Voices from Asia

Beyond Grey Hulls: Europe’s Role in “Crowdsourcing” Maritime Domain Awareness in the South China Sea

If developments observed in the South China Sea over the recent months are of any indication, it simply means that the situation has worsened. China’s continued aggression towards its neighbors – the Philippines and Vietnam in particular, has continued unabated.

Instytut Boyma 05.10.2023

If developments observed in the South China Sea over the recent months are of any indication, it simply means that the situation has worsened. China’s continued aggression towards its neighbors – the Philippines and Vietnam in particular, has continued unabated. Over the past couple of months, China has continually harassed the Philippines in the South China Sea (SCS), well within the latter’s legitimate exclusive economic zone. Chinese maritime forces, including coastguard and maritime militia, blocked Philippine resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal. China Coast Guard has loitered near Vietnam’s hydrocarbon blocks, well within the latter’s EEZ, near Vanguard Bank.

Until recently, Vietnam has been the most vigorous of all Southeast Asian SCS parties to push back against China. Lately, the Philippines has joined the fray, with a somewhat unique difference. While Hanoi has largely sought to avoid the limelight when pushing back against Beijing in the SCS, choosing instead to respond firmly on the ground against Chinese maritime transgressions with its own limited forces, Manila has taken on a more “public” tack. It chose to publicize Chinese behavior in the SCS, with the express intent to internationalize the disputes and bring to world attention Beijing’s aggression.

This is a typical asymmetrical action that a smaller and weaker state can undertake against the strong. While there is no sign to indicate that the Philippine move to publicize Chinese behavior in the SCS has had any effect on Beijing, it is at least not presumptuous to make the preliminary observation that this “publicity” could have compelled China to rethink those possible consequences to its own interests, and thus recalibrate future moves. The Philippine Coast Guard observed that Chinese forces appeared to be “less aggressive” knowing that media personnel were present on Filipino government vessels during the recent flareups, the first documented instance in July and September.

In Southeast Asian SCS parties’ “David versus Goliath” struggle against China, the first instinct of any interested extra-regional stakeholder would be to dispatch the “big guns”, namely, warships to show the flag and hopefully, signal to Beijing that its actions are under watch and the sending government is backing China’s weaker rivals in the disputed waters. The U.S. Navy conducted a “remarkable prototype operation”, in the words of the Secretary of Navy Carlos del Toro, back in 2020 to support Malaysia during the standoff with China over oil drilling ship West Capella off Sarawak. That said, American maritime forces – both the navy and coastguard – cannot be omnipresent at any one time.

Perhaps European naval forces would find this even more of a stretch given the present capacity. Under the European Union’s coordinated maritime presence arrangements, only a handful of European powers are able to project and sustain naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region at any point of time. Because the Indo-Pacific is such a vast geographical area, it is neigh impossible to expect European naval forces to be present in the SCS 24/7, despite the bloc’s desire to do so.

France maintains one of the most extensive naval presence in the Indo-Pacific, but its forces are scattered across a wide region, including the southernmost of the Pacific Ocean. The United Kingdom currently has a pair of offshore patrol vessels in sustained, years-long Indo-Pacific deployment. But even these two warships, while optimal in undertaking low-intensity peacetime operations such as those typical of grey zone types in the SCS, are not always on station in the SCS. At best, these European naval forces, alongside their American counterparts (and for that matter, the other extra-regional powers such as Australia and Japan), maintain intermittent presence at best.

In order to cope with China’s grey zone challenge in the SCS, Southeast Asian countries have relied on a mixture of approaches. Diplomacy is the most preferred for regional governments that continue to stress upon the need for peaceful settlement of the disputes. The economic stakes at hand also mean that Southeast Asian SCS parties try assiduously not to rock the boat and not allow the SCS disputes dominate the much broader bilateral relations with Beijing, especially where it concerns trade and investments. At the same time, diplomacy is also a vital tool of the weak against the strong, as characterized by how Manila lodged a legal challenge against Beijing in The Hague back in 2013, and for which the tribunal handed a stunning legal victory to the Philippines three years later. In the wake of recent flareups, Manila is now considering a fresh legal challenge against Beijing.

The second approach, which has until recently been kept so low profile, is Southeast Asian SCS parties deploying their maritime forces, even if they are outnumbered, outsized and outgunned by their Chinese counterparts, to put up counter-presence postures. These forces may not maintain sustained presence in the concerned areas of disputes like the Chinese do, but the very act of having even an intermittent, albeit not optimal, counter-presence is aimed at signaling to Beijing these countries’ resolve in not yielding their sovereignty and rights.

These two approaches are only effective if certain prerequisite conditions are met. The first is that diplomacy must always be backstopped by the “stick”. Legal challenges have to be supported by properly documented evidences of Chinese aggression in the SCS. The Southeast Asian SCS parties certainly need more offshore-capable maritime assets to maintain a more robust presence that can counter that of China, but funding constraints often militate against the ability to induct sufficient materiel in time and at reasonable cost. In any case, one could argue that there is no way for any Southeast Asian party to match the Chinese ship for ship, aircraft for aircraft. Beijing has tapped its shipbuilding preponderance to outbuild its Southeast Asian SCS rivals combined.

