NWI - Naval Warfare

DSA 2018: Malacca Strait security needed by ASEAN

13th April 2018 - 03:00 GMT | by Wendell Minnick in Taipei

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Multilateral cooperation amongst ASEAN militaries has been successful, but still needs to improve if the vital sea lines of communication (SLOC) of the Malacca Strait are to remain clear, particularly with the rise of two strategic military competitors to the east and west, namely China and India.

Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand make up the bulk of the security effort in the Strait with the utilisation of three components of cooperation: coordinated naval patrols, the Eyes in the Sky programme and the Intelligence Exchange Group, said Carlyle Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy. 

Piracy is down, and Lloyd’s no longer considers the Straits of Malacca and Singapore a war zone. All parties seem to have provided the proper equipment and the Malacca Straits Patrols (MPS) hold regular training exercises.’

There is much agreement on this issue. ‘There have been almost no attacks in recent years and any reports to the contrary are ill-informed,’ said Sam Bateman, professorial research fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security, University of Wollongong. 

Countering piracy and other forms of crime at sea, such as drug trafficking, arms smuggling and illegal people movement, have been reduced due to cooperation between shore agencies, police and customs, he said. 

Another area for potential capacity-building assistance are Intepol and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime could be expanded.

At the policy level, the key challenge is to generate political will for the implementation of multilateral naval cooperation among ASEAN navies, said Michael Raska, a specialist in the Military Transformations Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore. For example, the region must begin sharing real-time actionable intelligence and enhance coordination through hotlines. This would accelerate joint responses to common maritime challenges and threats. 

‘In many ways, issues of contending strategic interests in a broader geopolitical context, coupled with domestic political transitions and a lack of resources, preclude effective maritime cooperation within ASEAN,’ Raska said.

However, at the same time it is the perennial challenge of technical interoperability, particularly in the diverse range of naval capabilities and their asymmetric distribution among ASEAN navies, Raska said. This can be currently seen in the joint patrols between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia in the Sulu Sea rather than in the Malacca Straits. 

The three navies possess varying aerial surveillance and radar network capabilities, air and land military assets, as well as different naval operational routines and processes. These in turn may project a perception of weak capability, interpreted as inability to secure territory.  While ASEAN states continuously attempt to address these challenges, there is a long way to building a robust and effective maritime security system, Raska said.

One of the outstanding issues causing problems are internal differences among the four ASEAN powers about the possible role outside powers, primarily the US and China, as well as Australia, Japan and India, play in the Strait. ‘This is usually couched that all user countries should contribute to security in the straits,’ Thayer said.

Thayer emphasised that ASEAN naval patrols are ‘coordinated, not combined and joint, unlike Eyes in the Sky, due to sensitivities over maritime boundaries and sovereignty'. He said a step forward would be joint patrols that crossed maritime boundaries. Another add-on would be to widen the area to include maritime approaches to the Strait of Malacca by including India to the west and Japan and Australia to the east. 

‘Australia already conducts aerial reconnaissance under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements that also includes Singapore and Malaysia, as well as New Zealand and United Kingdom, Thayer said.

One of the fundamental problems amongst ASEAN countries is territorial disputes, said Richard Bitzinger, a visiting senior fellow at RSIS. ‘The three countries operate 'coordinated patrols', but mostly this is letting each other know when one country's navy or coast guard is going out to patrol.’ 

In short, most Malacca-Singapore Strait patrolling and security building has been like most other ASEAN security activities: ‘mostly ad hoc and mostly single-nation actions'. In the region there is a ‘very urgent need for more airborne maritime patrolling'.

Bateman agrees that there is a ‘pressing requirement for surveillance aircraft', but other requirements include systems and training for the maintenance of effective cooperative surveillance and information-sharing in the strait. Malaysia is relatively well off with surveillance capabilities, and the US in the past has provided coastal radars to Indonesia, although it is unclear how well maintained or operational they are, he said.

Thayer said that, from his work as co-facilitator for an international conference on rapid disaster response – lessons learned that reported to the East Asia Summit, the technical capabilities of maritime search aircraft varies enormously among the four MPS participants. This indicates that there could be technical upgrades and more maritime patrol aircraft (MPA).

One of the most obvious and blatant examples for the need for more sophisticated MPA was the unsuccessful multinational search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that vanished from radar in 2014, Thayer said. New Zealand’s P-3 Orion MPA were the best equipped because New Zealand had no plans to upgrade to the P-8 Poseidon. ‘Australia, on the other hand, didn’t upgrade its Orions because it was procuring the more advanced P-8 Poseidon. Littoral states just did not have the capability needed at the time.

Currently, only three Western countries are offering the type of sophisticated MPA platforms needed in the region, sources indicate. This includes the Airbus Military C295 Persuader, Boeing P-8, Lockheed Martin SC-130J Sea Hercules and Saab Swordfish.

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