The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Maritime Multilateral Security Cooperation in East and South Asia

March 25, 2015

Given the lack of an effective maritime multilateral security cooperation framework for East and South Asia, Bonji Ohara suggests creating a regional network of bilateral arrangements and working to build a perception of “common interest” in Asia. This paper is Chapter 4 of The Quad Plus: Towards a Shared Strategic Vision for the Indo-Pacific , published in February 2015 by Wisdom Tree of New Delhi, India, based on quadrilateral strategic dialogue among researchers at the Tokyo Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, Vivekananda International Foundation, and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

*     *     *

The main issues of maritime security are in the area of security of sea lanes and protection of marine resources.

Insistence on control in enclosed seas or half enclosed seas which have marine resources lends itself to use of drastic measures. In turn, the resulting interference in marine transportation causes serious damage to neighbour countries; even if they are not directly related to underlying resource disputes.

Seaborne transportation is still the dominant mode of transportation used in trade, because ships can carry large cargos across long distances without crossing borders. For example, the sea lane from the Middle East to East China Sea that passes through the Indian Ocean, Malacca Strait and South China Sea (SCS) can be disturbed by territorial disputes between countries.

The threats to sea lanes are not only maritime threats. Others include natural disasters, shipwrecks and piracy. These threats cannot be solved by a single country; multilateral cooperation is needed to treat the threats and to secure safe navigation.

In the 1990s, multilateral security cooperation in Asia expanded both geographically and substantially, to include efforts to build track two consultations among Japan, the US and South Korea. At the same time, however, cooperation over that period also demonstrated major limitations. As a result, Japan and the US came to the conclusion during this period that the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) is not a sufficient security framework for Asia, but rather a minor supplement or tool of the Japan–US alliance. This paper demonstrates the limitations of the multilateral security framework in Asia by following its development, and suggesting how to make it more effective.

Development of Multilateral Security Cooperation

Multilateral security cooperation was not only born out of a need for security. The idea of multilateral security cooperation was apparent in the work of the League of Nations following World War I. The Covenant of the League of Nations prohibited war and systemised collective security in which participating nations imposed sanctions jointly against aggressor nations. The security system of the League of Nations, however, failed to prevent World War II because it entrusted the designation of war and sanctions to each nation. The provisions concerning imposition of military sanctions were not binding.

To address this fault, the United Nations (UN) tried to build a powerful and centralised security system by establishing the Security Council which consisted of the five nations which were part of the World War II. Under the UN regime, the Security Council designates the war, and its resolution binds all member nations. This was intended to protect international security. But the divisions of the Cold War contributed to a situation where permanent members of the Security Council so liberally exercised their veto power that they prevented the United Nations Security Council from working. This situation demonstrates the difficulty in translating threat perception into multilateral action.

International society started to appreciate the need for security systems which were not based on the UN. One is non-UN organised peace keeping operations (PKO) and the other is regional or sub-regional security systems. PKO is characterised by third parties providing forces to intervene in disputes by sending disengagement observers or monitoring forces with the agreement of disputing parties and host nations. On the other hand, regional or sub-regional security systems seek to avoid the clash by disputing parties in the first place. Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) is a successful example of this.

The idea of ‘common security’ was displayed in the report of Palme Commission in 1982 as follows: ‘There can be no hope for victory in a nuclear war; the two sides would be united in suffering and destruction. They can survive only together. They must achieve security not against the adversary but together with him. International security must rest on a commitment to joint survival rather than on a threat of mutual destruction.’ This means that shared perceptions are necessary for ‘cooperating with enemy’. The ARF was sometimes considered to be an Asian version of CSCE, especially as the CSCE process changed after the Cold War.

The Effort of Building Security System in Asia

The ARF was built through Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) initiative and was the effort of Asia-Pacific nations broadly. Several Asia-Pacific nations outside of ASEAN had previously proposed building a regional or sub-regional security system.

The Soviet Union was the first nation which proposed to build a security framework in Asia-Pacific region. Former Soviet premiers Leonid Brezhnev in 1960s and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1980s proposed the ‘Asian Collective Security Proposal’. This proposal was refused by Japan and the US because it would have split the Western Bloc, and by China because it appeared to encircle it. In 1990, Australia and Canada tabled a regional security proposal modeled on CSCE. But Japan, the US and China recognised that applying it to Asia was improper because of the differences in Asian and European historical experiences and the specific nature of their security problems.

These proposals, however, presented opportunities for Japan and ASEAN governments to consider a formal regional security system in Asia. The Japanese came up with the idea of developing regional security talks outside the framework of ASEAN talks from the 1970s.

ASEAN countries did not accept the Japanese idea at that time, but ‘Singapore Declaration of 1992’ said ‘ASEAN should intensify its external dialogues in political and security matters by using the ASEAN Post-Ministerial Conferences (PMC),’ and the framework for security dialogue was picked up as theme in ASEAN ministerial meeting in July 1992. The Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) for the 1993 ASEAN foreign ministers meeting named it the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and designated member nations.

