks and natural resources.

This is not entirely new: ASEAN countries and Australia have been paying closer attention to shared maritime challenges beyond the sovereignty and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

For example, ASEAN recently released its maritime outlook. In particular, it noted the importance of the region for “global trade, food and energy security and marine biodiversity”.

Opportunities for cooperation

It is no surprise maritime security has reached this level of importance on a shared diplomatic agenda.

While the concerns over China’s activities are real, it’s important Australia and its neighbours to the north focus more attention on the vast range of other ocean-based issues that don’t get as much attention.

These priorities include:

  • protecting open ocean supply chains
  • reducing pollution, in particular plastics, and preventing coral bleaching
  • supporting sustainable, legal and regulated fishing
  • mitigating human, arms and drug trafficking
  • addressing the very real challenges that climate change and rising sea levels present to maritime Asia.

These challenges are often less politically sensitive than strategic concerns, which enhances the prospects of co-operation. This is where science, research and development, knowledge sharing and expert networks can contribute to solving knotty problems. And many of these challenges are transnational, meaning they do not affect one state unilaterally, but often require collective responses.

The challenges are significant. So, too, are the opportunities for collaboration. Getting maritime co-operation right can support the human rights and livelihoods of millions of people across the region.The Conversation

Rebecca Strating, Director, La Trobe Asia and Professor, La Trobe University, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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