The commander of the U.S. Navy Seventh Fleet called on Southeast Asian nations to form a combined maritime force to patrol areas of the South China Sea where territorial tensions flare with China.
Countries could streamline cooperation on maritime security while respecting sovereignty and coastal space, as in the case of counter-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, Vice Admiral Robert Thomas said Tuesday at the Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace Exhibition in Malaysia.
The U.S. has reassured allies in the region it will back them against China’s assertions to about four-fifths of the sea. China has ratcheted up pressure on some Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, and has accelerated reclamation work on reefs in the waters criss-crossed by claims from Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, the Philippines and Malaysia.
“Perhaps easier said than done, from both a policy and organization perspective, such an initiative could help crystallize the operational objectives in the training events that Asean navies want to pursue,” Thomas said at a panel session with navy chiefs. “If Asean members were to take the lead in organizing something along those lines, trust me, the U.S. 7th Fleet would be ready to support.”
Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in an interview on March 16 that his country would welcome India playing a greater role in the South China Sea. In January, Thomas said the U.S. would encourage an extension of Japanese air patrols into the area.
At Langkawi, the U.S. is exhibiting two F/A-18F Super Hornets, a P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, as well as the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shilo equipped with a MH-60R helicopter. The scale of the U.S. delegation to the show held every two years underscores its increased focus on the region.
“There’s a lot of competition I would say in the South China Sea, but for the United States our goal is just peaceful resolution of any conflict,” said Captain John Enfield, a deputy Navy commander who flies one of the F/A-18F Super Hornets. “The U.S. doesn’t get dragged” into a discussion about resources, he said in an interview.
China agreed to talks with Asean over a code of conduct for the South China Sea in July 2013, but little progress has been made. The government in Beijing signed a non-binding declaration of conduct in 2002, which calls on parties to refrain from “inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays and other features.”
The maritime force is “a nice idea, but it’ll never be anything meaningful,” said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Creating interoperability will be a nightmare, you need common communications equipment, intelligence-sharing agreements,” he said. “Above all you need a common threat perception.”
Asean has consistently called for parties to show restraint on the South China Sea and preserve freedom of navigation. The 10-member bloc has avoided singling out China, its largest trading partner.
Asean nations are consistently occupied with managing conflicting boundary claims in the South China Sea, Malaysia Defense Minister Hussein Hishammuddin said Tuesday. This remains a major obstacle to upholding Asean’s zone of peace, freedom and neutrality, he said.