The Development of Multilateral Security Cooperation by ARF

The ‘Chairman’s Statement’ of the first meeting of ARF held in July 1994 said, ‘the ARF had enabled the countries in the Asia-Pacific region to foster the habit of constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern. In this respect, the ARF would be in a position to make significant contribution to effort towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region’. It identified ‘confidence and security building’, ‘nuclear non-proliferation’, ‘peacekeeping cooperation’, ‘exchanges of non classified military information’, ‘maritime security’, and ‘preventive diplomacy’ as the subjects of further study.

The Concept Paper of the second meeting of the ARF declared that ‘the approach should be taking place in three stages, namely the promotion of confidence building, development of preventive diplomacy, and elaboration of approaches to conflicts.’ It said the ARF process is stage one, and should continue to discuss means of implementing confidence building measures (CBM). The second meeting also established track two activities to be carried out by strategic institutes and relevant non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The ARF participants had direct discussions about CBM, PKO, and Search and Rescue in inter-sessional meetings. In the Third Meeting of the ARF, Myanmar and India were approved to join. They also changed the conference pattern from a one-sided Chairman-directed discussion to a discussion guided by Chairman. The ARF that year also showed a positive attitude toward maritime security issues by discussing the SCS.

But in the Fourth Meeting of ARF held in July 1997, although they discussed many problems, including the SCS dispute and the Chairman’s statement said ‘the process has progressed at a pace acceptable to all participants,’ it was apparent that the ARF could not easily move the process forward. Repeated clashes over control of features and EEZs in the SCS testified that multilateral security cooperation in this area would not suffice.

The Limitations of ARF

The ARF is a security system based on multilateral cooperation that includes parties to various disputes, such as in the SCS. It has a structure similar to CSCE. But it is very difficult for members to share threat perceptions, because the scale of territory, population, military force and economy are quite asymmetric between China and ASEAN countries.

The Chinese Navy went into Spratly Islands in 1988 and engaged in an artillery battle with Vietnam Navy, with the result that two Vietnamese ships were sunk and 80 Vietnamese soldiers killed. Although China later promulgated its ‘Law on the Territorial Sea’ in which it declared sovereignty over the Spratly Islands, Chinese diplomats also declared that China would not cause trouble in a workshop on the South China Sea dispute. The Chinese Navy also posted a territorial marker on Gaven Reef. China’s deeds do not match its words, and this inconsistency causes ASEAN countries to be distrustful of China. China’s behaviour, however, has not been affected by the distrust and the protests of ASEAN.

China does not recognise ASEAN countries as threats. This asymmetric perception of threat is different from CSCE. The threat which West and East blocs shared was mass destruction by nuclear weapons, and both blocs had the capability to contribute to that outcome. There was a possibility that mutual nuclear attack, which both blocs did not want, would occur. On the contrary, China and ASEAN countries do not share the perception of the common threat. China’s negative behavior in the ARF testified to this. China changed its behaviour and tried to concern itself with the ARF positively in 1996. But the change in China’s behaviour did not indicate a change in China’s perception of threat.

China prefers bilateral talks to multilateral talks for discussions of the dispute in South China Sea because it recognises that multilateral talks will result in it losing advantage over individual ASEAN countries. On the other hand, the problems it creates for multilateral security cooperation isolates China in international society. China is showing its positive attitude to the ARF, but at the same time successfully controlling the pace of the CBM process, from exchange of information to inspection/monitoring and regulation. Chinese marine surveillance ships cut the exploration cables of a Vietnamese oil and gas survey ship Binh Minh 02 120 nautical miles off the Vietnamese central coast on 26 May 2011. Public protests in Vietnam followed the Vietnam Foreign Ministry’s decision to lodge a formal protest with the Chinese embassy over this incident. There were protests in the Philippines as well against Chinese activity in the Spratly Islands. But none of these protests had any impact on China’s behaviour. It continued to develop both the organisations and equipment of the Oceanographic Administration and Fisheries Bureau in order to strengthen its ‘management’ of the SCS.

The cooperative security which the ARF aims to realise is different from the concept of common security which envisions cooperating with adversaries. Once the antagonism becomes apparent among participating parties, it is difficult to treat it within the framework of cooperative security. It is also difficult to share the perception of threat basic to common security. This means that the ARF is not an effective framework for solving the dispute in SCS. There is a regional limitation too. The ARF usually pays attention to the problems in South East Asia area, because it is led by ASEAN. However, the ARF can function as an effective maritime multilateral security framework only for natural disasters, shipwrecks and crimes on ocean, etc. in South East Asia area.

Security Cooperation in East and South Asia

As I mentioned above, the ARF cannot realise the common security framework in the South East Asia region. However, neither is there any effective alternative multilateral security framework in the Asian region.

