With non-military actors like coast guards increasingly active in the disputed South China Sea, former U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen said international law was becoming even more important to keeping a lid on tensions.
Describing the region, including the Strait of Malacca and the Java Sea, as one of the world’s most visible maritime choke points, the retired admiral expressed the need to maintain freedom of movement through the waters. An international court is expected to rule within months on a Philippine challenge to China’s claims to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade passes each year.
"These issues need to be decided by an independent third party," Allen said in an interview on Friday in Singapore. "We’d all be well-reasoned to wait for that to happen and see what the results are." The region was “very critical to commerce not only for the U.S., but a number of countries,” he said.
In recent years, China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) in the waters and beefed up its military presence, causing the U.S. to increase its own naval activity in the West Pacific. The buildup has put the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations grouping on edge.
"Making a claim is not the same as having it adjudicated at a UN forum, in a tribunal," Allen said. "And that’s the place to have that decision made, not just a de facto action taken unilaterally by any one country."
China has deployed its coast guard to assert its claims in the South China Sea, which crisscross those of countries like Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Increasingly, China’s coast guard vessels resemble naval vessels in weapons and other capabilities and the country has been accused by its neighbors of harassing fishing and military boats, chasing them from disputed waters.
Allen, who retired in 2010 and is now an executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, said that coast guard services would play an more important role in securing national fish stocks and other economic assets such as oil, gas and mineral deposits.
"I believe there is an ascendancy right now of coast guard-like agencies," Allen said. "Unless you are trying to project power across the globe -- and there are very few countries trying to do that -- you need to protect your exclusive economic zone."
Friction at the intersection of land and sea boundaries wasn’t restricted to the South China Sea, Allen said. It was also visible in the Caribbean, West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea and off the Horn of Africa, including Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
"That’s the reason, I think, you are seeing China use that as an engagement tool of choice," he said, referring to the coast guard. “In some cases, a coast guard agency appears to be less provocative than a naval force.”
Allen said any nation that intentionally violated or ignored international rulings on sovereignty claims would be taking a significant risk.
“You’re begging the question of whether or not they’re challenging a global regime on how to govern the oceans," Allen said. "That is not a very stable way of managing the oceans in the future, and any action that would be taken to contravene an international forum should be done very cautiously.”
Allen said one bright spot in international maritime relations was that countries were getting at better at cooperating when it came to disaster management in the face of unprecedented and growing complexities.
"In my mind, there are two things that countries rarely argue about: search-and-rescue and oil-spill response," Allen said. Recent experiences of nations working together in response to disasters, he said, showed that such actions can take place independent of national security issues that may be going on.
"Those things are generally not in question, that you want to do a job if there is an event and you want to help each other, it becomes a basis for cooperation and engagement. It’s hard to do on the defense side."
The greater the level of information sharing, and the more intensive the efforts to build pre-existing relationships, Allen said the more success nations would have in reducing risk from things such as piracy, virus outbreaks, drug-trafficking and illegal migration.
"What we are starting to see are complex challenges that don’t have any precedent," Allen said.