United States has some competition with other maritime actors as they don’t share the same methodology: Prof. Jeffrey

Dr. Pramod Jaiswal

September 15, 2021


United States has some competition with other maritime actors as they don’t share the same methodology: Prof. Jeffrey
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Prof. Jeffrey S Payne serves as the Manager of Academic Affairs at the Near East South Asia (NESA) Center for Strategic Studies. He joined the NESA Center in 2012, after serving for five years as an Instructor of Political Science at Butler University.

As a long-time Asia Hand, Prof. Payne conducts analysis on Chinese foreign policy, Indian Ocean Rim security, and maritime security.

He is particularly interested in the intersection of maritime security and power competition in the Indian Ocean and the security dimensions of growing East Asia-Indian Ocean Rim relations.

Presently, he serves as the NESA Center’s lead for programs that focus on the Indo-Pacific region. He also serves as the director of NESA’s programmatic series on security challenges in the Indian Ocean Region.

His writings have appeared in ChinaFile, the National Interest, The Diplomat, War on the Rocks, CIMSEC, and the Middle East Institute’s MAP Project, among others. He has presented at defense colleges, universities, and research centers throughout Asia and Europe.

Dr. Pramod Jaiswal, Strategic Affairs Editor at Khabarhub, spoke to Prof. Jeffrey S Payne on the issues related to Indo-Pacific, QUAD and Maritime Security. Excerpts:

There is an ongoing debate on QUAD as to whether it’s a security alliance (often termed as the Asian NATO) or a group of like-minded partners advancing a common vision with a laid-out agenda in the Indo-Pacific region? In your view, what is QUAD and is it here to stay?

Thanks for the invitation, I hope I can contribute to the ongoing conversation around the world on these topics. Before I jump to the questions, let me do the general norm. My views are my own and do not represent the views of my government, the United States, or the institutions I am associated with.

Quad originated out of joint security concerns regarding changes to the established rules and norms throughout the Indo -Pacific and some of the behaviors that are seen as potentially troublesome from the People’s Republic of China.

But given that its origin was in the security realm, it is overtly not an Asian NATO or a purely security framework. The reason it is often framed that way is because of the initial engagement between the four countries, whether in Quad in a total of the four nations or in the bilateral and trilateral formulations within the Quad nation.

The lowest hurdle to leap was the security, economic and diplomatic hurdles. The politically complicated questions that the quadrilateral seeks to address are more difficult to formulate because they are more intricate to put together.

They tie into international agreements, into economic issues related to global trade and also their own political and legal procedures, so the security realm is the easiest pathway to get started but it overtly is focused on diplomatic and economic engagement.

So, we can definitively say that it is not aspiring to become an Asian NATO, despite the perception that it is trying to do so.

These four countries have different mechanisms and conceptions of how they define the Indo-Pacific, but they are jointly committed to sustaining the rules and norms of the established international system.

So, there are four democracies that exist in the Indo-Pacific, that have dynamic capitalistic economies and want to sustain not only their own national interest through those processes but also expand the clubs with other nations getting involved.

The way to understand Quadrilateral is it’s more of a formulating mechanism, not even a formal agreement yet, on how to redefine, strengthen and enhance the Indo-Pacific region.

What are the potentials and limitations of the QUAD based on the four dimensions of power — diplomacy, information, military and economy, also known as DIME?

The DIME issue is certainly a way to look at the QUAD and a logical way to approach it. There are limits currently because it is new.

This is something that was initiated in the mid-2000s after the Asian Tsunami, then was paused due to some domestic political complications among some of the member countries but now the situation is different in our current day and age and the challenges are immense not only for these four but all the countries in the Indo-pacific.

You have climate change, the changing economic condition, the development of new trade, and the technological revolution that is looming on the horizon for us all. So, these four countries, even though large maritime established powers are at the mercy of some of these changes just as any smaller countries in the Indo-Pacific region itself.

So, some of this is about grappling with the future, that’s one of the limitations. We don’t yet know the trajectories of how policy is going to be formulated to address some of the concerns that are looming on their horizon.

Those things are to be built. So, that’s the initial challenge that needs to be mentioned and discussed as it relates to the Quadrilateral.

