The South China Sea is experiencing what the Straits of Malacca did – overcrowding by big
external powers, making the case yet again for stronger Asean representation THE Straits of Malacca was once a narrow, shallow and crowded waterway with increasing volumes of international shipping – and little security protection.
It also happened to be a vital West-East maritime corridor. As a conduit for massive fuel shipments and
global maritime trade, it was a great strategic prize whose vulnerability to attack raised the stakes allround.
It was seen as a natural target for pirates, terrorists and other nefarious elements bent on upsetting the
established order. It was both strategic asset and prospective liability, whose hopes for continued peace
could not be assured.
Thus the venerable Straits, for millennia a key portal for intercontinental trade giving rise to the Malacca
Empire, had been reduced in our troubled times to a ticking time bomb just “waiting” for a colossal
How long would the safe and peaceful times last? Shipping agents were on edge, insurers were tense,
the relevant authorities were vigilant over the Straits as a “war-risk zone.” Scenarios sketched included hijackings for ransoms, coordinated attacks on ships with deep draughts negotiating the narrower channels, and the commandeering of tankers turned into huge bomb-laden torpedoes.
That was just over a decade ago. Speculation spiralled, setting off alarm bells in the region – and among
external major powers. The US, with its massive Pacific Fleet already on standby, wanted to wade in.
And so would China, and consequently India, Japan, Russia and any great power with pretensions to
even greater influence. That was a second round of alarm for the littoral states of Asean. Peace would be disrupted with any attack, any unilateral response to or pre-emption of it by an external major power, or any entanglement among the major powers streaming into the Straits.
The result was one of the swiftest actions within Asean: Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore hastened to
form the Malacca Strait Patrols (MSP) on the water and in the air, with logistical coordination and
Thailand soon joined. The multilateral operation pre-empted violent criminal action as well as unsolicited
meddling by major powers.
In 2009, al-Qaeda called for strikes at important maritime chokepoints. The next year intelligence picked
up terrorist “chatter” about Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) considering attacks in the Straits. By then, the MSP was in full swing. Attacks in the Straits, along with major power play, had become harder to launch than ever before.
Today, the Malacca Strait is even more important because of the indigenous security regime by the four
Asean countries. Their security cooperation is unprecedented for nations long sensitive about their
respective borders and sovereignties. Can the same be said soon for the South China Sea? The US and China have lately made strategic waves lapping on the shores of this region and beyond.
The year started with a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric submarine surfacing in Kota Kinabalu. It was
enough to set US and Indian pundits’ fancies aflutter.
In March, Japan announced a “test” of its largest warship, the Izumo, in the South China Sea. The ninehelicopter
carrier would tour the region on its way to India for US war games in Japan’s biggest military
venture here since invading South-East Asia.
Indian strategists soon wanted a slice of the “action” also. In April, sources in New Delhi announced
India’s expectation of joining the MSP, quite oblivious to the sub-Asean group’s other purpose besides
deterring unlawful activity.
However, statements can and do substitute for actual action. Privately, Indian defence sources say there
is no capacity for naval assets to venture much beyond the Andaman Sea. Nonetheless, China is not having everything its way in the South China Sea either.
In a hiccup in Beijing-Manila relations, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his navy in March to
grill Chinese survey ships on their presence in waters around Benham Rise claimed by the Philippines.
A week later, Manila announced plans to file a firm protest against China’s construction of a radar station
on Scarborough Shoal. The Justice Ministry indicated that Beijing’s clumsiness had forced Manila to work
closer with Washington, again.
In April, Duterte ordered a stronger military presence in all Philippine-held islands and outcrops in the
South China Sea. Later that month senior Philippine officials paid a high-profile visit to Thitu, the secondlargest of the disputed Spratly Islands.
Predictably, China protested. Days later, it launched its first China-built aircraft carrier, expected to be
fully operational in two years and still relatively unsophisticated.
While some of Duterte’s orders on military manoeuvres might have been short on details, they still shored
up Manila’s bargaining position for talks in Beijing in May.
For all his bluntness, Duterte’s position on his country’s defence relationship with the US has shifted
subtly yet significantly. Now, his complaint sounds like that of a disappointed ally who had been left in the
At another level, there was always more hype than substance in his supposed shift in alliances. Even at
the height of his bluster, he conceded that he wanted a change in Philippine foreign policy but not in its
defence policy, posture and partnership with the US.
How that would work in practice is still an unknown, including to Duterte himself. Still, he is not the only
politician to hold two seemingly inconsistent positions at the same time.
In his meeting with Xi Jinping in May, Xi pledged continued friendship but not at the cost of China
conceding any claimed territory. Duterte told Xi of plans to drill for oil in the area, and Xi told him China
would go to war if it had to.
That was Xi’s version of a double bind: a velvet gauntlet with a silken wallop. Then he took it further with
Duterte by raising the prospect of joint exploration in the South China Sea.
Far from resolving anything for anyone, that accentuated the double bind for Manila within Asean. In what
only seemed like a trophy for Duterte from his talks in Beijing, it became a diplomatic impasse.
With at least three other Asean members with claims in the disputed area rattled, Foreign Secretary Alan
Cayetano said Manila would consult all other Asean countries before taking any decision.
As a former prosecutor and mayor, Duterte must know the dodgy implications and obligations of agreeing
to joint activity with a rival claimant. Like it or not, Manila remains at the forefront of dealings with China
over disputed territories involving four Asean countries.
Meanwhile, US military forces continue to defy China’s disputed claims and demarcations. A US spy
plane flew over the East China Sea in May, US bombers flew over the South China Sea in June, and a
US warship sailed near the Paracel Islands early this month.
Not to be left out, Britain announced two days ago that it would also engage in military exercises in the
disputed area next year. After joining Japan in limited military exercises last year, a warship and up to two
aircraft carriers may be dispatched in 2018.
Like the Straits of Malacca before, the South China Sea is getting uncomfortably crowded. Once more,
Asean nations should be motivated to act.
There are additional challenges as the situation is more complex, which only makes the case for a
credible, predominant Asean role more compelling.
Article Bunn Nagara which appeared in The Star , 30 July 2017.