In order for Southeast Asian countries to maintain the option of legal challenge against China – like what Manila had done back in 2013 and is now thinking of doing again – and to optimize the employment of limited maritime assets as a counter-presence in the concerned waters, it goes without saying that maritime domain awareness (MDA) is critically important. MDA is not a panacea to Southeast Asian maritime security problems, whether one is talking about the SCS disputes or transnational crimes such as smuggling and piracy. It does not replace the perennial need for mobile assets to prosecute lawless at sea, or to assert maritime sovereignty and rights.

However, while MDA has become a major itinerary for extra-regional stakeholders’ maritime security capacity-building efforts at sea, it has largely been confined to two broad approaches. The first concerns the transfer or sale of MDA assets, be it drones or radar systems. The second involves providing access to one’s MDA tools. The EU’s CRIMARIO project and the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA) are major examples. The party providing such access to less endowed partners such as those in Southeast Asia could avail the latter to a comprehensive array of tools to improve MDA, not just those based on automatic identification systems (AIS) so commonly utilized for vessel tracking and identification, but even such niche associated areas as “dark” shipping (or vessels that switch off their AIS). A recent agreement for the Philippines to gain access, free of charge, to Canada’s satellite-based MDA tool to detect and track “dark” shipping is a good example.

In view of the Philippines’ recent approach to publicize Chinese behavior in the SCS, perhaps MDA has to take on a new role. Based on the abovementioned second approach, which entails the contributor party providing beneficiary country access to requisite tools, the new role will involve the “crowdsourcing” of MDA in the SCS. This “crowdsourcing” MDA will also be different from the official institutions designed to foster information-sharing in the region, such as the case of the Information Fusion Centre in Singapore. This “crowdsourcing” MDA platform can be an online portal that is made available for access to friendly institutions – not just governments, maritime agencies but also the academia, media and civil society organizations (CSOs).

Essentially this platform is targeted at promoting awareness of grey zone aggression. All registered users can contribute information – hence the idea of “crowdsourcing” – that can be duly corroborated, validated and then shared on the platform. The user in question can be a coastguard vessel engaged in the thick of a faceoff with a maritime militia boat. It can also be a fisherman who observes and captures a photograph of a grey zone transgression in the SCS. The information can come in various forms – photographic, video footages, audio recording, etc. Government agencies that share high-fidelity information such as electro-optical images may be concerned about revealing too much of their capabilities to potential adversaries. Hence, this platform should also endeavour to “sanitize” these data that can be made available for public access and use. All in all, this “crowdsourcing” MDA portal serves as a repository of information that can serve real-time maritime prosecution purpose, or contribute evidence to help concerned parties build a strong legal case for international arbitration processes.

One may ask, why not tap existing regional information-sharing centres? The problem is that geopolitical sensitivities often impede open-sharing of information pertaining to grey zone aggression. For example, the IFC based in Singapore is able to draw its strengths on a multitude of international liaison officers. This very strength, which fosters maritime security information-sharing, constitutes a weakness as well – it becomes sensitive to share grey zone aggression which may be perpetuated by a certain member country of the centre. Moreover, the Singapore IFC’s regular MDA products also do not document grey zone aggression, instead mainly transnational crimes and navigational accidents.

Therefore, this “crowdsourcing” MDA platform would be one that involves a wider pool of stakeholders, both within and outside government bodies. Tackling grey zone aggression requires a whole-of-society approach, and should not be the exclusive province of government organizations. This platform thus also serves as a check-and-balance of sorts; for example should governments choose not to publicize the said instance of grey zone aggression due to geopolitical sensitivities, other organizations such as the academia and CSOs can help shed light on such incidents and bring them to international public attention.

The EU could be the most ideal candidate to implement this “crowdsourcing” MDA initiative, tapping its vast pool of expertise, financial means and technological capabilities. It is also less encumbered with geopolitical baggage in getting wider “buy-in” by regional actors, unlike the U.S. for example which is embroiled in a tense rivalry with China. As a reflection and an extension of its strategic autonomy, the EU is better positioned to helm this initiative.

In a way, enabling and empowering concerned Southeast Asian SCS parties especially the ability to stand up against grey zone aggression is a more sustainable long-term solution. It also fits nicely with the preference of regional countries to police their own waters and customize approaches in manners that suit their national interests. It is also much more helpful than having European navies dispatching assets to show the flag in the region – especially if such presence is at best intermittent and hence not taken seriously by the prospective grey zone aggressor, in this case China. This “crowdsourcing” MDA initiative helps exposes grey zone aggression, involves much wider stakeholdership across segments of the society, and can potentially serve as a credible tool to deter such malign acts and to prevent escalation of crisis situations at sea.

Collin Koh

Collin Koh is senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He primarily researches on maritime security and naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific region, focusing on Southeast Asia.

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