In examining recent suggestions for joint patrolling of the South China Sea, analysts have tended to focus on the surface vessels of various nations’ coast guards and navies. Yet the flight of a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon hosting a CNN film crew over disputed waters in the South China Sea in May highlighted the potential of air power – specifically maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) – in executing the possible missions of joint patrols. To explore the potential effectiveness of South China Sea joint air patrols it is important to first be clear about the often overlooked distinctions in missions, locations, and concepts.

Proposed joint air patrol missions broadly fall into two categories. One seeks to counter excessive claims and rights not in accordance with international law (i.e. maritime freedom of navigation and overflight, or FON, operations). A second, exemplified by the Eyes-in-the-Sky (EiS) component of the Malacca Strait Patrol (MSP), is geared towards enhancing maritime domain awareness (MDA) and enforcement.

In addition to objectives, it is critical to understand the proposed operating areas. Dzirhan Mahadzir, a defense journalist based in Malaysia, notes “many forget that the South China Sea is a sprawling area. People got excited at May’s International Maritime Defense Exhibition (IMDEX) when the Republic of Singapore Navy Chief called for patrols in the South China Sea to deter piracy, but he was referring to just a small zone off Johor and Singapore.”

Joint air patrols’ locations can also present difficulties due to conflicting territorial claims and, to a lesser extent, whether the proposed area actually presents a cost-effective opportunity to undertake the professed MDA or FON mission, in case the real purpose of the joint patrols is deterrence or signaling directed at a third party.

In fact, many of the same challenges that encumber surface joint patrols, including lack of interoperability, capacity, political will, and information-sharing agreements apply to their prospective air counterparts. But an air approach also brings unique challenges.

The nature of air patrols increases the importance of the endurance and range of platforms, with the former measured in hours instead of the days or weeks of a surface patrol, and heightens the value of neighboring facilities – in this case airstrips – which extend time on station. One of the more interesting dichotomies is that concerned states not embroiled in South China Sea territorial disputes such as the United States, Japan, and Australia generally have greater MPA capabilities than claimant states, while claimant states naturally have the nearby air bases non-claimants lack.

The result has been a pairing of the two. It should be no surprise that like many U.S. P-8A patrols over the South China Sea, the flight in May took off from the Philippines’ Clark Air Base. Similarly, Royal Australian Air Force P-3C surveillance flights of the southern expanses of the South China Sea depart from Royal Malaysian Air Force Station Butterworth on the Malay Peninsula as part of the decades-long Operation Gateway. This arrangement however means that both the hosting and use of tenant capabilities – including joint patrols – are dependent on the host nation’s politics.

The symbiotic nature of participants in “unilateral” air patrols over the South China Sea illustrates a third nuance, that the essential ingredients required to cook up a “joint patrol” are open to interpretation. Start with participation. A classic joint air patrol involves two manned aircraft accompanying each other. However, Professor Alex Calvo of Nagoya University says an expansive definition could include the provision of emergency landing facilities, intelligence-sharing, embedded personnel, and ultimately manned planes – to which I would add aerial refueling and unmanned surveillance platforms. For instance, Operation Gateway could qualify as it is “a bilateral arrangement with Malaysia and involves sharing sortie data in exchange for access to facilities,” says Rear Adm. James Goldrick, Royal Australian Navy (Ret.), an adjunct professor at UNSW Canberra.

Further, Dzirhan notes that instead of the classic definition of joint patrols, EiS consists of “coordinated patrols, in which each country’s aircraft patrol specific sectors within their own territory,” albeit carrying country liaison officers. In such MDA missions, the concentration of resources in joint patrols might actually be counterproductive. FON flights make a better case for joint air patrols due to the reinforcing symbolism of multiple nations registering their non-consent to a claim. It is therefore important to clarify whether a proposal is discussing traditional joint air patrols or coordinated air patrols.

After its collection, EiS and Malacca Strait Patrol information feeds a common operating picture for its participants at Singapore’s Information Fusion Centre (IFC). This points to a final distinction, between similarly comprehensive efforts requiring extensive support infrastructure and less frequent or one-off endeavors.

Although continued coverage is necessary for effective MDA and enforcement missions, infrequent symbolic flights suffice for FON operations from an international law standpoint – although they may not satisfy a desire to sustain pressure on violators of international norms. Infrequent patrols can also play an important role in partnership building. For instance, Japan in late June conducted a joint air patrol with the Philippines as part of a search and rescue exercise over waters claimed by China, during which a Japanese P-3C departed Palawan with Philippine crew members aboard and accompanying a Philippine aircraft.

A Coordinated Approach for South China Sea Patrols

With these distinctions in mind, a two-tiered approach appears practical for coordinated air patrols in the South China Sea aimed at enhancing MDA. The more capable MPA forces of the United States, Australia, and Japan, could form the basis of a first tier and initially focus their patrols above disputed exclusive economic zones (EEZs), including much of the Spratlys. “Information gained during these patrols could also be used for increasing transparency regarding current developments in the South China Sea,” says Scott Bentley, a PhD candidate at the Australian Defence Force Academy. A second tier could be formed of claimant states tasking forces, when available, to initiate patrols above their own EEZs – ameliorating some capacity issues – and providing liaison crew members and air facilities.

