Insights and Analysis

A Code of Conduct for Maritime Security

November 11, 2015

By John J. Brandon

From November 14-22, President Obama will embark on a three-stop overseas trip, beginning in Turkey to attend the G20, followed by a stop in Manila for the APEC summit, and ending in Malaysia where he will meet with Asian leaders for the 10th East Asian Summit (EAS) and U.S.-ASEAN Summit.

Maritime security

With more than 130,000 ships passing through the Straits of Malacca, Southeast Asia is a critical maritime region for commerce and resources. Photo/Flickr user salehi hassan

One of the biggest and most contentious issues at the EAS will no doubt be maritime security, as conflicting territorial and boundary disputes feature prominently in the region. However, none of these disputes will be resolved at the EAS and most likely not for several years to come. At last week’s ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus in Kuala Lumpur, leaders failed to release a joint statement amid disagreements over China’s objection over the South China Sea being mentioned in the document.

Despite these differences, EAS member countries should not lose sight of the important role that regional cooperation plays in protecting the global commons. With 60 percent of Southeast Asians living and relying on maritime zones, the maritime domain is critical for the economic development of not just Southeast Asia, but the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Currently, a lack of good order at sea has resulted in a constant threat of illegal activities such as piracy, armed robbery, human trafficking, and maritime terrorism. Ineffective national legislation by littoral states, poor coordination between national agencies, a shortage of trained personnel, and the lack of clear maritime boundaries further compound this problem.

Another major problem is rampant illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing in the region. The various seas of Southeast Asia are some of the world’s most productive areas for commercial fishing, constituting 10 percent of the world’s commercial fishing output, valued at approximately $10 billion. The South China Sea and other Southeast Asian waters are breeding grounds for expensive fish, including the yellow fin tuna. However, over time, the continued overharvesting of fish in Asian waters could cause a food security crisis – fish remains the primary source of protein for millions of Asians. In 2014, the Indonesian government claimed it loses as much as $24 billion per year because of IUU fishing.

Moreover, as Southeast Asian waters link the Indian and Pacific oceans and its sea-lines of communication (SLOCs) are some of the most important in the world, freedom of navigation needs to be ensured. With more than 130,000 ships passing through the Malacca Strait (and this figure is growing), Southeast Asia is a critical maritime region for commerce and resources, as $5.3 trillion in goods transits through Southeast Asian waters each year. Of this amount, $1.2 trillion represents trade with the United States.

Energy is a major component of this shipping industry. China and Japan together import more than 10 million barrels of oil per day, and Japan and Korea are the world’s largest liquefied natural gas importers. All of this is seaborne. Southeast Asia’s oil imports are also growing, including Indonesia, whose membership in the OPEC is expected to be reactivated in December after leaving the group in 2009. Despite producing 5 million barrels of oil per day, China is still the world’s largest oil importer, with 80 percent of the imported oil supply coming from the Middle East and Africa via the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Strait. China is exploring and pursuing options to reduce dependence on its oil supply traveling through the Strait of Malacca by developing new supply routes over land through Myanmar to help satiate Yunnan province’s energy needs.

In 2010, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that ASEAN should be “the fulcrum of regional architecture” in Asia. But to be that “fulcrum,” ASEAN needs to speak with one voice on maritime security. Maritime security is increasingly becoming a global issue much like climate change and counter-terrorism. But can ASEAN create one voice when there appears to be an absence of mutual trust and confidence among ASEAN members themselves, as well as some extra-regional powers? If ASEAN cannot coalesce around this issue, will it undermine itself?

ASEAN needs to more effectively carry out institutional and individual capacity-building in the effort to strengthen norms and establish a rule-making system. This will require more than countries abiding by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). For more than a decade, little progress has been made between ASEAN nations and China in advancing toward a more binding Code of Conduct for the South China Sea. ASEAN should consider globalizing its effort to establish a Code of Conduct that would involve other stakeholders such as the United States, Japan, South Korea, Australia, India, and the European Union, among others. Perhaps introducing such a measure at the East Asia Summit in Kuala Lumpur would give impetus to the process, but it would ultimately have to be legally binding in order to be successful.

There also needs to be a region-wide assessment of the marine environment in Southeast Asia, including the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Given the importance of Southeast Asian seas to world commerce, the United States, China, Japan, Australia, ASEAN nations, and other EAS members could work together in conducting this assessment in the effort to help conserve and protect these waters and promote good order at sea. But this will require ASEAN to have a common vision and agreement on marine environmental protection for regional seas, and a willingness to commit to a regional agreement to protect common areas, including the South China Sea. Bilateral cooperation is not enough.

John J. Brandon is senior director of The Asia Foundation’s regional cooperation programs in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

The Latest Across Asia

The Asia Foundation Supports Leaders for a Better World