Beyond that, there are still domestic issues within the four-member states that have to be worked out. India’s processes, procedures, and its own political culture do not inherently match well with other potential members of the QUAD.

The same is true with the USA and how it engages in its foreign and domestic policy, it is not necessarily a natural fit for the other three member states. Each one of these member states has to figure out how to interplay with the others.

So, this is why you see all these activities, either bilaterally between the USA and India, Australia and Japan, or Japan and India, also trilateral formulations like India, Australia, and Japan, and even the Quad plus formulation which is either a collection of these member states or all four with an additional partner.

We’ve seen this in the Quad’s relation with the United Kingdom, France and how they can add additional mechanisms to improve the Quad DIME experience.

But right now, the limitations are fresh, and a lot of what has to be done needs to be cemented in the policy.  But a lot of this success is that all four states have bought in at the highest level.

So the Prime ministers, foreign ministers, defense ministers of all Quad members understand the need for this partnership and how it can benefit their respective regions. So that’s kind of where we stand right now, so a lot of it is to be determined, with the Quad.

How do you assess the maritime militia issue in the Indo-Pacific region?

The maritime domain is one of the primary ways the Quad is going to start engaging a policy because all four countries are the maritime powers.

But the maritime domain is suffering from a very serious, specific and important challenge that every littoral state in the Indo-Pacific and states like Nepal, which is reliant on maritime trade through its littoral neighbors, has to figure out.

Not only are these climates related or environmental degradation related issues but they are also illicit actors, either non-state actors engaged in criminality or state-affiliated actors who are not following the established rules and norms of the game.

And one of these challenges that has emerged in recent years or is becoming a prominent issue of the last ten years or so, is what is called the maritime militia.

Maritime militia is commercial vessels; fishing trawlers, commercial transports, usually vessels between a range of 25 to a 100-meter length that serve for kind of all-purpose commercial use at sea, that have paramilitary capabilities or paramilitary training provided to the crew and they use this to essentially engage in asymmetrical tactics against other state actors.

If its navies vs navies in a maritime domain, when there is a dispute, then there are established mechanisms and procedures by which these naval vessels will engage with each other, whether in communication or in understanding one another’s tactics, approaches, or methods but the commercial actors generally are in the framework where they need to give wage to any naval vessel, or coast guard vessel or any other state’s constabulary vessel that is operating at the sea.

These maritime militias, because they are serving for a political purpose usually related to either fishing rights, maritime territorial claims, or maritime territorial disputes will engage in provocative action to either push away other nations commercial vessels, to essentially bully another actor out of the space or to intimidate and harass state vessels to bug them down so that other mechanisms of state maritime footprint such as the coast guard, the navy can be more freely engage in the maritime space without worrying about their neighboring nations confronting them.

To put it in real terms, there are several nations that are guilty of this activity, two of the most mentioned one is the People’s Republic of China, as well as the South China Sea, their fishing fleet vessels, have been very aggressive and how they engage with others flag nation’s commercial vessels or other nation-state vessels, whether they be coast guard, police constabulary or even naval vessels and part of this is related to China’s territorial claim in the East China sea and the South China sea.

But in the Indian ocean, one of the most prominent actors of this mechanism is the Iranian regime, which Iran itself engages in, not in the same capacity as maritime militia that China has but they certainly use commercial vessels to engage in provocative or asymmetric actions meant to either bypass the dragnet of neighboring states against their illegal activities or to outrightly bully or intimidate the neighboring countries, especially the gulf regions.

So, Iran vis-a-vis its relationship with UAE, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other nations in the Arabian Peninsula is engaging in this mechanism.

It is a different problem to solve. There is no answer to it other than greater monitoring, greater use of sharing information and greater multilateral coordination on tracking and highlighting the tactics the maritime militia use in order to provide an element of public shame.

Some of the most effective solutions to the problem in Southeast Asia have been for Southeast Asian nations to take pictures, track and record the action that these maritime militia vessels are using and then putting them online.

Sharing the information to the partners and general public to show what’s going on in the sea.

The primary problem of the maritime domain in the world today is that it is often seen as a niche issue and a lot of people don’t follow what’s happening in the sea even though all of our livelihood is dependent upon trade by sea, maritime resources, maritime fish stock.

