This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Former Senior Fellow in the RSIS Maritime Security Programme Commodore Sam Bateman (RAN, retd) observed over a decade ago that a fundamental issue that arises when considering maritime security is the lack of an agreed definition of the term “maritime security.” Writing about maritime security in Southeast Asia, Dr. Bateman noted that regional states have been unable to agree on precisely what constituent elements should, and should not, be covered by that definition. He further noted that several issues that appear to be minor maritime security challenges, such as different interpretations of key elements of the law of the sea, disputes regarding certain maritime zones, and maintaining good order at sea, are actually issues that defy solution and hence he called them the “Wicked Problems” of maritime security.[1] This observation remains even more valid in the present day.

The discussions of this RSIS roundtable reveal that the key coastal Southeast Asian states conceive of maritime security as a comprehensive concept that encompasses all risks to the prosperity of the state and nation at sea. Those include state, non-state, and environmental threats. The activities taken within the conceptual framework of maritime security include military action, policing, and socio-economic development. Regional states are concerned about Chinese actions that threaten their sovereign rights and responsibilities but are not seeking to develop their maritime security capacities exclusively as a response to China. Instead, they focus on advancing opportunities to enabling the socio-economic development of their maritime space by keeping the waters safe, secure, and free of foreign influence. In contrast, the Quad members conceived maritime security a bit more narrowly, focusing activities to counter threats posed by both state and non-state actors. Of course, without formal definitions, this distinction must be considered a generalization and cannot be regarded as absolute. So long as clear definitions are lacking, regional policymakers will have to continue benefiting from the options created by ambiguity while navigating around the real dangers of equivocation.

Ambiguous usage of the term maritime security has certain advantages. Domestically, a vague omnibus usage can encourage coordination between various agencies holding stakes in maritime affairs, while avoiding focus on specific tasking that may highlight differing mandates, parse authorities, or enable undesirable internecine competition. However, this usually only avoids bureaucratic conflict rather than addressing the issue needed for truly coordinated inter-agency action. Without a national definition of maritime security to provide the strategic context, stakeholders naturally compete for highly valued tasks and avoid those with lower institutional rewards. Furthermore, a lack of definitions means that objectives are difficult to define and progress is impossible to measure. This can lead to problems developing and resourcing effective strategies.

When used in foreign policy, ambiguous usage can promote maritime cooperation without requiring full deconfliction of thorny considerations such as territorial disputes, differing positions on appropriate interpretations of international law, and sovereignty sensitivities. The term “maritime security” is sometimes used in Southeast Asia’s policy discourse as a prevarication to discuss issues without directly naming the threat. The clearest example of this would be the many diplomatic statements regarding maritime security concerns in the South China Sea. While non-state threats such as IUU fishing and environmental degradation are certainly concerns in the South China Sea, these statements have a euphemistic quality that could be understood criticize Chinese maritime behavior while preserving the plausible deniability necessary to curtail Chinese diplomatic or economic reprisals. Similarly, since maritime security capacity is generally fungible, meaning the capacity to respond to one threat generally benefits response to others, states may refer to the development of naval power as “maritime security capacity” to reduce susceptibility to security dilemmas. Such ambiguity is becoming increasingly valuable as state competition in Southeast Asia intensifies at sea in the grey zone.

The ambiguous usage of the term “maritime security” in regional security discourse can also be problematic. Several of the roundtable participants observed that the use of the term without a clear understanding of the precise intended meaning inhibits accurate messaging and fosters mistrust. Even when all dialogue parties share similar conceptualizations, the questions and concerns about others’ intentions can seep into communications and cloud decision making. This sort of diplomatic miscommunication can prevent capitalization on opportunities for cooperation, exacerbate misunderstandings, and undermine prospects for crisis management. More specifically, states may approach well-intentioned cooperation proposals more cautiously if they cannot rule out the possibility of undesired elements. Malaysian and Indonesian responses to the Regional Maritime Security Initiative in 2004 provide an extreme example of such miscommunication creating a diplomatic rift.[2]

In the more recent past, Chinese claims that their bases on reclaimed land in the South China Sea would provide services to include “maritime security” were met with distrust as Chinese law enforcement activities in the area pose direct, pressing challenges to coastal states’ sovereign interests in the EEZs. The Quad members rightly call for clarification, but China is not alone. The commander of the U.S. Navy’s Carl Vinson Strike Group explained that his force entered the South China Sea in Sept 2021 to conduct “maritime security operations.”[3] The Department of Defense’s official definition is, “Those operations to protect maritime sovereignty and resources and to counter maritime-related terrorism, weapons proliferation, transnational crime, piracy, environmental destruction, and illegal seaborne migration.” Was the strike group protecting another nation’s sovereignty while operating in regional states’ contested EEZs? Was it conducting law enforcement operations against terrorists and pirates? Left unanswered, such questions certainly undermine trust in American intentions.

The roundtable participants also believed the regional states are hesitant to positively receive maritime security proposals from extra-regional partners when the scope of the initiatives is undelimited or unclear. The consensus of the group was that Southeast Asian states are generally eager to develop the cooperative capacity to address issues such as terrorism, criminal activities, resource management, and environmental degradation. However, they are strongly on guard against possible sovereignty violations and generally quite cautious toward to initiatives that includes elements such as power projection and military deterrence because these can have consequences for their efforts to manage regional inter-state competition. While regional states have interests in shifting military power balances in their favor, ambiguous terminology makes it more difficult to accurately assess the prospects of specific cooperation initiatives. In light of these dynamics, the Quad members might consider using their coast guard forces more and their navies less in cases where they want to clearly indicate their focus on the non-traditional elements of maritime security.

For the policy makers and diplomats involved in Southeast Asia’s strategic discourse, the ambiguous usage of the term “maritime security” has had pros and cons. The increasingly common use of “maritime security” as a label that avoids making tough decisions is making and obscurative intentions is becoming progressively problematic. However, it may not be in the best interest of states to develop official definitions, especially not narrow definitions, as those can limit flexibility. Furthermore, simply adopting an official definition would not immediately translate into shared understandings within a government’s inter-agency process or with its international partners. Therefore, diplomats and policymakers addressing Southeast Asia’s maritime security challenge should make deliberate lexical choices to ensure their communications are as clear as possible given the goals and constraints of each statement. All in all, the core problem is not the lack of definitions, but the shortfall in mutual confidence and clear communication. Well-meaning maritime security cooperation initiatives built without these foundations of are inherently unstable and unsuitable as frameworks for further cooperation.

[1] Sam Bateman, ‘Solving the ‘Wicked Problems’ of Maritime Security: Are Regional Forums up to the Task’, Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol 33 Issue 1, April 2011, pp. 1-28.

[2] Huang, Victor, “Building Maritime Security in Southeast Asia: Outsiders Not Welcome.” Naval War College Review, Vol. 61, no. 1, 2008.

[3] US Aircraft Carrier Commander Asserts Freedom to Navigation the South China Sea,” Radio Free Asia, 13 Sept 2021, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/usa-southchinasea-09132021185504.html

About John Bradford

John Bradford is a Senior Fellow in the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.