In addition to spearheading the MDA mission, first-tier forces could “proceed with traditional joint air patrols, actively contesting Chinese assertions of sovereignty” in excess of international law allowances, notes Calvo. “Japan has already discussed the issue publicly. It would fit well with Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s narrative emphasizing the rule of law at sea, and make it easier to show both domestically and abroad that it is Beijing, not Tokyo, that is the ‘odd man out’.” While Australia might not propose the effort, Andrew Davies, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says “I think if the U.S. pushed a little, Australia would be involved.” It would be important, however, for these joint patrols to occur independent of the coordinated patrol initiative so as not to scare away potential second tier participants wary of being seen as confronting China.

Davies points out that just as important as operational coordination is the “joint surveillance architecture and the ability to move data around with trusted partners.” Although this is largely in place between Japan and the U.S. and the U.S. and Australia, the MDA initiative would need to grow the connective tissue for sharing the collected surveillance data between the two tiers. Singapore’s role as an honest broker at the IFC for EiS/MSP could again serve as a model – or the IFC could itself be the means for MDA data dissemination. There, aerial patrol data feeds separate common operating pictures for each state, tailored to their participation in various initiatives.

This first-tier of participants generates challenges. “Singapore tends to largely stay out of regional issues and actions that it does not have a direct stake in,” says Dzirhan, so its participation might require extra effort and assurances the initiative is not “aimed” at China. For Japan, a sustained coordinated patrol effort would strain its MPA capacity in light of current requirements in the East China Sea. And determining who pays for the required overhead would be a major sticking point in any arrangement.

Future potential first-tier participants include Indonesia and India. The former advocated multilateral “peace patrols” in the region, while “a joint aerial patrol with like-minded nations would help India strengthen its image and establish a credible role for it as a security actor in the Asia-Pacific,” says Darshana Baruah, a junior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation.

But once again, it matters whether the coordinated air patrol initiative appears an effort to confront China. “It is unlikely that India will engage in such an effort straightway,” says Baruah. “New Delhi is still shedding off its Non-Aligned Movement policy and although we signed the Joint Strategic Vision with the U.S., a direct collaboration in countering Chinese actions in the South China Sea may not be on the cards for India.” Indonesia’s defense minister meanwhile suggested China’s inclusion in the peace patrols concept.

As such, China should have the same opportunity to participate in the cooperative air patrol initiative as other second-tier participants, but on the same conditions as the others. This is an opportunity for the U.S. to use the potential ruling at the Philippines’ Arbitral Court case against China’s Nine-Dash Line as leverage. Participants in the initiative could be required to abide by all rulings of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. As a result, either China abides by whatever the court rules or it turns down the initiative’s offer and in doing so allows the U.S. to simultaneously portray the initiative as “open to” China, bolstering the case for participation by non-confrontational partners, and highlight China as an actor unbound by international law.

Meanwhile the Philippines would be the most willing to participate in the second tier, while Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei could all potentially take part. In addition to providing valuable air facilities, several of these countries might soon field upgraded MPA capabilities. For instance, Philippines defense observer Armando Heredia says acquiring capable “long-range patrol aircraft is part of the current ‘horizon’ ending in 2017 of the Philippine’s Three Horizon defense plan. At the Wall Street Journal, Trevor Moss says Malaysia “was made aware of its weak maritime patrol capabilities by the invasion of East Malaysia by Filipino militants in 2013 and the disappearance of Flight MH370 and subsequent search operations in 2014,” driving an “aim to buy six to eight surveillance aircraft in the near future.”

Initially limiting the initiative to air patrols would remove the complications stemming from law enforcement vessels in disputed EEZs and territorial waters, but likewise limit the potential of the common operating picture. At some point, participants might have to decide whether the sovereignty issues can be set aside or a creative solution agreed upon, such as limiting vessels tasked to the initiative to patrolling EEZs undisputed by any other EEZ, thereby side-stepping the complication on the Nine-Dash Line as long as it remains unclarified.

Another wrinkle would be the potential participation of Taiwan with its airstrip on Itu Aba and its P-3C aircraft. Taiwan’s participation would likely be opposed by China, but not necessarily so, if the initiative emphasized MDA for regional maritime security and a de-emphasized military dimensions. Regardless, an invitation to Taiwan, like the conditions for joining, might make the initiative a “poison pill” to China that yet appears reasonable enough to placate the concerns of non-confrontational Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s alone do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy.

About Scott Cheney-Peters

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founder and president of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Georgetown University and the U.S. Naval War College, a member of the Truman National Security Project, and a CNAS Next-Generation National Security Fellow. He can be followed on Twitter at @scheneypeters.