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The Role of Security Assistance in Washington’s Pivot to Southeast Asia

Aug 26 , 2016

As part of the “rebalance” to Asia, the United States has initiated a number of promising maritime security assistance programs to aid overmatched Southeast Asian partners in resisting China’s maritime assertiveness. Just last month, the U.S. Coast Guard transferred the USCG Boutwell, a decommissioned Hamilton-class cutter, to the Philippine navy. A crew of 90 Filipino sailors is currently training with the vessel off of the coast of California, before sailing home in October. The Boutwell is the third cutter Washington has transferred to Manila in the past five years.

Despite these new programs, U.S. security assistance to the Asia-Pacific still lags far behind Washington’s outlays to Europe and the Middle East. In fact, only 1% of U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) is deployed to Asia annually. If the United States truly wants to ensure that this will be “America’s Pacific Century,” then the next administration must align U.S. security assistance resources with its strategic priorities in the Asia-Pacific.

Meanwhile, China is proceeding apace, aligning its perceived interests with actions and resources. Under President Xi Jinping, Chinese forces have acted to assert control over Southeast Asia’s littoral waters. Through the development of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, the PLA has created contested zones in its near seas that allow it to threaten U.S. logistical supply lines and bases in Japan, Korea, and Guam. Recently, Beijing has begun militarizing the South China Sea by constructing over 3,000 acres of manmade military outposts equipped with barracks, airstrips, radars, and missile emplacements.

Beijing’s coast guard and maritime militias routinely harass foreign vessels in the South China Sea. China seized the Scarborough Shoal from Manila, a feature only 100 nautical miles off the Philippine coast, in 2012. Speculation has grown that China may construct a base on the shoal in the coming months. In 2014, China moved an oilrig within Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, leading to a standoff between coast guard and naval assets from each side and the sinking of at least one Vietnamese fishing vessel. Beijing seeks to both defend what it claims are historically Chinese waters and exert control over the Western Pacific by driving the U.S. military out from Asia’s first island chain.

Washington’s response? The Obama administration has sought to take advantage of regional balancing against China’s assertiveness to draw a host of new Southeast Asian partners into the U.S. security network. The administration has lifted arms export restrictions on Vietnam and negotiated an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with Manila that allows U.S. troops to deploy to military bases, throughout the Philippines, on a rotational basis.

The United States has also initiated new partner capacity building programs in Southeast Asia. In December 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry launched the Southeast Asia Maritime Law Enforcement Initiative, committing $25 million in U.S. government funds to train and equip partner Southeast Asian maritime law enforcement agencies. Then, in 2015, the administration announced a five-year $425 million Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI) to improve regional maritime domain awareness for Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. The goal of this Pentagon program is to help these partner states develop a common operating picture of the air and maritime activity occurring in the South China Sea.

Despite the administration’s strategic focus on the Asia-Pacific, U.S. security assistance efforts in Southeast Asia are insufficient given the region’s growing maritime tensions and the vital strategic interests at stake. As mentioned above, only 1% of U.S. FMF funding is directed to the Asia-Pacific. Despite an increase in FMF last year, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam collectively receive only $76 million in FMF funding per year to resist Chinese maritime coercion. Total U.S. security assistance outlays to Southeast Asia in 2015 were $34.5 million, less than in 2010, before the pivot.

As Chinese pressure mounts in the South China Sea, there is even greater need for Washington to expand maritime security assistance efforts with its littoral Southeast Asian partners. Here are several proposals through which the U.S. can achieve these objectives:

  • Develop an Asian Reassurance Initiative: This program would mirror the Obama administration’s European Reassurance Initiative that in its first year (FY 2015) was funded at $985 million and has now risen to $3.4 billion in the administration’s FY2017 request. Given that benchmark, an Asian Reassurance Initiative could potentially provide several hundred million dollars for partner training and capacity building. It would also provide a framework to expand the scope and mission of the Maritime Security Initiative.
  • Increase the FMF topline in the Asia-Pacific: Starting in 2015, the State Department authorized a $28 million East Asia-Pacific FMF fund that could be deployed to various Southeast Asian states as needed. Yet in 2016, this account dropped to $1 million, while the administration is renewing its $25 million request in 2017. The next administration should continue seeding this account and increasing its funds.
  • Involve Capable Allies to act as force multipliers: Under Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “proactive contribution to peace” policy, Tokyo has signed strategic partnership agreements with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Japan has also agreed to provide patrol ships and aircraft to these nations. In addition to direct arms transfers, Japan is an active provider of strategic official development assistance (ODA) that links aid and security interests. In 2015, Japan revised its ODA charter to allow funding of security capacity programs for ASEAN countries. If properly planned, Japanese financing for power grids, airports, and port facilities could serve as dual economic and defense infrastructure.

The 2016 U.S.-Japan-Australia strategic dialogue statement expressed “serious concerns over maritime disputes in the South China Sea” and “welcomed the development of trilateral cooperation on maritime security capacity-building in Southeast Asia.”  In early 2016, reports stated that American, Japanese, Australian, and Philippine coast guard officials were all planning to meet together for the first time in order to coordinate against coercive Chinese maritime activities.  This is precisely the type of collaboration that will allow the United States, Japan, and Australia to de-conflict capacity building efforts, while passing on best practices to developing Southeast Asian coast guards and navies.

  • Look beyond maritime domain awareness: In the near term, the next administration should focus its efforts on filling the gaps in maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities of its Southeast Asian partners. Over the medium term, the U.S. should also work with Southeast Asian partner states to develop their own asymmetric strategies. This would involve the acquisition of anti-ship cruise missiles, mobile anti-aircraft systems, smart sea mines, and anti-submarine warfare systems. By developing their own A2/AD complexes, U.S. partners will be better prepared to parry Chinese attacks and complicate Chinese defense planning. Vietnam has already begun this process, as shown by their recent deployment of mobile rocket launchers to features it occupies in the Spratly islands (a move that disregards U.S. requests for claimants to cease militarizing disputed features in the South China Sea).

Security assistance is a tangible means of bolstering partner nations’ ability to fend off Chinese maritime coercion. If the U.S. truly seeks to shift its strategic weight to the Asia-Pacific, it must consider ways to rebalance its security assistance programs to enable its maritime Southeast Asian partners, as they defend the front lines. If done effectively, the U.S. will alter Beijing’s decision-making calculus and possibly its strategic behavior.

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