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How Viable? Maritime cooperation between the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the ASEAN

How Viable? Maritime Security Cooperation between the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, 13 September 2013, from, licensed under CC BY 4.0

Maritime security cooperation is a viable area of activity between the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Within the SCO, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and Russia are coastal states, while Southeast Asia is at the junction of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Further, the combined maritime space of these organisations comprises the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean. This shared maritime space presents several non-traditional security challenges to both organisations, such as piracy, terrorism at sea, illegal migration, illegal fishing, smuggling, and man-made or natural disasters to name a few. Thus, the SCO and ASEAN are well-positioned to collaborate to address these shared security challenges as a larger Greater Eurasian Security Community.

At present, the SCO does not include maritime security cooperation as one of its focus areas. The SCO focuses primarily on land-based security cooperation, even though five of its nine members are coastal states. Despite that, the SCO and ASEAN have existing norms, policies, institutional mechanisms, and activities that could be expanded to facilitate maritime security cooperation.

A History of Shared Norms and Principles

Both organisations have shared norms and principles that could guide the conduct of maritime security cooperation. The SCO Charter and ASEAN Charter share respect to sovereignty, non-intervention, consultation, consensus, and adherence to international law as guiding principles. Further both organisations have signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2005 that specifies cooperation in counterterrorism, drugs and narcotics control, arms smuggling, money laundering, and human trafficking through information exchange and sharing of best practices. Moreover, delegates from both organisations have met in 2015 and in 2019 to discuss prospects for practical security cooperation in counterterrorism, combatting separatism, illegal drug trafficking, and cybercrime. These principles, policies, and dialogues can be further contextualised into the shared maritime space between the SCO and ASEAN.

Diverging Priorities, Prevailing Rivalries

However, maritime security cooperation is a very complex endeavour posing several challenges. Although the SCO and ASEAN have shared principles, policies, and preliminary dialogues, policy coordination on maritime cooperation between the two organisations has yet to be pursued. While ASEAN has elevated maritime security cooperation as an organisational priority in the 2003 ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and the latter is a consistent theme across ASEAN’s institutional mechanisms such as the ARF, ASEAN Maritime Forum (AMF), and ASEAN Navy Chiefs’ Meeting (ANCM), the SCO has yet to do such a similar initiative. As a result, SCO members Iran, India, Pakistan, Russia, and China have their own maritime security cooperation policies, plans, and programmes that are outside the SCO framework and with third parties. As such, the harmonisation of ASEAN and SCO plans and programmes pertaining to maritime security cooperation at the organisation level is a significant challenge.

Further, there is a lack of defined areas of cooperation and institutional mechanisms for SCO-ASEAN maritime security cooperation. In contrast to ASEAN, the SCO has not elevated maritime security cooperation to the organisation level and lacks defined areas of cooperation and institutional mechanisms. Although ASEAN has multiple institutional mechanisms addressing maritime security cooperation in which SCO members participate, such as the ARF, AMF, and ANCM, the agenda, design, and objectives of these existing mechanisms may not be sufficient to institutionalise SCO-ASEAN maritime security cooperation, and it may be necessary to create new institutional mechanisms to facilitate such.

Moreover, internal disputes between SCO and ASEAN members and external interference impacts the prospects for maritime security cooperation between the two. Competition between Russia and China in Central Asia and the former’s security concerns over the latter in the Russian Far East, the Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India, and the South China Sea disputes can diminish the centrality, integrity, and credibility of the SCO and ASEAN as foundations of a Greater Eurasian Security Community. In addition, efforts by external parties such as the U.S., Japan, and Australia to pull India, Singapore, and the Philippines into their own idea of regional order and security architecture contributes to a confrontative and exclusionary approach, rather than constructive and inclusive methods to manage great power competition in Asia.

Finally, the SCO and ASEAN’s security cooperation preferences may present significant implications to maritime security cooperation. ASEAN is a dialogue-based organisation, compared to the SCO which has a practical dimension. While the SCO has pursued the Peace Mission counterterrorism exercises, ASEAN has shown a preference for mini-lateral cooperation. A mini-lateral approach avoids many of the constraints and controversies associated with traditional multilateral avenues of cooperation and serves as laboratories of which successful policies can be carried over to traditional multi-lateral avenues. An example of this is the Trilateral Security Cooperation in the Sulu-Celebes Sea between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

As such, in today’s reality, SCO and ASEAN members can progressively explore mini-lateral maritime security cooperation activities, such as table-top exercises, counter-piracy drills, and disaster relief exercises.


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