There is no other security framework which has regular meetings by governments in East and South Asia. Each government is studying the framework mainly through the Track II meetings. None of the countries can entrust their national security to multilateral security cooperation. Every country needs the functions of deterrence and reaction. Therefore, they must seek solutions other than multilateral security cooperation. The expansion of armaments is one such solution. And it can be seen in these areas. But it is not the only solution.

Bilateral security cooperation is another solution. Japan is representative of a country which depends on bilateral security cooperation. Japan has only one ally, the US. The Japan-US alliance is at the core of its security. Japan asserts that multilateral security cooperation is a supplement to the Japan-US alliance. Most Japanese cooperation in military technology, education/training and exercises is with the US. The US and South Korea, not just Japan, also puts bilateral security cooperation at the core of its security.

India, a major power in South Asia, recognises that its main threat is from Pakistan. India recognised the insufficiency of its armaments vis-a-vis Pakistan before the Kargil conflict in 1999, and then continued to expand its armaments including its nuclear weapons. However, if one takes a closer look at India’s procurement programmes, it is difficult to say India enjoys specific bilateral cooperation in procurement.

Many observers say ‘Malabar,’ the joint US-India exercises, demonstrates close US-India relations and India’s engagement in South China Sea. US-India security cooperation was developed after the Cold War. They formed a strategic partnership in 2003, but it seems that India did not intend to be ‘a member of the US side which contains China in South China Sea. If anything, India prefers to avoid excessive US influence in South Asia, and itself, and keeps a certain distance from the US. On the other hand, the defence agreement concerning education and training between India and Vietnam, and their cooperation on joint exploitation of gas and oil in South China Sea, testify to India’s strengthening engagement in the South China Sea. This is the reason that China is irritated by India’s behaviour.

Security cooperation in South Asia, regardless of whether it is multilateral or bilateral, is not as prominent a feature of the security environment as it is in East Asia. India’s principal interest is in trying to maintain its influence in this area.

Maritime Multilateral Security Cooperation in Asia

Although, under these circumstances it’s difficult to build an effective multilateral security cooperation framework, the immediate necessity of maritime multilateral security cooperation in the region is quite compelling.

Multilateral security cooperation framework faces many contradictions in Asia. But there are hints of success in the present environment. There are effective bilateral security cooperation frameworks that can be networked. In this network, every country which has some bilateral cooperation with other countries in the region will be involved in every issue at each level. It can choose the participating parties dependent on the issue and build ad hoc multilateral security cooperation.

Each country in Asia tries to secure the function of deterrence and reaction by strengthening bilateral security cooperation. This is because of difficulties in sharing the perception of threat among all of the participants in the multilateral security cooperation system, particularly in dealing with severe disputes. It is easier to achieve the common perception of threat in the context of bilateral security cooperation. Maritime security will not allow each country to wait for the development of a multilateral security cooperation framework. On the other hand, bilateral security cooperation is not effective enough.

Therefore, each country has to work toward building a network of bilateral security cooperation. Each country has to take concrete measures with a country which shares its threat perception and try to involve other countries by adjusting their interests based on bilateral security cooperation on an issue by issue basis. There has already been success in the development of Japan–South Korea security cooperation based on the Japan-US alliance and US–South Korea alliance.


Maritime security requires multilateral cooperation, but there are a wide variety of issues involved. Some of them can be treated by multilateral security frameworks like the ARF, and some cannot. The nature of the seas is such that their security and safety cover vast areas and are connected with other seas. Therefore, maritime security requires the flexible multilateral cooperation of countries across the areas concerned; a permanent framework with fixed participating parties cannot function.

Bilateral cooperation between countries is developing concrete measures against common threats. Multilateral frameworks require consensus before taking action. But in the bilateral framework, two countries with shared threat perception can take action quickly. And if every country has bilateral security cooperation with another, then those countries can cooperate on a multilateral basis issue by issue. They thereby create an ad hoc multilateral security cooperation framework.

Ad hoc multilateral security cooperation based on bilateral security cooperation can be one of the solutions to maritime security in the Asian region, and it can influence the behaviour of countries which threaten security.

The next problem is how to build the perception of ‘the common interest’ in the Asian region. The countries in the region need reasons to cooperate. If a country can benefit by cooperating with another country, then the country has incentive to cooperate. This kind of incentive will compensate the differences of threat perception among countries. For example, if the countries use the same equipment or system as a ‘common asset’, it can give them business opportunities, too. It can be one of the ‘common interests’. We have to seek the assets which can provide them ‘benefit’. And then they can create the layers of cooperative network. The layers of network which lap over the region will make security cooperation more effective.

    • Research Fellow
    • Bonji Ohara
    • Bonji Ohara

Featured Content




Click on the link below to contact an expert or submit a question.