It feeds the majority of the world, provides for economic causes, so if the sea is unstable then all our procedures on land are going to get disrupted and shining a spotlight right now is the best mechanism to highlight what’s going on and how to stop this from the policy agenda.

What are the challenges in maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight in the region? What could be the viable options for dealing with maritime disputes in a rules-based order?

While dealing with the disputes, there’s already a mechanism by which they do that. There are procedures through the United Convention on Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).

There are mechanisms tied to that, there are international legal mechanisms, the Court of Arbitration, that will decide maritime claims. In fact, this is one way that the maritime claim dispute between Bangladesh, India was solved in the Bay of Bengal.

They went to the Court of Arbitration, there was a decision made and both actors respected the decision. This has not been the case in other maritime areas.

One of the real highlights of where the Court of Arbitration decision has been rejected is in the South China Sea as it relates to the Philippines, People Republic of China vis a vis some of the land features of the coast of the Philippines, as well as some of the non-land atolls that are titled revealed.

They are not actual land features but they are claimed as territories by both states. That’s one way. Don’t let that procedure, which has been well established and codified around the world and international law, be eroded, erased, redefined, or thrown away.

It is for nation-states to act transparently with their neighbors and partners and other nations around the world for the established rules and norms to be followed.

No nation-states, whether it be the most powerful nation-state on the planet or any developing state, can redefine the established rules of the game.

If you are a commercial, or military vessel, you have the right to sail through the EEZ, if you are engaged in EEZ transit.

So, if you have to sail through, say India’s EEZ on your way from Bab-el-Mandeb into the Eastern Strait of the Indian Ocean, India has the right to monitor your transit and communicate with you.

But you as the flight vessel of another nation have every right to transit through those waters, as long as you are not going to engage in any activity that is going to impact the EEZ status for India, like stopping for fishing, for under-sea mining, or under-sea scanning. If you are just in its water, just transiting through the water, you have every right to do so under international law.

But because of some of the maritime territorial disputes that exist, some countries are seeking to redefine what EEZ transit is, what the right of overflight can be, and they try to change the perception of how that concept is understood internationally. And this is what should not be allowed to happen.

The bottom line is this, the established rule as they are should remain as the established rule. Oftentimes this comes up as between the United States and China as it relates to the US engaging in its transit in the Western Pacific, in waters that China claims its own.

And China claims that the US has no right to do this. And that the US will never allow another country to do it in their water or EEZ.

This is simply not true, the US has routinely allowed other nations to do the same thing and has followed the same procedure as other countries as related to EEZ transit, the freedom of navigation, and the right of overflight.

So, the issue here is again, it’s a political perception game that is being played. The conditions on the ground, most nations around the world accept the rules of the game, they understand their value and they want to maintain them.

There is only a selected handful that wants to have alterations or special considerations for themselves. The way to sustain them and the way to establish that freedom of navigation is an absolutely essential right in the open seas and EEZ transit through territorial or EEZ is for them to be maintained, for states to not to be bullied and not engaging in those activities is not necessary for their own commercial or national interests.

So, this is what the US continues to do with what we call freedom of navigation operations in the Western Pacific. But they also do them all around the world, the only ones that get highlighted are ones that happen in Western Pacific.

But the US routinely does that in the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, throughout other parts of the Pacific. And not just the US, the UK, other European Partners and allies of the US do that routinely. India has done them; African states have done them.

Free NOP’s are not purely American tactics, a lot of maritime nations use them, and it’s a way to reestablish asserting the fact that every nation has freedom of navigation.

Despite the burgeoning China influence, what are the key challenges faced by America’s sea services?

One is the issue of the technological change that is on the horizon, the machine learning processes and how they can and cannot be integrated into the coast guard, navies, is the challenge for the United States Navy, US coast guard, US marine or the tri-services, the three services that serve the maritime domain.

The automated systems, how they will be used, integrated, and interfaced with other countries’ data so that we can share better information about Typhon tracking, weather conditions, bully monitoring, all of this information is out there.

Twenty-five years ago, if you were a sailor, on a coast guard cutter, your information was pretty much limited to what was communicated to you by radio and what your instrument on your vessel could actually scan for in your median area.

Today, if you are the captain of a coast guard Cutter, the amount of information at your fingertip is immense, to the point where it is almost difficult for it to be navigated all effectively and efficiently.

So, a lot of the challenge for the US and for the world is figuring out how to process this data. And how to integrate it into our operations.

The second is the monetization of the fleet. If anyone has followed what’s going on with the US navy, the US navy has some work to do in relation to its own shipbuilding process, ship maintenance process, to the industrial base that supports the US navy.

That is the challenge that has been reported and it will become a priority. But beyond that, the biggest issue for the US navy coast guard marine corps is how to work with partners around the world on addressing some of the largest challenges that exist that don’t make headlines.

And that maybe the US navy was not assigned for, these are things such as climate change, environmental degradation and then criminality like fishing, robs anywhere between 14 and 23 billion dollars worth of live fish in ocean life a year out of the ocean; whether in the marine protected zone or through dark ships that are operating in other countries EEZ.

This is a massive problem that is impacting everything from sustainability over the oceans to the sovereignty of nation-states.

There are no simple answers to these questions, there is no silver bullet that will address these challenges. It is really going to require coordinated efforts and a lot of countries to come together with their niche capability.

The US does certain things in the maritime domain very well. Other things, not so good. There are a lot of other countries that have specialties that have niches that they can search into.

It’s matters of networking all these together to support the sustainability of our oceans, to protect the viability of them and to make sure that criminals are not exploiting the concepts of the high seas and territorial boundaries to engage in criminal activities whether it’s human trafficking, drug trafficking, commercial illicit trade.

These things all have a real cost to people. They impact the fishing communities. They will degrade the national industries and make trade more expensive.

All of these things matter to every country on earth no matter if you are a littoral state or not. So, all of us have interests in addressing them and figuring out ways to ease if not eradicate the challenge.

As China has been relentlessly working towards its goals of becoming the world’s leading maritime power within a decade, what efforts and strategies are being or will be adopted by the US to foster its maritime power as well as strengthen and increase the competitiveness of the maritime industrial base?

It’s an ongoing issue of the US, domestically there are debates related to what the future shipbuilding will look like in the US, what the maintenance processes of the US Navy and coast guard will be.

Those are to be determined. They are very complicated because they get into the domestic industry. But from a policy point of view, the US methodology of multilateralism and cooperation of others will only be intensified.

The US has learned in a hard way over a long history of engaging around the world that the best way of solving problems is for everyone to work together.

And it may take longer to get everyone on the same page and for everyone to walk in the same direction. Oftentimes, it won’t be the United States leading that charge.

There will be countries like Seychelles, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, or Singapore. The US will get in line behind them to help because the only way we are going to solve these issues and for the US to maintain its national interest in the sea is to work with others.

That is our methodology, that is our crowning understanding of the challenges that we face. This is why the US has some competition with other maritime actors because they don’t share that same methodology.

But for us, we have a proven track record of it working, whether be in addressing things like piracy off the coast of the horn of Africa in the last decade, and how a multilateral engagement on that challenge led to a solution, to things like stopping arms trafficking and human trafficking in the Western Indian Ocean.

No country can do it alone. No matter how powerful they are, no matter how clever they are, no matter how connected and integrated into technology they are, no one can do it alone.

And the US is looking for as many partners as it can to address these challenges. The US does have a learning curve though, the US has had to learn from other states, the things that take up a lot of our energy here in Washington D.C. are not things that are the primary challenges for smaller, littoral states in say the Indian Ocean. Seychelles certainly cares about what the US-China bilateral relationship looks like.

To them, they are really interested in how to protect their exclusive economy. So, it has taken the US years to understand that working with others means that your primary national interests may not be initially served.

But helping Seychelles, in enhancing the protection of their EEZ will lead to more stable waters in the Western Indian Ocean which is a cumulative good for every actor whether it be simply sailing through or be a regional actor, whether they are simply sailing through or whether they be a regional actor that has their own EEZ territorial waters to protect.

This is something that the US is working on internally but the short answer to your question is working with others as much and as deeply as we can.